Teaching Students About God and Science

06/06/2013 01:56 pm ET | Updated Aug 06, 2013

Physicist Eric Hedin is headlining the Culture Wars right now because of his class at Ball State University on the "Boundaries of Science." Critics and supporters are deeply polarized about the propriety of this class, which the syllabus says "will examine the nature of the physical and the living world with the goal of increasing our appreciation of the scope, wonder, and complexity of physical reality."

Critics charge Hedin with promoting religion, noting that his syllabus is clear that he believes science provides pointers to God and that biological evolution is inadequate. His most strident critic, University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, hyperbolically describes Hedin as the "the Ball State University professor who proselytizes about Jesus in his science class."

Hedin's most enthusiastic supporters are the Intelligent Design proponents at the Discovery Institute. Lawyer Casey Luskin, who debated the case with an atheist on Michael Medved's radio show, considers Hedin a heroic champion of academic freedom. Luskin is promoting a petition in support of Hedin, asking people to sign onto the following declaration:

We, the undersigned, urge the administration of Ball State University to support Prof. Eric Hedin's academic freedom to discuss intelligent design and related issues in the classroom. We call on you to reject demands by the Freedom from Religion Foundation to censor or punish Dr. Hedin for exercising his right to free speech.

(Note that the petition is for Hedin to "discuss," rather than "promote" intelligent design.)

David Klinghoffer, another intelligent design enthusiast, describes the complaints about Hedin's course as deriving from "scientific materialism and rigid, intolerant, prosecutorial Darwinism."

The Hedin uproar interests me because I teach similar courses -- at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. -- that explore the boundaries of science, the nature of scientific truth and the religious implications of science. I just turned in final grades for two of them that were well-received by my largely Catholic students: Science & Belief and Does Science Disprove God? Most of the topics in Hedin's course are also in mine, and he even lists one of my books in his course bibliography. My classes, like Hedin's, are general education science electives and most of my students come from outside the natural sciences.

Teaching courses on controversial subjects when you have a public -- or even private -- position on the controversy is a balancing act. Teachers, especially professors, are authority figures with powers of persuasion that should not be used to move students to positions that do not represent the mainstream thinking on the topic. Students should not leave a class -- science or otherwise -- with the idea, for example, that there are serious questions in the scientific community about the validity of evolution. But there is nothing wrong with exploring minority, outsider and even eccentric ideas of thoughtful scholars, especially when those scholars wield considerable cultural influence, or are tackling big mysteries, like free will, consciousness or the existence of God.

I once taught an honors seminar on the work of Phillip Johnson, by far the most important figure in the Intelligent Design movement. I even hosted Johnson on campus so the students could hear his arguments untainted by my low opinion of them. In my science-and-religion classes at Stonehill, I assign equal reading from theists and atheists and spend roughly half the time discussing the ideas of the atheists. My goal -- and I think I succeed -- is to help students think through important issues that may inform their own spiritual journeys, regardless of the direction they are traveling. And as we know, college students do a lot of traveling.

How a class accomplishes the goals of the syllabus depends on how classroom discussions are handled. For Hedin's overall classes at Ball State, which are mostly traditional astronomy and physics classes, we know that the students rank him very high on "rate my professor," although one -- just one -- widely quoted student did complain that "the class had an extremely Christian bias and (Hedin) does not believe in evolution."

No evidence whatsoever supports Jerry Coyne's claim that Hedin is "proseletyzing for Jesus" in his Boundaries of Science class. Coyne is notorious for pretending not to understand the difference between a philosophically motivated theism and Christian fundamentalism and has waded into this controversy with his usual blinkered culture war mentality.

On the other hand, I can hardly agree with the intelligent design folk at the Discovery Institute that this is an academic freedom case. Academic freedom is a noble, if ambiguous, concept that can be invoked in support of many things but one of those is not the freedom to tell students things that are not true. If, as the syllabus suggests, Hedin's students are learning that the ideas of the intelligent design movement are the cutting edge of science and heralding a major revolution, there are grounds for concern. If the students leave Hedin's class believing that the scientific community is wrestling with the proposals that have come out of the intelligent design movement, then they have been misled and poorly served. Most practicing scientists understand that their disciplines have unanswered questions and "boundaries" of some sort. But virtually none of them are looking to an external "designer" to answer these questions.

Hedin's assigned readings and bibliography are somewhat unbalanced, although one of the two required texts is a solid popularization of conventional big bang cosmology, unadorned by theological speculation. However, were students to infer that the extensive bibliography list covers the bases for the discussion of the "Boundaries of Science" they would be mistaken. Of the roughly 20 books listed, half advocate basic intelligent design with the remainder divided evenly between books by Christians sympathetic to raising constructive questions about God in the context of science -- like Keith Ward and myself -- or non-theists with minority viewpoints that resonate in some way with traditional theism -- like Roger Penrose and Paul Davies. Noticeably absent are genuinely critical books of the sort written by Vic Stenger, Steven Weinberg and even Jerry Coyne that address the same issues but offer informed atheistic responses.

But is any of this a big deal? Should Ball State University terminate a young assistant professor teaching a general education course, which most faculty avoid like the plague, outside his field because, on first offering, it was ideologically slanted? I wonder how those us living in the ivory towers of academia would fare if our most challenging interdisciplinary syllabi constructed early in our careers became topics of national conversation?

Eric Hedin is an assistant science professor, popular with most of his students. He needs to get promoted to associate and then full professor. If he works hard, he will get tenured along the way. And my guess is that his interdisciplinary explorations, like those of many thinkers inclined to consider the larger context of their fields, will become more sophisticated as time passes. If not, his colleagues won't vote him tenure. In the meantime, Ball State doesn't need external culture warriors telling them how to run their university.