Monday, April 15, 2013

Did Avalos hunt witches? Education Bias II

This is the second post in a series on anti-Christian bias in American Public Education.  This post rebuts Iowa State University Professor of Religious Studies Hector Avalos. Dr. Avalos is in some ways a formidable academic. Completing his doctoral work at Harvard, Avalos has been awarded as "Teacher of the Year" and "Master Teacher" at Iowa State University.  Judging by "Rate your Prof," many of his students appreciate his mastery of religion, some noting that he has memorized large portions of the Bible.  He also poses as an advocate for freedom of speech on campus.  This makes his role in the tenure affair involving Guillermo Gonzalez perhaps even more troubling. 

Avalos responded to my post last month in three peculiar ways, which shed light on the issue of anti-Christian bias on campus. 

First, the post that began this discussion was nominally on the resurrection.  It is remarkable that after two replies on both sides, that important topic has been almost entirely occluded.  Avalos barely mentions the gospels in his long rebuttal, still less the central event of Christian (or perhaps world) history.  His post is, rather, about one particular episode at Iowa State University, in which the nature of his participation is disputed.  (He claims he acted correctly.  I doubt that.)  He also made something of a case against my scholarship, though less full-throated than his first attack on Deconstructing Christianity two years ago, against Christian scholars in general, and then, very weakly, offers some sort of analogy from my alleged historical errors, to why we should not trust the gospels.  But that looks like an afterthought. 

The case in question is the firing of Guillermo Gonzalez, either for not bringing in enough funds (the official version), or for his public advocacy of Intelligent Design, or perhaps for some combination of both and maybe some other reasons. 

And maybe it's a good thing that Avalos focuses on the Gonzalez case.  That gives us the opportunity to talk about the subject that concerns us in this series.  Is there a bias against Christianity in Public Education?  Are our young people being miseducated, in some cases? 

In particular, did Hector Avalos in any way contribute to creating an atmosphere of intolerance at Iowa State University? 

To answer this latter question, we will need to examine two great pecularities about Dr. Avalos' response to me.  One has to do with the odd way Avalos characterized (actually mischaracterized) his role in the Gonzalez case.  The other has to do with the equally odd way Avalos characterized my critique of that role. 

And here the term "witch-hunting" comes up, which itself is surprising, as we shall see.  But perhaps not entirely inappropriate. 

(Note: originally I began writing a long, point-by-point rebuttal of Avalos' post.  I decided that would probably not be of much interest to most readers, however.  If anyone feels that I ignore any of Avalos' criticisms that I ought to address, just let me know in the comments section, and I'll try to answer that point in particular.) 

A. What did you do in Culture Wars, Dr. Avalos? 

The first really odd thing about Avalos' response, is that he wrote a lot about the famous petition he co-authored at Iowa State University, but did not quote the thing at all!  It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that he grossly misrepresented what that petition actually says.

Here's as much of Avalos' petition as I was able to find on-line. (Corrects welcome: I was not the thing's co-author!)

Whether one believes in a creator or not, views regarding a supernatural creator are, by their very nature, claims of religious faith, and not within the scope or abilities of science. We, therefore, urge all faculty members to uphold the integrity of our university of science and technology, and convey to students and the general public the importance of methodological naturalism in science and reject efforts to portray Intelligent Design as science.

Now here's what Avalos says about his petition, and why it is so peculiar. 

The 2005 Statement
The basis for this allegation against me was that in 2005 I co-authored a statement, signed by some 130 faculty members, including one eventual Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, that declared Intelligent Design to be a religious, and not a scientific, theory.

Our faculty simply expressed what many Christian and non-Christian scientists and scholars have come to conclude. After all, Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian scientist, remarked: “First of all, Intelligent Design fails in a fundamental way to qualify as a scientific theory” (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief , p. 187). (emphasis added-DM)

Notice what Avalos is claiming here about his statement. It "simply" expressed the claim echoed by Francis Collins, that Intelligent Design "fails to qualify as a scientific theory."

The word "simply" here, obviously, is a synonym for "only." It doesn't mean, in this case, "expressed in cogent language of a few easy words." Rather, it means "That's all, folks! Nothing here but expressions of scholarly opinion that ID is not a scientific theory! No hints of social pressure to conformity, for instance!"

But is that all the statement really said? Is that all it was intended to accomplish? Why didn't Dr. Avalos quote his statement, in full, and let me and his other readers decide for ourselves, whether it did or did not contribute to a climate of intolerance that might, at least potentially, hurt Dr. Gonzalez?

Let's read the apparent actual wording of the petition again:

Whether one believes in a creator or not, views regarding a supernatural creator are, by their very nature, claims of religious faith, and not within the scope or abilities of science. We, therefore, urge all faculty members to uphold the integrity of our university of science and technology, and convey to students and the general public the importance of methodological naturalism in science and reject efforts to portray Intelligent Design as science.

Avalos is not, then, telling the full truth. His statement did not "simply" say that (a) ID is religous, not scientific. As my underlining above shows, it added several additional points, at least: (b) that "claims of a religious nature" are not within the scope of science. (A dubious philosophical claim, famously made by Steven Jay Gould, but often rightly contradicted by Avalos' fellow atheists.) (c) It "urged" "all faculty members" to "uphold the integrity" of Iowa State University, somehow. (Which is oddly described as a "university of science and technology," though Avalos himself teaches religious studies.)  (d) It also urged them to somehow "convey" to students and the general public the "importance of methodological naturalism in science," as well as (e) "reject" (again, in some unspecified manner) "efforts to portray Intelligent Design as science."

The authors and signatures of this statement are obviously "urging" some sort of concrete action, which they convey with abstract action verbs like "uphold,""convey" and "reject."

Could those actions verbs refer merely to teaching students and the public their own philosophy of how science and religion relate? Sure, that might be what some of the signators had in mind.

Could those verbs also refer to denying tenure to one of the two most famous proponents of ID on the Iowa State campus? That's also a plausible interpretation. Such an action would certainly "uphold, convey, and reject" what the statement calls Iowa State professors to "uphold, convey, and reject." 

Did Hector Avalos intend such a result? It is hard to know for sure -- I can't read his mind.  That's why I worded my critique carefully (this time, at least -- more on the "witch hunt" comment later). I claimed that he contributed to an atmosphere of intellectual intolerance, not that he intended to get Gonzalez fired.  But it does seem to me that such a petition is a form of intellectual bullying, trying to squeeze out alternative philosophical views of how religion and science relate from the public discourse by marginalizing as fundamentally illegitimate a view with which one disagrees.

Note, in addition, that Avalos is not expert on what is or is not science. He's a Religious Studies scholar. What gave him the intellectual right to pronounce on this issue in the first place? And why did he care so much?

As "Mike Gene" has pointed out, when national controversy erupts on a campus in regard to one non-tenured professor (Avalos adds that a tenured professor was also an intended target), and a public statement like this "urging all faculty members to uphold the integrity of our university of science and technology," that can be seen as an arrow directed at the heart of an offending teacher coming up for tenure. (And Avalos has absurdly attacked Gonzalez' scientific credentials in comparison to his own . . . underlining that such marginalizing could have been his intent.)

Avalos continued about his petition:

In other words, we were exercising our academic freedom to give our opinion on Intelligent Design just as Gonzalez was free to give his opinion, something he did in his book, The Privileged Planet (2004). To say that we were conducting a witch hunt for simply saying what we believed to be true is to misunderstand academic freedom.

Again, Avalos is just not telling the full truth, here. That his statement was "simply" (again) "saying what we believed to be true" is a direct falsehood. In fact, it was also "urging" unspecified action against those who thought differently, and expressed heterodox views.

And the comparison of Gonzalez' book to Avalos' petition is obviously absurd. A book full of scientific arguments for a particular understanding of cosmology, can in no way be compared to a public statement "urging" faculty to stand up publicly against the legitimacy of a sincerely held academic position.

Avalos further justifies the petition he has so strangely failed to quote: 

Iowa State University faculty needed to be on record because many agents of the Discovery Institute and their allies in other states were using the name of Iowa State University to suggest that this institution generally thought ID to be a scientific theory.

ID proponents could then introduce this creationist theory into local schools who never would know that many or most faculty at Iowa State did not agree that ID was a scientific theory at all.We did not want ID advocates to use our silence against us. So, we simply wanted the public to know that this was not the case. See further: The So-Called Smoking Gun E-mails.

Here this word "simply" again.

That may, indeed, have been Avalos' main motive, as I conceded in my earlier posts. (Which Avalos neglected to mention, preferring to hold on to a two or three year old "witch hunt" comment, instead -- see below.)   Of course we can't know all his motives, if he even knows them himself, still less be sure of what all his colleagues were thinking when they signed the petition.   (And Jay Richards tells me Avalos took the petition to another university in Iowa when Gonzalez went there to speak!)  But even IF their motives were pure as driven snow, the very act of promulgating such a public document, with its shrill tone and implication that public education was in danger from two dissident professors on campus, could have the effect of creating a climate of intolerance, which is all that I claimed.

So it seems clear that Avalos did contribute to a climate of intolerance, or tried to.  And that may answer the other mystery of his response to me -- why, instead of citing my recent critique of him, on which he previously expended so many vain words, he chose to focus on another comment I had made, in another (and informal) forum, two or three years earlier.  And why he made it sound as if those older comments were actually my more recent comments.

B. Marshall -- Witch-hunt?

The second bizarre thing about Avalos' second response, is that not only did Dr. Avalos focus on just a few words in my rebuttal, he actually focused on words that were not there!

Avalos' sweeping attack on Christian scholars was shoddy enough to begin with:
Part of my response to Craig showed that, if there has been anything akin to a Party Line, it has been one administered by Christian institutions that have disemployed, persecuted, and killed scholars that did not agree with orthodox positions for about the last 2,000 years.

I referenced Arius and Galileo from pre-modern Christian history. I also referenced contemporary examples of scholars, such as Christopher Rollston and Peter Enns who had left their jobs after expressing views deemed contrary to the institution’s creeds.

As if four data points justified an historical generalization including billions of people. 

But then Avalos slipped into a rather different argument:

However, David Marshall, the Christian apologist, thought that the failed tenure bid of Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer formerly at Iowa State University, was a case where a Christian was persecuted out of his job.

My response was more complex than that. My point with Gonzalez was not to offer a rebuttal to Avalos' general claim -- though there are more examples where that came from -- but to point out how ironic Avalos' sweeping accusations against Christians were.

If I wanted to build a case against Secular Humanists on this matter -- and these posts do express my increasing inclination to do so, eventually -- that case would, I hope, be more methodical than what Avalos has provided.

But here are the 46 words of my critique he focused on in his original rebuttal, out of some 5000:

Now that is remarkable. Not to mention, ironic. Read Guillermo Gonzalez' account of how he lost his job at Hector Avalos' own university, Iowa State University, (a controversy in which Avalos himself seems to have played no neglible at least climactic role), in Faith Seeking Understanding.
The amazing thing is, in his recent "rebuttal," Avalos does not so much as refer to these words!  He pretends to, but does not: 

He specifically accused me of conducting a “witch hunt” against Gonzalez. See:
Does that sound as if, should you follow those links, you would find me accusing Hector Avalos of "conducting a witch hunt?"
That seems to be the clear implication.   
But follow those two links, and you find no such comment at all! Instead, you find the 46 words highlighted in bold and rust above! 
In neither article Avalos cites to back up this claim, in 8000 + words, do I in fact accuse Avalos of "conducting a 'witch hunt.'"

Avalos later gives the impression that I keep on making the "witch hunt" accusation, that I won't let it rest, even after being (allegedly) corrected. 
But in fact, that comment came two years earlier, and Avalos has resurrected it for this occasion, apparently because even focusing down on those terrible 46 words, he realized that they didn't help his argument much, after all.  So he went back to an old Amazon argument, to find some sort of justification for accusing me of bad scholarship, shoddy history, etc, etc.  (His usual spiel against Christians.)   
I am trying to think of some way of looking at the words above that does not make them a direct, outright lie. 

C. Was Avalos conducting a witch hunt? 

But was I being unjust to Avalos, in accusing him two years ago of conducting a witch-hunt? 

Perhaps.  Avalos has a habit of sweeping and vitriolic attacks on Christian scholars.  I try to be precise and truthful even when I respond to people like that.  But to be fair, I am not absolutely sure, now, that drumming Gonzalez off the Iowa State faculty was Avalos' intent.  Nor am I sure that it was not, or frankly, that he would tell the truth if it were.  (Perhaps even to himself.)

But should such a petition be regarded as analogous to witch-hunting? 

The distinction here seems to be between (a) creating an atmosphere of intolerance without intending to hurt any one person in particular, and (b) intending to damage the career of someone one disagrees with. 
If Avalos intended (b), then the "witch-hunt" analogy still seems apt. 
If Avalos "only" intended (a), then those awful 46 words are vindicated, but perhaps I should apologize for the "witch-hunt" comment a few years ago.  The better analogy might be Malleus Maleficarum, "The Hammer of Witches," the 1486 book by Heinrich Kramer, which did not I think advocate action against any one individual, but helped justify and bring about widespread prosecution of witches across western Europe. 

Perhaps that's a slight exageration. But the Iowa State petition certainly looks like a shot across the bow of theistic academics tempted to engage in Badthink -- whether it was intended that way (as still seems somewhat probable) or not. 



Dr. Hector Avalos said...

RE: "I try to be precise and truthful even when I respond to people like that."

If so, why do you keep evading my simple question:

"What is the precise date and source, preferably with a direct quote, from which you received the information used to make your 'witch-hunt' remarks on April 29/30, 2010?

David B Marshall said...

Do you recognize how odd a question that is?

That's three years ago, now. It was an informal on-line discussion. Your published, considered arguments seldom stand up to such close scrutiny.

A more important question is whether that comment was justified, or not. As explained above, for me the jury remains out on that. I don't know your motivation: it has certainly crossed my mind to wonder exactly what animates your -- can I use the word jihad? you probably don't like that one, either -- crusade? -- your campaign to portray the Christian tradition, and those who defend it, as inherently vile, pernicious, and violent.

I won't guess any more for now at your personal motivation, though I would be interested to hear your own explanation.

Dr. Hector Avalos said...

RE: "Do you recognize how odd a question that is?"

How is it odd to demand evidence for an accusation? In what sort of ethical worldview do you operate? Is it one where one can just accuse people and not provide evidence? Isn't that what real witch-hunting often entailed?

And why does time matter? If you made an unfounded accusation then, does it become better founded because it is 3 years later?

That is a relativistic view of truth, don’t you think?

After all, Fighting Words and the Christian Delusion were written years ago, so am I excused now from things I said then, too?

Recall that it was you who said: "I try to be precise and truthful even when I respond to people like that."

So, why not show how much better your ethics are compared to atheists who you say are constantly accusing Christianity of horrible things without evidence?

Indeed, you can settle this whole issue very easily by answering a simple question:
Did I engage in a witch-hunt of Dr. Gonzalez as you alleged in 2010? YES or NO?

David B Marshall said...

On second thought, since I am not completely sure that you intended to harm Gonzalez, I think I will apologize now for the "witch-hunt" comment.

Dr. Hector Avalos said...

Mr. Marshall,
Thank you. I accept your apology, and now we can address other more substantive issues.

Frederick Froth said...

Its really quite simple. Unless you actually met Jesus in a living-breathing-feeling human form, and thus received his personal instruction in how to live the Spirit-Breathing Spiritual Way that he taught and demonstrated while he was alive (and witnessed the presumed "resurrection" and "ascension" neither of which of course hapened - could not have happened) you are talking through your self-deluded self-serving hat!