Intrusions of Religion

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During the exceptionally religious inauguration of President Biden, who took his oath on his immense family Bible and made multiple references to God, faith, souls, saints, prayers, and the Bible itself, I am certain that my academic colleagues were not aghast, but rather awestruck and gleeful. This would not have been the case if a religious Republican had been inaugurated. If a religious conservative had quoted the Bible as President Biden had, we would have heard about the fears of the intermingling of church and state, and cries of “Follow the Science.”

Throughout my academic career, I’ve often noticed my colleagues ridiculing religious beliefs, especially those of conservative members of society. For instance, in a talk about the importance of science education, one of my colleagues included a humorous slide referring to Dr. Ben Carson and his biblical beliefs — even though one could argue that Carson had a scientific education — after all, he was trained as a neurosurgeon.

Initially, as an atheist, I thought they were just criticizing religious beliefs in general, as a way to promote an evolution-based understanding of the world. And it certainly is true that the harshest criticism has been levied against Christian creationists. Organizations such as the American Association of Physical Anthropology have put out statements against teaching creationism in schools. This support of evolutionary teaching and criticism of creationism is a step in the right direction. But the same reasoning should be applied to all religious intrusions into science.

If a religious conservative had quoted the Bible as President Biden had, we would have heard about the fears of the intermingling of church and state.

Some academics have reported on the anti-Christian sentiments in universities (see, for example Timothy Larsen’s article in Inside Higher Ed). However, this hostility is not evenly dispersed. Over the years, I noticed that some religious beliefs are not only not ridiculed but supported — when they spring from the other side of the political spectrum, when they are found among minority populations such as blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, or when they are not Christian-based. Any one of these traits can make the religious belief as valid as science and objective knowledge to many academics.

This hit home to me after a particularly onerous departmental graduation ceremony. Graduating students were allowed to say a few words while they walked across the stage. Most of them thanked family members, but early on a student thanked God. Then, the next student thanked God, his personal savior. Then, the following student thanked Jesus Christ, the son of God and his personal savior, who died on the cross for our sins! As the afternoon wore slowly on, this escalating religious parade became particularly painful. I didn’t say anything until the next department meeting; I made a comment about not planning to go to any more graduations because of all the “God-shit” (not my most diplomatic moment). My colleagues were aghast, even though they had previously ridiculed religious statements from the Right. Our students, however, were not to be criticized, because of their mostly Hispanic ethnicity.

Black professors often proclaim their religiosity without criticism of their perspectives. For example, one professor wrote on her profile page for the San José State University (SJSU) Faculty-in-Residence program (a program designed to connect students in campus housing with faculty members), “I sing, pray and have an inextinguishable addiction to God.” Religious activities, such as wear-a-hijab day, are enthusiastically promoted by our college. A former colleague who saw herself as extremely liberal and a feminist even confessed to me that if she had a daughter she would rather see her in a hijab than a mini-skirt. These examples show the tolerance of academics toward religion when it is perceived as non-white, non-Western, and non-conservative. An alternative hypothesis is that this isn’t religious tolerance but virtue-signaling political correctness, resulting in religiosity getting a free pass. In practice the result is indistinguishable.

As the afternoon wore slowly on, this escalating religious parade became particularly painful.

The really disconcerting occasions are those on which religion is supported in more official ways and actually helps to shape policy and science. For instance, the SJSU Adapt response to COVID-19 includes a video with the religious chorale “In Meeting We are Blessed.” This sends the message that to deal with the pandemic, we turn to religion rather than science. Another, more overt, religious message comes from the Associated Students, who begin their meetings with a “Land Acknowledgement” that is also used in other official university business, such as in the course to train professors to teach online (and which was more reeducation camp than practical training). The statement is:

We want to take a moment to honor and acknowledge the original stewards of this land, the Muwekma [pronunciation: Moo-wek-ma] Ohlone tribe. It’s important to acknowledge the sacred and indigenous land we live, work, and that this institution is on. It’s also important to note the work and sacrifice all of our ancestors and those who came before us, made to be here today.

This is offensive to science, since there is good evidence that the Muwekma Ohlone tribe replaced an earlier tribe or tribes (See my 2018 article “Biological distance at the Ryan Mound site.”) However, even if this were not the case, why should concepts of sanctity be inflicted on all those who work and learn at the university? This is a clear intrusion of religion into academic life — but since it is considered to be Native American religion, it is supported.

Already back in 1996, George Johnson wrote about this very hypocrisy with regard to anthropologists and Native Americans. Johnson quoted Professor Steve Lekson of the University of Colorado, who observed that anthropologists who are “not sympathetic to fundamentalist Christian beliefs are extraordinarily sympathetic to Native American beliefs.” Lekson added, correctly, that there is no difference in type between the Native American religious creation beliefs and the creationist beliefs of a fundamentalist Christian. Both beliefs are anti-evolution, anti-science, and should be anathema to our search for truth.

If one is not convinced of the similarities, all one has to do is go to the transcripts of the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) committee meetings. There, one can find statements such as, “You have made us not in one mold, but in many, so deep in our unity in Christ that we may rejoice in our diversity. God of nations, help us to reflect and share the goodness that surrounds us” (said by the Dr. Reverend Anna Frank, who was invited by the University of Alaska Museum of the North to give the invocation at the August 2019 NAGRPA meeting).

These examples of religiosity have been supported by academics and have spread into what archaeologists call low-impact research, which includes “gaining the maximum amount of information from ancestral resources while minimizing the potential for physical and spiritual disturbances” (Sara Gonzalez’s 2015 article “Of homelands and archaeology: Two indigenous, collaborative approaches to archaeology with California tribal communities”). It seeps into scientific ideology — as it did, for instance, with Smithsonian researcher Pegi Jodry, who talks of her Native American contacts as “healers” and refers to the Horn Shelter, Texas Paleoindian, a 10,300 year old skeleton found with artifacts that may have been medicinal, as a “respected elder” and “healer.”

Both Native American religious creation beliefs and the creationist beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity are anti-evolution, anti-science, and should be anathema to our search for truth.

Religious hypocrisy that supports nonscientific perspectives when it is on the correct political spectrum leads to politically fueled scare stories that disable learners from understanding scientific reasoning. I think that part of the COVID-19 hysteria is a result of this mindset. For example, one often hears phrases such as “COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate” in response to politicians on the Right who point out that factors such as age and comorbidities put people at greater risk for hospitalizations and deaths. Many of my own students have been led to argue that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are bad because Monsanto or the Koch brothers are evil. Students should learn that concepts of good and evil, which are moral and often religious, are distinct from science and cannot be used to make scientific judgments.

From my perspective, religion — whether Native American animism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or any other — does not belong in scientific activities. Religion, no matter where it comes from, has no place in science (including such social sciences as my own, anthropology). Don’t interpret this as me saying that we should not study religion; after all, social scientists study all sorts of behaviors. But religious myths and ideologies do not belong in research as a way of understanding the natural world, and religion should not be promoted in academia, whether in the classroom or in official campus messages. I would not plan to attend a church service and insist on talking about evolution and atheism. Why should religious people, or condescending secular supporters of religiosity, insist on injecting it into areas where it clearly has no business? Religion, if it belongs anywhere, belongs in the home, in the church, and in one’s self.

Let us not support any religious intrusion into scientific endeavors. Science is too important a way of understanding the world to be trifled with in this way. Science is the search for truth, perhaps never getting to the truth on many topics, but maintaining its quest. The best estimate of truth is what we can logically infer from data that have been analyzed using the scientific method — observe, hypothesize, gather data, analyze, draw conclusions, and repeat! By promoting scientific reasoning, which can be most simply defined as logical thinking, we help students, colleagues, and the public understand the world around us. Plus, by looking at the world through the lens of reason, we free ourselves from the chains of superstition, dogma, and religion — all of which are intertwined — and it doesn’t matter whether these chains come from the Left, the Right, the east, the west, the majority or the minority.

One Comment

  1. It may not be making the news but you can rest assured atheist/humanists like myself are equally horrified regardless of political party. I will say, my overall reaction to Republicans is amplified by the level of pure crazy they bring to the fore.

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