Tony Snow recently reviewed Dinesh D’Souza’s compelling new book (What’s so Great About Christianity?) for the magazine Christianity Today. At the end of his review he thanked Dinesh for exposing atheism “more as a bundle of sentiments than a coherent doctrine.” My recent failed efforts to encourage campus debate with atheists have led me to believe that Snow might be on to something.
This semester, I learned that one of my colleagues is teaching our Sociology of Religion course with two supplemental texts, neither of which could be characterized as sociological in nature. One is The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. The other is God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens. (The latter is an especially odd choice because it merely documents all the bad things members of each religion have done. The professor, who also teaches a course in Race and Ethnicity, would certainly never choose a course that merely documented all the bad things done by every race other than his own).
Because I was concerned about the lack of balance in the offerings, I spoke to my colleague about the class. Despite our religious differences, he is a good friend who has often been very honest about issues related to academic freedom. Indeed he often concedes that ideologues in our department exert a substantial chilling effect on free speech. And he is a courageous fellow who isn’t afraid to name names.
Because of my concern that Sociology of Religion could become a course in Sociology of Atheism I decided to set up a more balanced forum addressing the issue of faith and atheism. Specifically, I wanted to deal with the following question: “Which worldview requires more faith; a) Christianity or b) Atheism?”
So I invited my colleague to join me in a panel addressing the issue. I thought I could take the view that atheism requires more faith than Christianity while he could take the opposite view. Furthermore, I thought that each of us could choose another person sharing our views so that a balanced, four-person panel could be formed. I chose my friend Dr. Frank Turek, co-author of “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.”
Unfortunately, our invitation to join a four-person panel was declined. Since my colleague has had some health concerns in recent months I understood and respected his decision. So I decided to proceed with an event that would begin with my introduction of Frank Turek. He would then give a lecture outlining the reasons why he has concluded that atheism requires more faith than Christianity. We would then open up the microphone for an extended Q and A session.
As we approach the date of that lecture (March 24th, 2008 in the UNC-Wilmington Warwick Center Ballroom) we began to advertise. Unfortunately, our six requests for help from the university were ignored altogether. Two of those requests were directed towards the folks who run the “Faculty and Staff News” link on www.UNCW.edu. The folks who run that source of information claim to have a right to decline postings because they are “political” or, for that matter, to decline to post for any reason they choose.
At first, I thought the decision to ignore our requests was due to the fact that the College Republicans are sponsoring Frank Turek’s talk. Then, I scrolled down the page and saw that the university had advertised a recent voter registration drive sponsored by the College Democrats. Certainly, the university is incapable of engaging in blatant political discrimination. And certainly Mike Adams is incapable of engaging in blatant sarcasm.
Last week, I decided to write a letter directly to Chancellor Rosemary DePaolo to assert that the UNC-Wilmington website is a public forum and that, therefore, they really do not enjoy a right to engage in unbridled discrimination. Unsurprisingly, DePaolo did not give me the courtesy of a response.
And so today I write publicly - in a forum far more widely read than www.UNCW.edu – with a simple list of things I think Christians at UNCW are entitled to expect:
1. In courses raising the controversial topic of religion the professor has every right to assign readings arguing that Christians and religious folks in general are stupid. But the professor should also make some effort to assign readings that reflect a contrary view.
2. When professors are either unwilling or unable to abide by #1, they should be willing to defend their views in a debate or on a panel – especially one that equally represents both sides.
3. When professors are unwilling or unable to abide by #1 or #2, the university should not compound the problem by engaging in violations of the requirement that they exercise viewpoint neutrality in the management of public forums.
(Author’s note: Currently UNCW is promoting a “Celebration of Darwin” with various speeches and courses, which, taken together, make the Turek lecture so much more important in an environment claiming an interest in “tolerance” and “diversity” of different views).
I think I understand why these three simple requests are met with such resistance at our institutions of higher learning. Because I am a former atheist I know that atheists are often very angry at the God they claim does not exist. That gives the emotionally charged writings of Dawkins and Hitchens great cathartic value, despite their general lack of educational value. (Author’s Note: Dawkins is clearly capable of such writing but his most recent book is far more emotional than his better works like The Selfish Gene.).
I also understand why atheist professors would be unwilling to debate their reasons for rejecting religions like Christianity. Back in my days as an atheist, speaking truthfully on a panel would have required a public admission that I rejected Christianity largely because it would not have allowed me to continue getting drunk and high every night while splitting time between four girlfriends.
And I think I understand why the university will not help us in our efforts to advertise a talk by Frank Turek. In an age of political correctness there is no greater fear than that somewhere, somehow, someone may be offended. And they are probably correct (not just politically, but factually) to assume that most atheists will be offended by the very title of Frank Turek’s speech.
This need to protect atheists from hurt feelings may lead some to believe that they don’t make atheists like they used to. But I know from experience that the correlation between faith and fear has always been significant, strong, and inverse.