SPidge Tales

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Should Non-Believers Teach Religious Studies?

In 1971, Jerry Falwell founded tiny Lynchburg Baptist College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Today, that school, now known as Liberty University, has grown into a school of 9,558 undergrads and 4,192 grads (if Wikipedia stats are correct) and competes at the Division I sports level, even sending its basketball team to the NCAA Tournament a few times. The goal, according to Falwell, is to turn Liberty into the Evangelical counterpart to the Catholic Notre Dame University. Liberty wishes, like Notre Dame, to rise beyond the status of religiously affiliated school and rank also as a premier academic and athletic school. In addition to developing a steadily rising athletic program (don’t think Liberty won’t jump from the mid-major Big South Conference to the ACC or SEC if it ever gets the chance), Liberty is seeking out professors with PhD’s from top-notch academic institutions as a way of cementing its legitimacy. But, what happens when a PhD from a Yale or Harvard does not believe in the tenets of the degree he was awarded?

Marcus Ross, according to the New York Times article “Believing Scripture but Playing by Science’s Rules (2/12/07),” received his PhD in Paleontology from the University of Rhode Island. He turned this degree into a professorship at Liberty University, helping Falwell “show” the world that Liberty is serious about hiring top-notch faculty. But, Dr. Ross is a creationist who believes in a less than 10,000 year old earth. Is it appropriate for a professor teaching college students about the age of dinosaurs to believe that the earth was created millions of years after dinosaurs were proven to go extinct?

Ross, in his dissertation, accepted the findings of science in describing the disappearance of the mosasaur at the end of the Cretaceous era 65 million years ago. He gave his dissertation advisors what they wanted to hear in order to get his degree, even though he believes that what he studied in grad school is bullshit.

Is it right for someone to teach a subject to students that he regards as false? Thankfully, we don’t see this happen much in fields of science. One would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of creationists teaching evolutionary biology, paleontology, or a number of other fields that go on the notion that evolution happened. But, unfortunately, this academic dishonesty is prevalent in Religious Studies, Biblical Studies, and Theology.

Sadly, Divinity Schools and Theology departments are riddled with professors who deny the Virgin Birth, the historicity of the miracles of Jesus, or His Resurrection. They see the Bible as solely riddled with mythology, parables, and metaphor. Are these the right people to mold the minds of the next generation of Protestant ministers and Catholic priests? Notre Dame professor, and known Catholic dissenter, Fr. Richard McBrien noted the NY Times story on Ross by raising the fear of fundamentalist Theology students getting degrees and infiltrating the teaching ranks. Yes, that is a risk; but the bigger risk comes not from the handful of fundamentalists who deny any form of biblical criticism. The greater risk comes from the John Shelby Spongs, Elaine Pagels’s, Robert Funks, and Jesus Seminar people of the academic world who take biblical criticism too far to the point of denying any real religious truth claims; truth claims that are the entire reason for studying religion in the first place.

It is no more appropriate for a non-believer to teach Religious Studies than it is for a creationist to teach Biology, Paleontology, or Archeology.


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