April 30, 2010

Faith statements impinge on academic freedom? (Part 2 of 4)

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, April 29, 2010)

Faith statements impinge on academic freedom? (Part 2 of 4)

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is blacklisting several Christian universities because, CAUT alleges, these schools violate academic freedom. According to CAUT, academic freedom is the teacher’s right to teach and do research “without restriction by prescribed doctrine.” According to CAUT, culprit schools “have imposed [on faculty] a requirement of a commitment to a particular ideology or statement [of faith] as condition of employment.” Thus, or so CAUT apparently would have us believe, the blacklisted Christian schools lack academic legitimacy and credibility.

I think CAUT’s blacklisting project is problematic, for three reasons. (Last time I set out reason 1; this time I will set out reason 2; next time reason 3.) [See reason 4 in my column of February 24, 2011.]

Reason 2: CAUT’s blacklist relies on a questionable philosophical assumption.

For CAUT’s blacklist actually to cast doubt on the academic legitimacy or credibility of the work done by Christian groups of academics which operate under a statement of faith, CAUT is assuming that no scholarly sub-community can appropriately settle on and commit to some philosophical-theological truths unless the larger (dominating) academic culture approves. But this assumption is dubious.

CAUT’s assumption is dubious because it unfairly deals a trump card to those philosophical-theological positions—i.e., agnosticism and atheism—which hold philosophical-theological truth claims to be unknowable or false.

CAUT is in effect assuming a privileged epistemological (knowledge) status for agnosticism and atheism. And, because these philosophies are either popular among or held by at least a few influential CAUT members, the assumption of this privileged epistemological status has the following result: it automatically gives CAUT the (self-appointed) authority to judge as academically illegitimate the work of those scholars who—God forbid!—freely band together and corporately commit to studying under the doctrinal banner that the Christian God is real and can be known.

CAUT, then, is engaged in philosophical self-promotion.

What is worse (for CAUT), CAUT’s epistemological assumption shows that CAUT is out of touch with much contemporary philosophy of religion (my area of academic specialization). Over the past few decades in many Anglo-American university philosophy departments, there has been a rebirth of respectable philosophical argumentation that defends (a) the truth of God’s existence, (b) the reasonableness of belief in Jesus’ miraculous resurrection, plus (c) the logical coherence of Christianity’s core theological doctrines.

In other words, when, under the veil of “academic freedom,” the philosophical-theological legitimacy of recent work in contemporary philosophy of religion is in effect dismissed—without argument—by the privileged epistemic status CAUT grants to the agnostic-atheistic positions, CAUT is engaging in philosophical sleight of hand.

Via its blacklist, CAUT is, wittingly or unwittingly, imposing its preferred philosophical-theological views onto the broader academic community. But this is not academic freedom, it is academic bullying.

Therefore, to CAUT and its blacklist project, I say this: In the name of academic freedom broadly conceived—and in the name of careful philosophical thinking—please stop.

Next time I’ll set out my third reason for thinking that the CAUT’s blacklist is problematic. (Spoiler alert: I think it is in an important sense false that a school’s requirement for faculty to subscribe to a statement of faith means that the school “cannot be practicing academic freedom.”)

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence College, located in Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada. Providence College is a Christian university college that asks its faculty to agree with a statement of faith.)


Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Here are some additional articles on the issue of academic freedom:

Al Hiebert, "Who defines academic freedom?"

August Konkel, "Post Secondary Education in a Democratic Society"

Lloyd Mackey, "TWU stands its ground in face of critical academic report"

Richard J. Osicki, "An Intellectual Prisoner?"

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., "CAUT versus Trinity Western: Academic freedom or statement of faith? They're both right"

Ashley Thorne, "Blacklisting a Christian University"

Happy reading!

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Of course, please also take a look at this fine article:

Hendrik van der Breggen, "Faith statements impinge on academic freedom? (Part 1 of 3)"

Jeff Wheeldon said...

I'm loving these articles, Dr. V! Keep 'em coming!

It amazes me that CAUT doesn't see their own hipocrisy here - as if a Christian faculty member at a secular university has any more "freedom". Whether they admit it or not, the unwritten code that keeps religious beliefs "private" has more impact on the secular university than any statement of faith ever has on the diversity of beliefs taught here.