The Godless Professor

Right-leaning New York rags like the Sun and the Daily News are all up in arms about the possible appointment of an atheist to chair the sociology department at Brooklyn College. Katha Pollitt takes on the issue beautifully. The professor, Tim Shortell, can be a little offensive (he refers to believers as “moral retards”). But, as she writes,

Besides, so what if Shortell’s essay is offensive? Brooklyn College is a public, secular institution, not a Bible college. The Sun claimed Shortell’s disdain for religion would cloud his judgment of job candidates, but there was never any evidence that this would be the case. No student ever complained about his teaching; his colleagues trusted him enough to elect him to the post; the student work posted on his website is apolitical and bland. Predictions of bias, absent any evidence, are just a backhanded way of attacking his beliefs. You might as well say no Southern Baptist should be chair, since someone who believes that women should be subject to their husbands, homosexuality is evil and Jews are doomed to hell won’t be fair to female, gay or Jewish job candidates. Or no Orthodox Jew or Muslim should be chair because religious restrictions on contact with the opposite sex would privilege some job candidates over others.

But nobody ever does say that. As long as a believer ascribes his views to his faith, he can say anything he wants and if you don’t like it, you’re the bigot.


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25 comments for “The Godless Professor

  1. Gary Boatwright
    June 17, 2005 at 10:10 am

    I’m trying to stir up interest in a Salon article. I put up a diary at Seeing the Forest and a cross post at MyDD with additional details from the links and pdf files in Salon’s thimerosal resource guide. Take a quick look and decide if this is an issue you feel like commenting on:

    Deadly immunity

    “Something very, very wrong is happening to our children”

    When a study revealed that mercury in childhood vaccines may have caused autism in thousands of kids, the government rushed to conceal the data — and to prevent parents from suing drug companies for their role in the epidemic.

    Hat tip to Huffington Post for letting us know that ABC News spiked interviews with Kennedy Jr. abouth vaccines with a response from ABC news.

    It’s not news unless the M$M and hotshot male bloggers say it’s news.

  2. June 17, 2005 at 11:07 am

    I think it was his calling religionists “moral retards” that got up everyone’s noses, not neccessarily that he is an atheist.

  3. June 17, 2005 at 11:21 am

    You might as well say no Southern Baptist should be chair, since someone who believes that women should be subject to their husbands, homosexuality is evil and Jews are doomed to hell won’t be fair to female, gay or Jewish job candidates.

    But nobody ever does say that. As long as a believer ascribes his views to his faith, he can say anything he wants and if you don’t like it, you’re the bigot.

    I don’t know about that one. Do you think that a Southern Baptist who said described gay people as “moral retards” would be an appropriate choice for the head of a department? Probably not. I don’t think the objection is against all athiests, merely this particular athiest, because, from what he himself wrote, he seems to hold religion and all religious people in remarkably low esteem. In other words, he’s a bigot.

    Ms. Pollitt writes on what an athiest is:

    You know, an atheist–someone who doesn’t believe in God. An anticleric. A disrespecter of religion. A mocker of Christianity.

    She goes on. It’s well-written, but wrong. I’m an athiest, but I’m not an anticleric, nor a disrespecter of religion, nor (in most cases) a mocker of Christianity. Religion, much like all things, sometimes ought to be mocked, and other times, respected. There’s no holy text of athiesm that requires you to make fun of the Eucharist or the religious aversion to good sex all the time.

    It seems like the real objection to this fellow becoming the chair is not that he’s an athiest, but that he’s an ass about it. Religious people are moral retards? I think anyone would have a difficult time describing say, Saint Augustine, Dante, or the Dhali Lhama as moral retards. And they’re all pretty religious.

  4. June 17, 2005 at 11:30 am

    If a religious person where precisely as much of an ass about their beliefs as this guy, no one would ever hear anything about it. A lot of professors are smug and arrogant – why else is this even hitting the news? An integral part of atheism is that religion is a superstition. Is “moral retard” really such an offensive phrase, or is it just the antagonistic tone it takes with religious belief.

    If I were to say “have a godless day” to people as much as I’m told to “have a blessed day,” people would call me an ass, but is it any more annoying? It’s a double standard that religious people are able to express their beliefs, but atheists “offend” when we express our belief that religion is nothing more than fairy tales and cultural baggage.

  5. June 17, 2005 at 11:42 am

    I think “moral retard” is a pretty offensive phrase. (I’m not real keen on “retard” used as a noun in general.) And I’m fairly certain that anyone who expressed similar contempt for atheists would have a tough time in secular academia. I’m not saying that he should be deprived of the job: I’m all for academic freedom. But I can see why people would be offended.

  6. randomliberal/Robert
    June 17, 2005 at 11:48 am

    Being somewhat religious and definitely a believer, I find Professor Shortell’s essay more than a little offensive. Another line from his essay that I find quite telling: “In the heart of every Christian is a tiny voice preaching self-righteousness, paranoia and hatred. Christians claim that theirs is a faith based on love, but they’ll just as soon kill you.” Bullshit. It’s the same sort of blanket statement that the religious right continually makes and that we all rightfully jump on. He could have limited his statements to those who deserve it, for there are plenty who fit those descriptions. Instead, he painted all Christians as hypocrites.

    It was the decision of the college to elect him chair, and they have every right to make that decision, and I would defend their decision, but I am not going to defend the man, and I cannot blame the local papers, even if it is the fish-wrappers, for their criticism. From his essay, I can very easily understand anyone who thinks his judgement is biased against those who consider themselves religious.

  7. June 17, 2005 at 12:05 pm

    Also, I guess I’m getting a little sick of people who say deliberately provocative things and then get pissed off when they provoke more of a response than they intended. That essay isn’t the language of serious scholarship: he was trying to piss people off. And he’s succeeded. Now he gets to have his persecution complex fueled, and the religious righties get to have their persecution complex fueled, and everyone’s happy, except those of us who think the world would be better off with fewer privileged guys with persecution complexes.

    I suspect Katha Pollitt would not be so quick to defend an academic who had said something with which she didn’t agree. But I’m having a hard time seeing this as the most serious threat to the world, or even to academia, at the moment.

  8. June 17, 2005 at 12:05 pm

    If a religious person where precisely as much of an ass about their beliefs as this guy, no one would ever hear anything about it.

    Fred Phelps. Pat Robertson. Jerry Fallwell.

    Is “moral retard” really such an offensive phrase, or is it just the antagonistic tone it takes with religious belief.

    I imagine that if I attatched the phrase “moral retards” to feminists or liberals, there’d be some offended people on this site. And I think it’s kind of silly to argue that the phrase isn’t offensive to those its applied to.

    It’s a double standard that religious people are able to express their beliefs, but atheists “offend” when we express our belief that religion is nothing more than fairy tales and cultural baggage.

    This double standard is totally imagined. Religionists offend all the time when expressing their beliefs; Beliefs like gay people are going to hell, or that infidels should be beheaded, or women or chattel, or any number of ridiculous things that people get from their religious texts.

  9. piny
    June 17, 2005 at 12:25 pm

    >>This double standard is totally imagined. Religionists offend all the time when expressing their beliefs; Beliefs like gay people are going to hell, or that infidels should be beheaded, or women or chattel, or any number of ridiculous things that people get from their religious texts.>>

    Yes, but…BYU, and Dinesh D’Souza, and David Horowitz, and Steven Pinker, and David Brooks, and Cal Thomas, and Pat Buchanan, and Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter,* and–since you brought them up, even though they aren’t exactly in the same position–Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The question isn’t whether religious people and rightwing bigots say or are allowed to say wildly offensive things. The former is stipulated, I’m pretty sure, by everyone commenting here, and the latter is covered by the First Amendment. The question is whether or not they get fired or blacklisted from campus speaking engagements for doing so.

    *This is what Ann Coulter has to say about people like me:

    “In contemplating college liberals, you really regret, once again, that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals by making them realize that they could be killed, too. Otherwise they will turn out into out right traitors.”

    “On the bright side, and in conclusion,” continued Coulter, “at least college campuses serve as sort of an internment camp for useless leftists in wartime. We know where they are, this way. And, as General Patton said, ‘I love it when they come out and shoot at me because then I know where they are and I can shoot the bastards.'”

    She has also said that all the Arabs in the Middle East should be forcibly converted to Christianity. And yet, she’s not really hurting for money or speaking engagements.

  10. June 17, 2005 at 12:32 pm

    I suspect that if any of the people you listed were up for the position of chair of a department at a CUNY school, liberals would be irked. Luckily, there’s not much danger of that.

  11. June 17, 2005 at 12:43 pm

    The question is whether or not they get fired or blacklisted from campus speaking engagements for doing so.

    Speaking engagements, no. From what I can suss, it seems like campus speaking engagements are the accepted forum for extremism, hatred and offensive rhetoric, both from the left and the right.

    But academic appointments are something different entirely. Yes, it’s easy to imagine someone getting fired or blacklisted from an academic appointment for calling an entire group of people “moral retards.” I don’t think Ann Coulter will be up for a professorship any time soon.

    It’s pretty obvious that what this guy said was offensive. Should he be fired/lose his chair over it? No. But it’s foolish to pretend this wouldn’t be happening if he were a Southern Baptist referring to unbelievers as “moral retards.”

  12. June 17, 2005 at 12:55 pm

    I’ll grant that “retard” as a noun has offensive baggage, even though it is a valid word used accurately (in that context), though I think the reaction is about more than a word.

    Fred Phelps. Pat Robertson. Jerry Fallwell.

    Shankar, you illustrate my point about double standards pretty well – thanks. If offending language were a crime, Phelps, Robertson and Fallwell would all be throwing felonies around every day. All have said that gay people should be kill (or more politely that we deserve to die). Shortell commits a misdemeanor here, at most, though I think it lies more along the line of a ticketed offense.

  13. June 17, 2005 at 1:13 pm

    Maybe it’s because I still have a romantic attachment to the idea of academia as a bastion of reasonableness, but I’d really like to think that the standards for chairs of college sociology departments would be slightly higher than the standards for the nuttiest nutters that ever nutted. Do we really want people on our team to be judged by how much saner they are than Fred Phelps?

  14. June 17, 2005 at 1:39 pm

    My mom was a special ed teacher for 30+ years (and so was my boyfriend’s mom). No one ever got away with saying “retard” in our presence and still can’t. The boyfriend and I balk and cajole.

  15. June 17, 2005 at 1:42 pm

    Phelps, Robertson and Fallwell would all be throwing felonies around every day. All have said that gay people should be kill (or more politely that we deserve to die). Shortell commits a misdemeanor here, at most, though I think it lies more along the line of a ticketed offense.

    So they are throwing felonies around every day, and so it is recognized across the country. That’s my point. There isn’t a double standard, because people like the abovementioned are in fact held accountable for what they say. Do you really think that if a Southern Baptist nominated for a department chair at CUNY had described gay people “moral retards,” or “an ugly, violent lot,” the Times, the Voice, or the Nation wouldn’t be nailing his ass to the wall right now?

  16. June 17, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” Is that not the saying? I don’t see it so much his status and athiest, per se, that I find repugnant, but his “moral retard” comment is out of line.

    That said, even if he’d never said anything so offensive, I think it’s quite possible some people would be up in arms about his personal belief system.

  17. June 17, 2005 at 3:36 pm

    Physics-retard – nooo! Moral-retard – yes, yes, yes! (dons flame-proof suit).

    That essay says: “This closedness to pleasure is a necessary condition for the kind of suffering that makes a young person susceptible to irrational persuasion. Those who, at their core, resent beauty and pleasure will be only too willing to engage in hatred and violence.”

    I can think of innumerable rulers in history, who were slaves of beauty and pleasure – at least they were aesthetes – and who should be counted among the cruellest and most violent humans. So many lovely monuments erected by them!

  18. June 17, 2005 at 4:51 pm

    Shortell wrote that essay as a private citizen on an obscure private website. He didn’t mention his credentials as a sociologist, let alone his affiliation with CUNY. He didn’t even sign the essay itself, although he signed the original artworks that he included along with the text.

    Sure, the essay is offensive. It’s supposed to be. It’s an internet rant, for chrissakes.

    It’s absolutely ridiculous that Shortell was tried in the media and forced to resign his appointment after his own colleagues elected him. They knew about his contempt for religion, but they also knew that it had never affected his teaching or his scholarship.

    Which is greater intolerance: a mildly provocative internet rant against religion, or a guy losing a prestigious position for speaking his mind in his free time?

  19. June 17, 2005 at 5:07 pm

    I agree, I think, but I’m curious. Would you feel as strongly about his right to academic freedom if he’d ranted in his free time about how black people were stupid or gay folks were morally deficient?

  20. June 17, 2005 at 6:36 pm

    re blacks and gays: it’s different because blackness or gayness is not a choice. It’s different because when one talks about what Christians think or are like, you are talking about a group or individual that has chosen to self-identify as Christian and therefore professes to think various Christian thoughts. It is reasonable to infer from the label that they agree with what Christians agree with (c.f. what black people think or are like, what gay people think or are like). I don’t agree with the premise that all Christians are moral idiots by definition, but it is at least arguable without appealing to bigotry, because what you are saying (or would have to be saying) is “people who profess to think x are wrong because of y, and furthermore this kind of thinking is dangerous…” etc. whatever the actual point was.

  21. June 17, 2005 at 6:52 pm

    Hmm. As a Jew, I always find that argument kind of creepy. It’s not bigoted if people write that Jews are greedy and stingy, just so long as they only mean those of us who have “chosen” to reject Christ?

    Anyway, Quisp, what you’re saying is that this isn’t about academic freedom: there are some statements that you think would be over the line. It’s about what you think are the acceptable limits of academic freedom. And I guess I wouldn’t be surprised that other people draw that line at a different place than you.

  22. Ann
    June 17, 2005 at 7:16 pm

    I wonder if anyone here would object if she were pressured to quit her job based on comments she once posted to a blog somewhere, even if those comments weren’t relevant to and didn’t interfere with her work. Because isn’t that what the issue amounts to? Questioning whether someone can be a competent employee based solely on his or her beliefs? Judging what’s acceptable for employees to say even when they aren’t working?

    I have no problem with condemning Shortell’s comments; even Pollitt describes them as “self-satisfied adolescent twaddle.” But the right-wing furor over the incident is incredibly out of proportion. Their attempts to stifle speech they just don’t like are becoming more and more obvious.

    On the other hand, maybe if we look at politicians’ speaking records, we can get some of them fired…

  23. June 17, 2005 at 8:07 pm

    Well, no, that’s not what I’m saying. If it was, I would be creeping myself out as well as you. (1) It is absolutely bigoted to say that “jews are greedy and stingy.” That to me is in the same camp as blacks are x or gays are y. (2) there’s a distinction to be made between ethnicity and belief (and throw sexual orientation in there, too), and, while I don’t think I can do it justice without thinking much harder than I am able to right before dinner, I would just say that nearly every generalization about an ethnic/gender group is going to fall into the bigotry category, whereas I see no reason for that to necessarily apply to systems of belief, except (2a) clearly people can be discriminated against on the basis of their beliefs alone, so I don’t entirely agree with myself on this point.

    Okay…

    Let me think about this for a second, out loud as it were. I think it’s important to be able to talk about our beliefs, what they mean and what effect they have on us and on the world around us. In order to have that open forum, we have to have protections. There is of course a line to be drawn regarding hate speech (and it’s possible that what the professor said qualifies — all I know is the “moral retard” comment), but at the same time, regarding ideas and systems of ideas, it strikes me as kind of important to be able to call “bullshit” when we see it. It also occurs to me that your question (“Would you feel as strongly about his right to academic freedom if he’d ranted in his free time about how black people were stupid or gay folks were morally deficient?”) equates the subjects of the professor’s comments with the victims of bigotry (e.g. blacks, gays and jews) where it seems to me to be the professor who is striking out angrily (though maybe with bad form) against intolerant bigots (precisely the people who have historically practiced their intolerance against blacks, gays and jews).

    (3) I do think it’s about academic freedom. I believe that academia should be given the widest possible berth (freedom of speech, etc.) and also that the professor’s personal belief system is not welcome in that arena, at least not in public scho0ls.

    (4) I don’t think you’re right that it’s about the fact that “there are some statements that [I] think would be over the line.” I agree with you that there is a line and that we all do draw it in different places. I just don’t believe this is all about that line or where it’s drawn.

    (4a) It may, however, be about the use of that line by the powerful to hide behind the line in order to claim for itself protections for its own bad behavior. Criticism of bad behavior is not hate speech.

    I will hit “submit” without rereading, as I have to go bathe my toddler.

  24. June 18, 2005 at 11:00 am

    It also occurs to me that your question (“Would you feel as strongly about his right to academic freedom if he’d ranted in his free time about how black people were stupid or gay folks were morally deficient?”) equates the subjects of the professors comments with the victims of bigotry (e.g. blacks, gays and jews) where it seems to me to be the professor who is striking out angrily (though maybe in bad form) against intolerant bigots (precisely the people who have historically practiced their intolerance aainst blacks, gays and jews.)

    He was striking out angrily against all religious believers. He wasn’t striking out angrily at intolerant religious believers or religious bigots. Every person of faith, according to him, is a moral retard. And that’s a category that includes an awful lot of blacks, gays, and Jews.

    I think the reason that it feels different is that in the general culture, religious people seem to control everything. It’s less offensive to slander people in power than it is to slander people who aren’t powerful, and in the U.S. atheists aren’t all that powerful. But in secular academia, it seems to me that the situation is reversed: agnosticism, if not atheism, is the default, and a lot of people think nothing of treating religious folks like they’re morons. And that seems problematic to me both because it’s intolerant and because it leads to bad scholarship. I’m a historian, and most of the people I study, like most of the people who’ve ever lived, were religious believers. It seems to me that it would compromise my scholarship if I started from the premise that they were just stupid, immoral people.

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