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Fighting for Our Sanity in Tennessee

Life on the front lines 

by Niall Shanks

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 4.

Let me introduce myself. I am a professor of philosophy at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City, Tennessee. I also hold adjunct appointments in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of Physics and Astronomy. I teach courses on the history of science and technology, the philosophy of biology, and evolutionary biology.

But more than this, I am what my neighbors call a “ferner,” for I am a transplanted Englishman who grew up in Manchester in the north of England, a city about the size of Los Angeles but without the sun and earth tremors.

Johnson City is located in upper east Tennessee, in the heart of Appalachia. We enjoy some of the most spectacular scenery in America, being barely a stone’s throw from the Appalachian Trail. But Johnson City is also one of the many buckles on the Bible Belt, and this poses some curious problems for someone who teaches evolutionary theory. To see why, it will help to begin by taking a look at the community in which the university is located.

This is a community whose attitudes are deeply shaped by religious beliefs—beliefs, moreover, that have evolved a symbiotic relationship with extremely conservative political views. Strong anti-abortion attitudes thus co-exist quite happily with keen advocacy for the death penalty. On cars you can find Jesus fishes by the school. But this is not an ecological niche

in which Darwin fish thrive. Indeed, putting one on the back of your car is essentially an invitation to vandalism. The Ten Commandments figure prominently on the county courthouse. And when the Supreme Court let stand a lower court decision that such a religious display violates the constitutional separation of church and state, Washington County Executive George Jaynes was quoted in the June 2, 2001, Johnson City Press as saying, “We’re a majority. The atheist group and the people hollering about that are minorities, and I can’t figure out why they would rule in favor of minorities or something like that.” (I guess Mr. Jaynes had forgotten how the presidential election was settled last year!) In solidarity with the courthouse, many homes have placards displaying the Ten Commandments on their lawns.

One of our local papers, the Kingsport Times-News, recently polled its readers about their religious beliefs (June 22). Of the 209 respondents, 69 percent said they took the Genesis account of creation literally; 26 percent said they didn’t; and 4 percent were unsure. This is indeed an area where religious fundamentalism flourishes, and the university is no exception. It is a microcosm of the community in which it is embedded. Religious attitudes that flourish in the broader community are reflected in the views of students, faculty, and administrators. Secular faculty and students—those who openly profess to having no religious beliefs or affiliations—are a distinct minority and are apt to be viewed as curiosities. But they nevertheless exist, and last spring one of my former students, Scott Lavoie, founded a branch of the Campus Freethought Alliance. The group and its faculty supporters are truly strangers in a strange land.

The University

ETSU has very good science faculty, and students who specialize in the sciences (as opposed to those who have to take a science class to meet general education requirements) do well by national measures. Our biology majors, for example, not only exceed the national average on the ETS Biology Major Field Test, they place in the top 20 percent in the nation. Nevertheless, teaching courses that focus on science, its history, and its implications have provided me with some interesting challenges in the classroom.

With the exception of the biology majors, all of whom are extensively exposed to evolutionary ideas as part and parcel of their training here, there is widespread misunderstanding of evolution among ETSU students, (and, sad to say, among some faculty who should know better). Part of the problem can be traced back to the failure of science education in our high schools. My students often tell me they never covered evolution in science classes. Some tell me that their science teachers told them not to believe in evolution. Others tell me that their teachers didn’t want to cause trouble by teaching evolution. But for whatever reason, many of my students have little or no exposure to evolutionary biology prior to their arrival at the university. This is not to say that they are devoid of opinions, however, for much mischief has been worked in area churches, where evolutionary ideas are distorted, discussed and dismissed. I cannot blame my students for being skeptical of evolutionary biology, since the version they have been exposed to is manifestly a grotesque parody of the real thing. If evolutionary biology seriously claimed—as I was once told—that dogs should be turning into cats, I would readily join the chorus of disbelief!

And, of course, my students have been spoon-fed with all sorts of alternative creationist “explanations” for biological phenomena. “What about intelligent design?” I am sometimes asked. Looking at the medical consequences of getting around on two feet—joint trouble, lower back pain, and hemorrhoids, to name a few—I point out that the alleged intelligent designer must have been drunk, stupid, or both. Thank goodness our large, evolved brains have intelligently designed painkillers and Preparation H! And anyone who thinks that the medical consequences of evolution in action are trivial should reflect long and hard on the health crisis caused by the evolutionary emergence of drug-resistant strains of bacteria—a phenomenon that could have been attenuated by clear thinking about evolutionary consequences of changing the selection pressures on bacterial populations. The long arm of Charles Darwin has implications for the health of the godly and ungodly alike.

Many of my students believe they have immortal souls, and that they will either go to heaven or hell when they die. They have also been told by people they respect—family members, pastors, ministers, and others in the community—that evolution is not just wrong scientifically, it is rather an integral component of the same liberal conspiracy that favors abortion, homosexuality, bestiality, communism, and other things deemed morally abhorrent. Some of my students are thus quite sincere when they say they believe that studying evolution will have terrible consequences for the fate of their souls. And of course they wonder how a nice chap like me could possibly be involved with the dissemination of such wicked ideas. Ah well, the devil clearly works in mysterious ways.

I remember, about six years ago, introducing Darwinian ideas in an introductory philosophy class. The sky was darkening as I lectured, though I had not noticed this. Suddenly there was a great flash of lightning followed an instant later by an enormous clap of thunder. Everyone looked at me. I had just explained the idea that humans and chimpanzees descended from a common ancestor about seven to ten million years ago. Then a large gentleman—a football player type—who had been sitting near a window grabbed his things and made to leave. I asked him where he was going, and I distinctly remember he said, “Doc, no offense, old buddy, but if you and the Lord have a dispute, I ain’t getting caught in the crossfire.” I remember thinking that the Lord cannot be as powerful as claimed if even his loyal followers were worried about his marksmanship. The only weapon I had in this metaphysical contest was a dog-eared copy of Darwin for Beginners by Jonathan Miller. But the Lord had spoken and I was revealed as a false prophet. Foiled again!

Scott Lavoie has told me that there is a blacklist of faculty in some area churches. These are the professors to be avoided at all costs, not because they are stupid or incompetent—an eminently sound reason to have a blacklist—but because of what they teach. Scott tells me I am on the list. Some of my secular colleagues are jealous of my achievement in this regard, whereas some of my religious colleagues think it is entirely appropriate for one of Satan’s little helpers to be so listed. I suspect it was my openness about my atheism that got me onto the blacklist. Indeed, I have often been asked, by colleagues and students alike, how I can possibly be an atheist. My answer is that I am an atheist for the same reason that I am an “asantaclausist.” There is no convincing evidence to support claims about the existence of either alleged entity. Actually Santa may be the better off of the two, for the sincere testimony of small children is a tad more convincing than that of wily adults with sophistical arguments and axes to grind—though not much!

I am not alone. I have a colleague in the Department of Physics and Astronomy who seriously considered not teaching ideas about the Big Bang and stellar evolution in his astronomy class because he was untenured and was drawing unfavorable reviews on his teaching evaluations for discussing ideas about origins that were first of all secular and second of all required the universe to be rather older than the accepted age of around six thousand years. My colleague didn’t cave in, I am happy to say, and did get tenure.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Something that we are apt to forget is that creationists do not just have complaints about evolutionary biology. They have complaints about most branches of science, and astronomy is no exception—as is shown by the current popularity of “fine-tuning theology” based on anthropic principle cosmology (essentially creationism for folks with physics envy). In a real sense, then, those of us who care about science education are not just facing the challenge of teaching interesting and exciting scientific ideas, we are also fighting the battles of the Enlightenment all over again. Medieval ideas that were killed stone dead by the rise of science three to four hundred years ago are not merely twitching; they are alive and well in our schools, colleges, and universities.

Increasingly these medieval ideas are being nurtured by faculty members themselves, a small but growing number of whom are attracted to “new wave” creationism under the guise of Intelligent Design Theory. The proponents of this new creationism are for the most part academics at respected universities. They are articulate and intelligent. They see themselves as enemies of naturalistic natural science. They believe in causally efficacious supernatural agency, and they want it taught in school. For example, courses on spirituality and prayer in medicine have proliferated across the nation. I can think of no better way to get religion back into school than to have it come along with the stamp of medical authority. Even judges are apt to fawn before the authority of physicians. If it is taught in medical school, then it must be true. Right?

Not so fast. The medieval account of disease held that it was the result of sin, and that it could be cured by fasting, repentance, and prayer. There is currently a move in our own medical school, here at ETSU, to instantiate a new medical model, one that incorporates due consideration for prayer and spirituality. The medical model known to natural science is called the “bio-psycho-social model.” The one being explored by some of our medical school faculty is called the “bio-psycho-social-spiritual model.” I believe some of this work—certainly an elective class on spirituality in medicine—has been funded with the help of the Templeton Foundation (an organization which, I fear, is a sort of National Science Foundation for the promotion of unclear thinking about science and its relation to religion).

I have never received a satisfactory response to the following concerns: if the medical model needs to be expanded to include a spiritual component, does this simply mean that there is evidence (not necessarily credible) that people’s religious beliefs can affect their health? If this is what is being claimed, then surely the spiritual component should be subsumed under the psycho-social part of the current model, that being the place where the study of effects of belief should reside. Or is it being claimed (more ambitiously) that there are causally efficacious spiritual powers (unknown to standard science) that affect patient outcomes? If the latter, I think we should demand to see some serious evidence—evidence not gathered with the aid of flawed methodologies, and which cannot be explained by alternative, less metaphysically grandiose hypotheses. But alas, I am spiritually challenged, so no doubt I am missing something here.

The concern about flawed methodologies is real, however. About two years ago I met someone who had been involved with medical prayer research—specifically, assigned the task of coming up with a method to “test the effectiveness of prayer.” When my acquaintance asked the P.I. (Prayer Investigator) what would happen if the proposed test showed that prayer was medically ineffective, the P.I. replied that this would indicate the test was no good!

Indeed, I was recently treated for high blood pressure (by now you can probably guess some of the causes—and I don’t mean sin, or an imbalance of the humors) at a clinic run by the medical school. My young, freckle-faced physician-to-be recommended that, in addition to the ACE inhibitor he had prescribed, I might try prayer as well. Some patients found it helpful, I was told. The mention of prayer did indeed have some measurable medical effects. I got so mad that I feared I was about to suffer what Fred Sanford of “Sanford and Son” fame used to call “the big one.” No doubt my physician thought he was about to witness a genuine case of spontaneous human combustion!

So much for intellectual life. What do we do for entertainment? Back in 1996, when the state legislature was considering the Burks-Whitson Bill to restrict the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools, I was invited to debate Dr. Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research. The debate was held here on campus in an auditorium that seated about nine hundred people. We had a full house, with about three hundred more folks listening on loudspeakers outside. Gish had insisted that I go first. Sensing that this was a cunning strategy to put me at some form of disadvantage, I took the trouble to obtain some videos of his previous debates from Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. (By the way, I learned that Gish is nothing if not consistent; his presentation did not appear to have evolved over time. The same arguments were stated in the same way, time after time. No punctuation, just equilibrium.)

Well, I thought, if I have to go first, I may as well state Gish’s main arguments clearly for him, making sure they were equally clearly refuted. And to keep the attention of the audience, I also used most of his one-liners and jokes—so he had to quote me to work them back in again. All in all it was tremendous fun. And even a representative of Campus Crusade admitted that Gish had been disappointing and that I was clearly “well prepared” (I assume this is a Christian euphemism for doing an excellent job of baloney eradication). Not bad for a day’s work. And I am happy to say that the Burks-Whitson Bill also failed to get legislative support, thereby preventing Tennessee from becoming an international laughingstock again.

What of the barrier between church and state university? Like the Maginot Line, it is a barrier that is easily circumvented. Every fall we have gentlemen in suits distributing Bibles on campus. My colleagues like to collect them and leave heaps of them in my mailbox. Perhaps some do this because they know I have high blood pressure, and for reasons of professional jealousy hope to prompt “the big one”; others leave them out of a genuine hope that I will read the good book and its message will stick. Being an ecologically minded person, I am a great believer in recycling paper.

The barrier between church and state university gets seriously thin elsewhere. Until two years ago, prayers were said at each graduation. They were supposed to be nondenominational, but the prayers I heard were long on Jesus and short on neutrality. Thankfully this odious practice has been halted. But religion is never far beneath the surface. For the last few years, the campus has celebrated the National Day of Prayer. This year’s slogan was “One Nation United Under God.” Though not sponsored directly by the university, it was attended by senior administrators, including the university president. It sent a clear message to secular faculty and students alike—and also to the minority of students who, though persons of faith, are not persons of the Christian faith—that some religious views enjoy semi-official sanction.

Along these lines, I have spoken to secular faculty who are genuinely concerned about the possibility (some would say actuality) of discrimination based on a lack of religious belief in the work place. I believe these concerns are real, but I do not think they should be exaggerated. I certainly feel I have been treated very fairly with respect to employment and promotion. And I have to tell you, this is a great place to work if, like me, you like getting into arguments about science and religion. I don’t have to mess around with insipid devil’s advocates. I get the real McCoy!

Niall Shanks is professor of philosophy at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City, Tennessee.

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