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← Should employers be blind to private beliefs?

Should employers be blind to private beliefs? - Comments

RomeStu's Avatar Comment 1 by RomeStu

The trouble with anti-discrimination laws is that they are often taken to absurd extremes as in this case. A law to protect the rights, for example, of a catholic trying to get a job in a shop owned by a protestant seems entirely right and fair. In this situation religious beliefs, or lack thereof, have no bearing on the ability to do the job.

However, when dealing with high-level academe, and especially in the field of the sciences, I believe a university has the absolute right to disregard candidates for scientific positions on the basis of their fantasies (sorry, religious beliefs). This is to protect the interests of its students, and the reputation of its research. When will the first student sue the university for failing in its duty to provide a competent professor? They may win...

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 20:56:34 UTC | #583665

josephor's Avatar Comment 2 by josephor

Prof Dawlkins I say no an employer cannot be. My answer may sound simplistic but I how can an employer be blind to a person’s personal belief? There can be no general rule for this. As you pointed out there are many different scenarios that have to be dealt with separately.
A person’s belief can lead to a conflict of interest and that cannot be judged as discrimination

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 21:03:18 UTC | #583667

katt33's Avatar Comment 3 by katt33

I agree that it has to be taken on a case by case basis, as to put it all under a broad brush is rather tricky. If one is fully accepting of evolution and the scientific evidence, yet is Christian they can, if they are a reasonable, moderate individual teach science without bringing God into it. That can only be determined by knowing the individual.

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 21:27:10 UTC | #583677

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 4 by Steve Zara

You should also be blind to whether or not those beliefs have a religious provenance

I have to say that I would find it hard to be blind to the religious origin of a belief. That would indicate not just that a candidate was wrong, but was wrong for a very bad reason, that the candidate's belief system was deeply flawed, and not just there were one or two odd opinions.

I realise that this is not practical, at least not for the forseeable future, but I look forward to the time when we can discriminate against people applying for a science job because they have a religious faith. As things stand we have to assume that a person can compartmentalise.

I do wonder if religious organisations would follow this principle - how about atheist candidates for the priesthood? I mean, even atheists believe that a few parts of the Bible might be true.

I feel we need a fairer society, in which science isn't expected to be accommodating to religion in a way that is certainly not reciprocated.

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 21:28:57 UTC | #583680

William33's Avatar Comment 5 by William33

It depends on the persons ability and history to keep beliefs private. How can you trust a person with a high position if that position will be abused to promote falsehoods?

You can not include personal beliefs when it comes to science and I believe that any scientists who holds a position must represent the scientific community for as long as that position is held.

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 21:34:31 UTC | #583684

josephor's Avatar Comment 6 by josephor

Look at it this way : Somebody who was a known Vegan would hardly be appointed to run a meat processing plant no matter how good his qualifications were, I would suspect that the owners would be very interested in the applicant’s personal beliefs!

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 21:45:03 UTC | #583688

jonny5509's Avatar Comment 7 by jonny5509

I'm not convinced. I have to admit this particular case makes me feel a little uncomfortable.

Agreed that religious views that are in conflict with a position of authority should not be granted impunity just because they are religious. However, he really did appear to be the best applicant until his crazy views of evolutionary biology were discovered. Also, he seemed to be quite a competent teacher of astronomy. The students repeatedly nominated him for the 'outstanding educator' award.

Plus there is this:

Other reasons will be given for this choice when we meet Tuesday. In the end, however, the real reason why we will not offer him the job is because of his religious beliefs in matters that are unrelated to astronomy or to any of the duties specified in this position

One could argue that the real losers here are the students, and that there has been a detriment to the pursuit of reason and the advance of science following the committee's decision. One of the emails submitted to the court suggested that Gaskill would be subject to the same rules and policies that everyone else on their staff must abide by, regardless of his religious beliefs, and if he deviated from these, he would be sacked.

That to me sounds a much better way of dealing with people of faith in public positions - believe whatever fairytales you like, but teach only this.

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 22:05:00 UTC | #583700

quarecuss's Avatar Comment 8 by quarecuss

What a brilliant article. Very funny in places too. I have only begun to fully appreciate the wit of Richard Dawkins. Reading Unweaving the Rainbow at the moment and finding much to laugh about and this article shows he's as fit a wit as ever, 13 years on.

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 22:09:17 UTC | #583703

RomeStu's Avatar Comment 9 by RomeStu

Comment 4 by Steve Zara :

I do wonder if religious organisations would follow this principle - how about atheist candidates for the priesthood?

After all in the current economic crisis it could be an attractive prospect - a year or so training in Rome, then a job for life.... working one day a week!

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 22:09:31 UTC | #583705

bethe123's Avatar Comment 10 by bethe123

I don't think it is so easy to formulate a general rule that works in all cases.

Certainly the religious beliefs of Charles Townes seem similar to Gaskel, but Townes is world class in his scientific accomplishments. If Townes had been denied a position and tenure because of religious beliefs, he would never have had the freedom to continue his research - which other professors (including Nobel laureate I. Rabbi) frankly told him was a waste of time. But he did get a position and tenure, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Be careful what you wish for.

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 22:43:33 UTC | #583718

Michael Austin's Avatar Comment 11 by Michael Austin

My school hired a Creationist Biology teacher. :-/

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 22:51:44 UTC | #583721

keith's Avatar Comment 12 by keith

This is not exactly to the point but I'll say it anyway. I have been wondering if there isn't some way to stop using the word 'religion'. Since it has so many good connotations in the minds of so many people, it starts off with an unfair advantage over all other belief systems. In the same way that people who are pro-fox hunting like to call their activity a 'sport' (ha ha!), as the word sport has so many good connotations, I think Islam etc. benefits from this association.

Apart from this, in seeming to deal with a subject distinct from that of science, the word tends to suggest that Stephen Jay Gould's idea of NOMA is a useful one. If we could just refer to, say, Christianity as a 'belief system', it could then take its chances alongside less barmy belief systems in the marketplace of ideas. I envisage a conversation like, "Okay, so while my belief system states that 14 billion years ago there was a bloody great bang and some of the debris was pulled together by gravity, things cooled, life began and we grew out of this, your belief states that a god called Allah made the universe and in the year 651AD Mohammad flew to Jerusalem on a magical winged horse..." Hmm, put like that both belief systems look equally ridiculous.

Anyway, I suppose what I'm proposing is the converse side of Sam Harris's idea that calling ourselves Atheists is tantamount to us lying down in a chalk outline of a deadman that our opponents have drawn for us. By allowing the idea that religion deals with some other kind of reality to that of science and that all religion is in some way beneficial, we are allowing religious views to escape direct comparison with better ones. However, I have no idea how to implement a ban on the word.

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 22:57:27 UTC | #583725

lackofgravitas's Avatar Comment 13 by lackofgravitas

I believe the precedents are already in place. Many US universities will not countenance applications for biological or medical related degrees if the applicant hails from certain 'faith schools'. And really, how can they? Should any government train a person to be a doctor, nurse, lab assistant, pharmacologist etc. if that person really believes that their god will make everything better if only you pray enough?

We don't really need any hypothetical examples to make the case, we can use real ones. If you break a leg, you don't go to your local chinese herbalist for some herbs. If you burn your hand cooking, you don't pray to make the blisters go down. If you're a parent and your child is diabetic, you don't wait for god's mercy to spare your child. Or if you do any of these things, you can rightly be accused of being wilfully ignorant, in the case of the parents denying medical attention to a child with a completely commonplace disease, it should be criminal negligence.

As for teaching in a university, the least you can expect from a lecturer is that s/he actually knows, understands and rationally follows the proven 'theory' (even though it should really be called a Law of Fact by now) of evolution.

I understand that the university just wanted to get the case off its hands and settled, but it may set a dangerous precedent for the future, I hope we are all prepared to ship in with some cash and a lot of e-mails when it happens again and some college needs funds to take this to a jury to enshrine it in federal law like the Dover case.

/rant ends....

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 23:18:54 UTC | #583730

Zelig's Avatar Comment 14 by Zelig

Well, in my experience, in the social sciences at least, fraudsters and charlatans are the norm in academia. I don't say this lightly. So i'm afraid I reluctantly agree with your college in your third example. I see no credible alternative. I would prefer such an individual not hold such views, or that other candidates were successful, but I don't think possession of such views should automatically bar one from employment. So Yes I would discriminate, but No I wouldn't necessarily exclude.

I agree, of course, that the religious origin of an persons views should, simply by virtue of that origin, not be accorded privileged status, but that's a different issue.

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 23:58:04 UTC | #583741

BLB's Avatar Comment 15 by BLB

Institutions have to discriminate when deciding whether to employ someone. I use the word discriminate in this case to mean 'exercise judgement'. If someone employed to teach/research/practice in a scientific field cannot accept the evidence in that or another field then surely they can not be judged to be a good candidate?

I agree with previous posters that most jobs don't require this sort of judgement to be made, but the specific case is one where it must be.

Mon, 24 Jan 2011 23:58:17 UTC | #583742

Richard Dawkins's Avatar Comment 16 by Richard Dawkins

Goodness, many of the comments over at the Boing Boing version of this article are incredibly different from anything we ever see here. A substantial number of them would employ the flat-earther and the stork theorist! It's worth going over to take a look.

Richard

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 00:01:09 UTC | #583743

debaser71's Avatar Comment 17 by debaser71

So let me get this straight. Creationism is a religious idea? Ok, settled. Thanks.

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 00:26:27 UTC | #583751

xmaseveeve's Avatar Comment 18 by xmaseveeve

Comment 3, Katt,

'If one is fully accepting of evolution and the scientific evidence, yet is Christian they can, if they are a reasonable, moderate individual teach science'

Red herring. Richard was NOT talking about 'Christians'. Of course a scientist can be a Christian.

Comment 7, johnny,

'One could argue that the real losers here are the students, and that there has been a detriment to the pursuit of reason and the advance of science following the committee's decision.'

Only if they employed one of the even worse candidates. They'd be required to re-advertise if no suitable candidate came forward.

'That to me sounds a much better way of dealing with people of faith in public positions - believe whatever fairytales you like, but teach only this.'

If they are teaching science, you're saying, 'Lie'.

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 00:46:15 UTC | #583755

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 19 by AtheistEgbert

This man is not a fraudulent astronomer. He is a fraudulent young-earther.

This was one of the funniest lines on Boing Boing.

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 00:49:49 UTC | #583758

jonny5509's Avatar Comment 20 by jonny5509

Comment 7, johnny,

'One could argue that the real losers here are the students, and that there has been a detriment to the pursuit of reason and the advance of science following the committee's decision.'

Only if they employed one of the even worse candidates. They'd be required to re-advertise if no suitable candidate came forward.

If you read their emails, I believe that is exactly what they did, or are in the process of doing.

'That to me sounds a much better way of dealing with people of faith in public positions - believe whatever fairytales you like, but teach only this.'

If they are teaching science, you're saying, 'Lie'.

He's teaching astronomy, and very well if you take into account the actions of his students. I'm sure he would make a terrible biology teacher. Who am I suggesting should lie?

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 01:03:31 UTC | #583765

Stephen of Wimbledon's Avatar Comment 21 by Stephen of Wimbledon

My response will probably display my ignorance of academia but ... hey ho.

It seems to me that those of us without faith often complain that the religious expect special treatment without having earned it. However, in this instance, a religious person is saying he has simply not been treated equally.

I only mention the specific case to note: We should be careful to construct a response that does not mirror the religious folk's claim to exceptionalism.

Which begs the question: Is a scientific post - or a post that requires scientific literacy (like the Professor's doctor example) - different enough to require the employer to filter out those who may hold private beliefs that contradict the scientific consensus, even though they have demonstrated that their beliefs have no discernible effect on their performance?

Put this way the answer seems to suggest itself: No, of course not. Because it will make no technical difference to the quantity or quality of work they produce. To refuse this post to a religious believer would simply be bigoted.

However the above also begs another question which, while it looks similar, is profoundly different: Is an academic post - like a Science Professor's chair - different enough to require the employer to filter out those who may hold private beliefs that contradict the scientific consensus, even though they have demonstrated that their beliefs have no discernible effect on their teaching performance?

This case is not so easy. A Professor must be a mentor, researcher, moderator and creative thinker. Does a candidate who reveals ties to a religious dogma suggest that they are likely to be strong in these areas. This is obviously a rhetorical question - such a candidate would ring alarm bells for many reasons:

  • How can someone who daily lives with a dichotomy of truths ever be a good mentor?

  • How can someone who lives a lie ever command the respect of students and colleagues?

  • Even if the candidate has a history of research, how can we be sure that they will not (once in post) revert to the religious norm and rest on their laurels?

  • Can we be sure that the candidate will not renounce science and be 'born again' - embarrassing the institution and severely damaging its reputation?

  • How can we ever trust the judgement of such a person?

  • The above list is just a taste of something that is endless. It is not established science that is the most important element here - clearly religious people can be good administrators, technicians and lecturers. Millions of them are every day - many in a scientific context.

    The really important parts are the subtle side to teaching and research - engaging young minds in a long term love of learning - and the advantage of an open mind. Open minds produce the best research, the most creative ideas, progress. There is plenty of creativity in scripture, but does the resulting dogma drive new ideas.

    All of which is not very practical. All jobs are awarded according to highly subjective criteria. The trick is to not let the losing candidates know. The Kentucky e-mail made the huge mistake of spelling this out, besides also laying the foundation for charges of discrimination. Way to go.

    Tue, 25 Jan 2011 01:52:41 UTC | #583772

    xmaseveeve's Avatar Comment 22 by xmaseveeve

    Comment 13, lackofgravitas,

    'Many US universities will not countenance applications for biological or medical related degrees if the applicant hails from certain 'faith schools'. And really, how can they?'

    Why not, as long as they have the relevant qualifications (perhaps gained somewhere else)? Usually, their parents sent them to that school.

    'Should any government train a person to be a doctor, nurse, lab assistant, pharmacologist etc. if that person really believes that their god will make everything better if only you pray enough?'

    Why not, as long as they don't think like Mother Theresa, that they shouldn't treat you as it's God's will whether you die? There's a sign in her hospice; 'You are going to meet God'. That would really cheer you up. The Fawlty Towers of hospices, its funds squirrelled away to convents.

    Tue, 25 Jan 2011 02:18:57 UTC | #583776

    wisnoskij's Avatar Comment 23 by wisnoskij

    Personally I thing if someone is going to pay you to work for them then they should be able to discriminate against anything they see fit.

    If you are a racist and want to run a business that has employees then you should not be forced to hire someone that is a race that you hate or dislike simply because they showed up to the interview and are qualified.

    And at the end of the day the owner is still the boss and still has a tremendous amount of power over his employees, so making it illegal to discriminate is basically just a tax on discrimination, every so often you might lose money because of it (but it is not going to help discriminated people get better jobs).

    Tue, 25 Jan 2011 02:33:03 UTC | #583784

    xmaseveeve's Avatar Comment 24 by xmaseveeve

    Comment 20, Johnny,

    'He's teaching astronomy'

    No, you had moved away from speaking about an individual, to this;

    'That to me sounds a much better way of dealing with people of faith in public positions - believe whatever fairytales you like, but teach only this.'

    If believing in fairytales and teaching science, how is this not asking them to lie?

    Tue, 25 Jan 2011 03:41:56 UTC | #583796

    elderwanda's Avatar Comment 25 by elderwanda

    It's a matter of integrity. I'm in the middle of reading "The Greatest Show on Earth" right now, and thoroughly enjoying Richard's enthusiastic descriptions of E. coli evolution experiments. :)

    Now, if I suddenly learned that he actually believes that bacteria are a big bore, and that dancing pixies were responsible for the observed changes, I would feel betrayed.

    Obviously, that's not the case, but when I take a university class or otherwise put my trust in a learned professional, I want them to not only believe what they tell me, but preferably to feel a certain degree of love and enthusiasm for the topic.

    I've taken university classes where the professor came right out and said, "I'm sick to death of teaching and I despise all of my students." That wasn't so wonderful, but I'll take that over being lied to any day.

    Tue, 25 Jan 2011 04:50:46 UTC | #583811

    Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 26 by Peter Grant

    Or you should join me in saying, “I don’t care whether his beliefs are based on religion or not, they affect his suitability for the job, and I am going to take them into account.”

    Thank you Professor, that is exactly right. As long as we don't discriminate against someone's beliefs because they are religious, discriminating against them because they are stupid is fine.

    Tue, 25 Jan 2011 06:08:08 UTC | #583821

    Galactor's Avatar Comment 27 by Galactor

    Comment 26 by Peter Grant :

    Or you should join me in saying, “I don’t care whether his beliefs are based on religion or not, they affect his suitability for the job, and I am going to take them into account.”

    Thank you Professor, that is exactly right. As long as we don't discriminate against someone's beliefs because they are religious, discriminating against them because they are stupid is fine.

    I'm not sure if this is meant as irony.

    As long as we don't discriminate against religious beliefs as opposed to stupid beliefs? Religious beliefs are sensible beliefs and not stupid beliefs?

    Tue, 25 Jan 2011 06:43:20 UTC | #583824

    Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 28 by Peter Grant

    Comment 27 by Galactor

    I'm not sure if this is meant as irony.

    No, it's not.

    Religious beliefs are sensible beliefs and not stupid beliefs?

    No, religious beliefs do tend to be stupid as well. We discriminate against them because they are stupid though, not simply because they are religious.

    Tue, 25 Jan 2011 07:18:09 UTC | #583833

    NakedCelt's Avatar Comment 29 by NakedCelt

    At first blush I'm inclined to disagree with Richard, if only on the basis of "When making rules, always assume your opponents will be using them against you." This is Kentucky, right? Who's to say, if the Tea Party gain the control of the country they so clearly desire, there won't some day be discrimination against atheists (or global-warming "scaremongers") in teaching roles following just such a precedent?

    However, on reflection, an astronomy teacher is not just there to teach facts about the universe. An astronomy teacher, like all science teachers, is there to teach how one discovers facts about the universe, and anyone who thinks the Bible counts as evidence in any field of research but the history of religion in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean does not know how one discovers facts about the universe.

    Tue, 25 Jan 2011 07:48:43 UTC | #583838

    Galactor's Avatar Comment 30 by Galactor

    Comment 28 by Peter Grant :

    Comment 27 by Galactor

    I'm not sure if this is meant as irony.

    No, it's not.

    Religious beliefs are sensible beliefs and not stupid beliefs?

    No, religious beliefs do tend to be stupid as well. We discriminate against them because they are stupid though, not simply because they are religious.

    You keep making a distinction between religious belief and stupidity although you suggest that religious belief is indeed stupid (tends to be stupid is what you write although I am not sure what this means).

    I wonder if you are falling into the trap of giving religion respect because it's religion as opposed to it plainly being stupidity.

    If people want to believe in Xenu, that's their prerogative but then that is religion that is the stupidity and the person along with it, is it not? Why is it not possible to discern and differentiate because someone is religious when being religious is a good sign of being stupid?

    Tue, 25 Jan 2011 08:02:36 UTC | #583842