Academic freedom and religious belief

In Ireland, the concept of academic freedom is enshrined in law under the Universities Act 1997, section 14 of which provides:

‘A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favourable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom.’

One context in which the application of academic freedom may perhaps be problematical is where an academic expresses views of a religious nature, particularly where these are addressed to students. In 2004 there was some controversy in University College Dublin when a Lecturer in Diagnostic Imaging was alleged to have persuaded students to attend Opus Dei events (Opus Dei being a conservative organisation within the Roman Catholic Church); the lecturer in question eventually retired early from the university after an internal inquiry had been conducted.

Now another case has arisen in the United States, in the University of Illinois, where a professor teaching in the Department of Religion declared to his students that the Roman Catholic Church (whose doctrines he supported) viewed homosexuality as ‘morally wrong’. After complaints were received from students, the professor’s appointment at the university was terminated, and he argued that this was a violation of his academic freedom. He is now preparing what may become a legal challenge to the university’s actions. Various points of view are emerging, some of which suggest that academic freedom does not cover the expression of personal opinions, as distinct from the dissemination of analysis and study. In this particular example, the issues could be complicated further if a person holding these views were to articulate the church’s position in such a way as to justify discrimination against gay people, which would bring him or her into conflict with equality legislation.

It seems to me that it is very difficult to know where to draw the line in all of this. Maybe it could be said that proselytising in support of any particular religion does not come within academic freedom; but then again, why should the expression of such a position be different from, say, advocating support for a controversial political position?

On the basis of the report, I am inclined to think that the University of Illinois got it wrong (though I certainly do not support the position expressed on this occasion by the academic in question); or if it got it right, then it is hard to see how a meaningful concept of academic freedom could be protected. But one way or another, academic freedom is a complex concept, and protecting it is not easy, particularly on the margins (where most disputes are likely to arise).

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11 Comments on “Academic freedom and religious belief”

  1. wendymr Says:

    Hold on – did he just state a fact, or assert an opinion? Because if he actually said that the Roman Catholic Church views homosexuality as morally wrong (as opposed to stating his own opinion that it’s morally wrong), then that seems to me to have nothing to do with academic freedom, but simply reporting on the official position of an independent organisation. It would be exactly the same if I had stood up in a classroom and stated that according to the Catholic Church’s doctrine sex outside marriage is morally wrong. There’s got to be more to this than you’ve said here.

    • kevin denny Says:

      That was my intinct too. That aside, why can’t someone express an opinion if they make clear that is all it is & as long as they don’t harangue the students? If a student expressed such an opinion in a class or in an essay would they be subject to sanctions too?
      In the course of some classes I have discussed the issue of equality and I tell students that there is a wide divergence of opinion about this noting, say, that some believe in equality of outcomes (as opposed to opportunities). I would sometimes add, as an aside, that this does not happen to be my view. So I guess I am expressing a view on a moral issue & and I am pretty sure my opinions are fairly bland compared to some in the university. Will the thought police bust me?

  2. Vincent Says:

    I’m sorry but I see no difference between Religion and any other area of human thought. And if ‘within the law’ how does it matter, and if outside it’s not a matter for the University anyway.
    The situation in Illinois is a case of pokey-minded little students and a University similarly structured. I’ve seen first years run from Classics lectures on Plato’s Symposium. Can you imagine the conversation between the students and say the Dean of Arts if they were to complain and just where the Dean would tell them to go.

  3. Al Says:

    Implicitly, doesn’t academic freedom have its form in Socrates, in that what he did (dialogue) should be valued rather than punished, and that academics are given this freedom to aspire to the elenchus.

    It is the freedom to question that is important, and providing ‘your’ answer short circuits the process.

    This attempt to valourise freedom also recognises man’s instinct to hemlock!

  4. Jilly Says:

    Like Wendy and Kevin, I don’t quite understand the problem with what this Illinois professor did, as the story is phrased here: the Catholic Church does regard homosexuality as a sin, so that is merely a statement of fact. I presume he must have gone further than this, and argued that they are right.

    I would certainly include discussions of religion among the other freedoms of speech within a classroom, except that there is one slight difference, I think. The freedom to argue any position (a freedom which of course includes the students) within a classroom discussion is, I always point out to my students, one based on the understanding that you have to be prepared to defend that position through logical argument. So my seminars often include discussions about censorship, for example, and either side has to defend its position through logical argument, with the goal of establishing first principles. I would add that for the sake of a good argument along these lines, I often play devil’s advocate, sometimes even switching sides within the same seminar (this has the helpful effect of leaving students slightly unsure what my personal position might be, which is good because my goal isn’t to ‘convert’ them to my own view, but to teach them to think about the underlying issues and learn to argue a position).

    But with a view founded on religious belief, the underlying defence isn’t ultimately one grounded in even an attempt at logic, is it? It’s about faith, so at some point in the discussion each side has to declare that they believe something to be true regardless of evidence. This is surely something which separates theology from other disciplines in a really profound way.

  5. Angelo Says:

    The Illinois professor was teaching a course on Catholicism and rightly claimed that according to the Catholic Church homosexual acts (not homosexuality) are immoral. “My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches,” Howell said. “I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I’m teaching and they’ll never be judged on that.”

    • wendymr Says:

      Well, if that’s an accurate picture of the situation then I don’t see how it’s any different from teaching a course on Marxist thought – though of course there are those in the US who would have a problem with that as well…

  6. John Says:

    On the one hand … on the other … is always a useful device in lectures, with a statement of one’s own views outside the lecture hall to students who you think can handle them. Respect and humility all round is the key for lecturers, I think. Students should have more freedom to prosleytize than lecturers. On religion, if you do want to encourage critical thinking, a discussion of Hinduism often has the desired effect.


  7. I suppose what struck me about this case – if, as Wendy points out, it has been correctly reported – is that he seemed to be doing what I always thought was right: to declare your own bias and prejudice so that students can factor this in to their assessment of what the lecturer says. It seems to me that to do so is not only compatible with academic freedom, it is good practice.

  8. Oisín Says:

    It’s important to note two things:
    1. He was accurately describing the Catholic church’s official position on homosexuality.
    2. He was teaching in the Department of Religion, so the context of his statement was appropriate.

    It may not be entirely appropriate to bring up the Catholic church’s position on homosexuality in a chemistry lecture, but in a theological lecture or anything to do with Catholicism it is clearly relevant.

    This seems to come into that grey area where statements are deemed to be offensive in the politically correct sense of the word and the university carried out a kneejerk reaction because they know that complaints of a “PC” nature can be damaging.
    Personally I don’t see a basis in the complaint, but then I was not present at the lecture so perhaps he made his point in a very offensive way.


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