20 Nov 2010

Canadian academics debate whether academic freedom exists in faith-based universities

MACLEAN'S Magazine - Canada January 25, 2010

The End of the Religious University?

By Todd Pettigrew

The debate over Trinity Western University is merely a skirmish in a long war. A war that traditional religion is bound to lose.

I have been following with great interest the debate stirred up recently about the nature of Trinity Western University and its statement of faith required of all instructors. [see article below] Much of this has spiralled off into debates over the nature of absolutist vs relativist belief and whether there is really such a thing as secular and so on. But I think the issue is, at heart, a simple one.

A university’s main goal should be the rational pursuit of knowledge and truth. Traditional religion, premised as it is on faith and revelation, is incompatible with that goal.

Take, for example, Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I am teaching to my introductory literature students right now. Paradise Lost attempts a defence of God’s justice in the light of evil and suffering in the world. This, of course, is a knotty issue and one that philosophers have struggled with over the centuries, and any decent presentation of Paradise Lost must at least acknowledge the complexity of the philosophical problems that the poem raises. If evil exists in the world because humanity — in the form of Adam and Eve — have brought it upon themselves, why is there so much evil? Why are children made to suffer in this world without having done anything wrong? For that matter, why should any humans suffer for the crimes committed by their ancestors? There may be good answers to these questions, but any responsible professor will have to acknowledge that the problem of evil may pose insurmountable difficulties to traditional theism. But how can the English professors at TWU propose such a possibility if they are committed to traditional Christianity “without reservation” as their statement of faith requires?

Let me put it another way. Imagine that you are a student and you have written a paper and received a low grade on it. You go to your professor and the following conversation ensues:

YOU: I believe I deserve a higher grade on this paper.

PROF: Okay. Why is that?

YOU: Well, that may be, but I felt inspired to write what I did. I really felt that God was speaking to me when I wrote that paper.

PROF: Hmm… that’s strange. Because I really felt that God was speaking to me and told me to give you an F.

YOU: But I have faith in this paper.

PROF: And I have faith in my red pen.

The above is absurd, of course, because there can be no resolution to this disagreement. How can you argue about belief when the only reason for the belief is the belief itself. The only real standard for university work must be the conventions of reasoned scholarship. Did the paper conform to the standards of the discipline? Did it cite appropriate evidence? Were its arguments logical? Was it clearly expressed?

A university based on traditional religion cannot claim to value any of these standards very highly since religion, as it is normally practiced, discounts evidence and reason in favour of the choice to believe, otherwise called faith. Faith, of course, is the right of the believer, and I will always defend the right of citizens of this country to believe what they choose and to express that belief. And I have no objection to any religious group setting up whatever schools or colleges they like (provided they are not funded with public money). But we should hold institutions called “university” to a higher standard.

Eventually, I think, the problem will solve itself. Religious universities will fade away as more and more people feel free to evaluate traditional religion with an even hand and find that, at its heart, its claims are nonsense. Christianity is very quickly going the way of Greek mythology, becoming a series of shared stories embodying potentially valuable lessons, but not an account of the world to be taken literally. Does anybody really believe that Noah saved all the animals of the world on the Ark? Or that Joshua made the sun stop in the sky? Most sensible Christians that I know are not dogmatic or evangelistic; but then, Milton would have considered them atheists. Even devoted academic Christians are fast becoming near-atheists, increasingly seeing the Bible as a series of metaphors and fables, and God as merely an underlying force, rather than a personal being.

No doubt a few old-fashioned die-hards will hang on for a while yet, maybe centuries yet, but the day will come when TWU’s statement of faith won’t matter a bit. Because no one in their right mind will sign it.

This article was found at:



MACLEAN'S Magazine - Canada January 21, 2010

Academic Freedom at Trinity Western?

by Erin Millar and Ben Coli

CAUT attacks Christian "faith test" for profs.

By most accounts, Trinity Western University, located in the Vancouver suburb Langley, is a respected member of the Canadian university community. It’s long enjoyed the rubber stamp of approval that is being a member of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, an organization that fills the vacuum created by Canada’s lack of formal university accreditation. In 2004, the provincial government exempted the school from “detailed reviews of its degree programs,” making Trinity Western the fourth member of an elite club of west coast universities alongside the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University. In fact, having been opened in 1962, the school is one year older than UVic. Trinity Western is also home to three research chairs and boasts over $1 million in annual research funding, impressive for a relatively small institution.

Despite Trinity Western University’s (TWU) near universal acceptance as a full-fledged university, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT)—a union of sorts, representing faculty associations across the county, that has fought sometimes controversial fights over academic freedom since 1951—placed TWU on its blacklist of universities that violate academic freedom in October, effectively calling into question the school’s dedication to the very heart of what it is to be a university. According to a CAUT report, because TWU—which describes itself as “a faith-based institution, one inspired by Christ’s life and guided by his teachings”—submits its faculty to what CAUT calls a “faith test,” it is violating academic freedom.

The controversial faith test consists of a “Statement of Faith” that professors are required to sign annually and that outlines the “philosophical framework to which all faculty, staff and administration are committed without reservation.” It includes a list of convictions to which professors must assert to subscribe, including belief in the bible, in one infinitely perfect god, that Jesus Christ was a real man, and in “the bodily resurrection of the dead; of the believer to everlasting blessedness and joy with the Lord, of the unbeliever to judgment and everlasting conscious punishment.”

To CAUT, the Statement of Faith clearly demonstrates that TWU does not accept the standard definition of academic freedom. They consider universities to have violated academic freedom if they “seek to ensure an ideologically or religiously homogeneous academic staff,” which clearly includes TWU.

James Turk, executive director of CAUT, says that his organization is only sharing with the world what TWU is, not outright denying their right to existence as a university. Yet, Jonathan Raymond, TWU president, is taking CAUT’s actions very seriously. “Such an allegation can easily damage the reputation of a university and place a cloud over the scholarship of its faculty,” Raymond wrote in a recent response to CAUT’s report.

The whole dispute comes down to the definition of a cornerstone of the modern university: academic freedom. In Raymond’s view, TWU’s definition is comfortably mainstream, and that it is possible to have investigation and teaching within the context of a stated perspective. The academic calendar at TWU goes so far as to reject a definition of academic freedom that denies an established perspective: “Trinity Western University rejects as incompatible with human nature and relevational theism a definition of academic freedom which arbitrarily and exclusively requires pluralism without commitment, denies the existence of any fixed points of reference, maximizes the quest for truth to the extent of assuming it is never knowable, and implies an absolute freedom from moral and religious responsibility to its community.” In other words, the university rejects relativism, which many academics would say is incompatible with the primary role of a university.

“When a person is hired, all universities make judgments in terms of hiring them to be consistent with the mission of the institution,” Raymond said in an interview with Maclean’s. “Once they’re hired, the institution is absolutely obligated to protect their academic freedom. But all universities have criterion for gathering a scholarly community in support of their mission.” So TWU differs in that its mission is to be a Christian university, but once that community of like-minded academics is established, free inquiry can thrive.

So can true academic freedom exist at a Christian university? Can real debate happen within an assumed set of values? CAUT would say no. The conventional understanding of academic freedom, according to CAUT’s policy, is “the right, without restriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion; freedom in carrying out research… [emphasis theirs]” According to this view of academic freedom, accepting anything as absolute truth without reservation runs counter to the pursuit of knowledge faculty engage in.

The core issue, according to Turk, is not that Christian beliefs are part of the mission of the university, but that those beliefs appear to come before everything else. The report points to TWU’s own claims of being a “disciple-making academic community” and “an arm of the Church” where “all teaching, learning, thinking, and scholarship take place under the direction of the Bible, the wholly authoritative and truthful Word of God.”

“No university should be the arm of any institution,” Turk said. “A university shouldn’t be the arm of the Church or the arm of state or the arm of a special interest group. The very nature of a university should not be to make disciples.”

But although CAUT argues that TWU’s understanding of academic freedom and the role of a university are outside the norm, TWU throws that accusation right back, saying that CAUT’s definition is the abnormal one. “Why do I say it’s marginal?” asks Raymond, explaining that the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) has a very different definition of academic freedom. “Here’s the difference: in the AUCC, and in the counterpart institutions down in the States, academic freedom has to be superintended and worked out within the autonomy of a given university. CAUT’s definition ignores the idea of autonomy.”

Turk, on the other hand, says that the AUCC should rethink TWU’s membership. “AUCC simply has not respected its own rules in admitting Trinity Western,” he said. “It has not upheld its own commitment to academic freedom.”

Glen A. Jones, Ontario Research Chair on post-secondary education policy and associate dean at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, says that while CAUT’s definition is much closer to the traditional Canadian understanding of academic freedom, TWU is right to point to the United States. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP)—which is similar to CAUT—is the go-to organization for American court cases dealing with academic freedom. In its famous declaration of academic freedom, AAUP was forced to include an opt out accepting limitations of academic freedom at religious institutions as long as they were laid out at the time of appointment, which TWU clearly does with its Statement of Faith. Nevertheless, Canada’s post-secondary system was built on secular education, Jones said, so limitations on academic freedom are not commonly accepted here.

Raymond points out that CAUT is not responding to any specific complaint of a violation of academic freedom. In fact, he claims, there hasn’t been any such complaint in the university’s entire history. Rather he believes that CAUT is attacking TWU arbitrarily for being a Christian institution. “The CAUT report itself found no occasion of academic freedom [violations] outside the fact that we are a Christian university chartered by the province as such.”

CAUT wasn’t investigating specific complaints, rather the way institutions are structured, Turk says. “It may not be surprising that there are no academic freedom complaints within their restricted definition when they don’t allow anybody in the door who disagrees with them.”

CAUT does indeed appear to be targeting Christian schools, as TWU is certainly not the only one—just the first. Investigations of “faith tests” at other universities are in the works, including the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Crandall University in Moncton (formerly the Atlantic Baptist University) and Redeemer University College in Ancaster.

But one gets the feeling that Turk and CAUT wouldn’t stop with Christian schools. “Academic freedom can’t be bounded by a particular ideology. It would be like a university saying that we’re a Marxist university and unless you’re a Marxist, you can’t teach here.”

This article was found at:



The Guardian - UK February 21, 2006

Academics fight rise of creationism at universities

· More students believe Darwin got it wrong
· Royal Society challenges 'insidious problem'

by Duncan Campbell | The Guardian

A growing number of science students on British campuses and in sixth form colleges are challenging the theory of evolution and arguing that Darwin was wrong. Some are being failed in university exams because they quote sayings from the Bible or Qur'an as scientific fact and at one sixth form college in London most biology students are now thought to be creationists.

Earlier this month Muslim medical students in London distributed leaflets that dismissed Darwin's theories as false. Evangelical Christian students are also increasingly vocal in challenging the notion of evolution.

In the United States there is growing pressure to teach creationism or "intelligent design" in science classes, despite legal rulings against it. Now similar trends in this country have prompted the Royal Society, Britain's leading scientific academy, to confront the issue head on with a talk entitled Why Creationism is Wrong. The award-winning geneticist and author Steve Jones will deliver the lecture and challenge creationists, Christian and Islamic, to argue their case rationally at the society's event in April.

"There is an insidious and growing problem," said Professor Jones, of University College London. "It's a step back from rationality. They (the creationists) don't have a problem with science, they have a problem with argument. And irrationality is a very infectious disease as we see from the United States."

Professor David Read, vice-president and biological sciences secretary of the Royal Society, said that they felt it was essential to address the issue now: "We have asked Steve Jones to deliver his lecture on creationism and evolution because there continues to be controversy over how evolution and other aspects of science are taught in some UK schools, colleges and universities. Our education system should provide access to the knowledge and understanding gained through the scientific method of experiment and observation, such as the theory of evolution through natural selection, and should withstand attempts to withhold or misrepresent this knowledge in order to promote particular beliefs, religious or otherwise."

Leaflets questioning Darwinism were circulated among students at the Guys Hospital site of King's College London this month as part of the Islam Awareness Week, organised by the college's Islamic Society. One member of staff at Guys said that he found it deeply worrying that Darwin was being dismissed by people who would soon be practising as doctors.

The leaflets are produced by the Al-Nasr Trust, a Slough-based charity set up in 1992 with the aim of improving the understanding of Islam. The passage quoted from the Qur'an states: "And God has created every animal from water. Of them there are some that creep on their bellies, some that walk on two legs and some that walk on four. God creates what he wills for verily God has power over all things."

A 21-year-old medical student and member of the Islamic Society, who did not want to be named, said that the Qur'an was clear that man had been created and had not evolved as Darwin suggests. "There is no scientific evidence for it [Darwin's Origin of Species]. It's only a theory. Man is the wonder of God's creation."

He did not feel that a belief in evolution was necessary to study medicine although he added that, if writing about it was necessary for passing an exam, he would do so. "We want to become doctors and dentists, we want to pass our exams." He added that God had not created mankind literally in six days. "It's not six earth days," he said, it could refer to several thousands of years but it had been an act of creation and not evolution.

At another London campus some students have been failed because they have presented creationism as fact. They have been told by their examiners that, while they are entitled to explain both sides of the debate, they cannot present the Bible or Qur'an as scientifically factual if they want to pass exams.

David Rosevear of the Portsmouth-based Creation Science Movement, which supports the idea of creationism, said that there was an increasing interest in the subject among students. "I've got no problem with an all-powerful God producing everything in six days," he said. He said it was an early example of the six-day week. Students taking exams on the subject should not be dogmatic one way or the other. "I tell them - answer the question, it's no good saying it [creationism] is a fact any more than saying evolution is a fact."

A former lecturer in organic chemistry at Portsmouth polytechnic (now university) and ICI research scientist, Dr Rosevear said he had been invited to expound his theories at many colleges and had addressed the Cafe Scientifique, a student science society, at St Andrews university, Fife. "The students clearly came expecting to have a laugh but they found there was much more to it. Our attitude is - teach evolution but mention creationism and let students decide for themselves."

Most of the next generation of medical and science students could well be creationists, according to a biology teacher at a leading London sixth-form college. "The vast majority of my students now believe in creationism," she said, "and these are thinking young people who are able and articulate and not at the dim end at all. They have extensive booklets on creationism which they put in my pigeon-hole ... it's a bit like the southern states of America." Many of them came from Muslim, Pentecostal or Baptist family backgrounds, she said, and were intending to become pharmacists, doctors, geneticists and neuro-scientists.


The doctrine of creationism holds that the origins of humanity and the Earth are recent and divine as related in the book of Genesis. Strict creationists believe Adam and Eve are the mother and father of humanity and God created the Earth in six days. Support for creationism in the UK has traditionally lacked real vigour but in the US a recent poll found 45% of Americans believed God created life some time in the past 10,000 years. Recently American creationists suffered a setback when Ohio's board of education threw out a model biology lesson plan which gave credence to creationism. Not all creationists believe in a strict six-day creation. Current scientific research suggests the universe is 13bn years old and humans are descended from ape-like creatures.

This article was found at:


Reader Comments:

by Scar  - January 30, 2010

I went to a faith-based university here in the UK, pretty much accidentally. I decided to go there because it's a specialist philosophy college, which was my subject of choice. I, however, am not Catholic, or Christian, or anything. It was run by Jesuits.

I dropped out a year or so later: I was constantly having conversations like:
"Your essay is well put together, coherent, consistent, grammatically correct and logical, but I'm going to have to give you 54/100."
"Because you came to the wrong conclusion. You said God might not exist/spelled 'God' with a small 'g'/said X Catholic scholar was misled."
"But I argued it coherently. My conclusion logically followed from my premises."
"Yes, but you're wrong."

...or like this:
"You read the wrong books."
"Pardon me?"
"You read the wrong books."
"I read the suggested reading list and the recommended further reading, and then I found some other books about the same subject and read them to add to my essay."
"Yes, but the extra books you read weren't Catholic. Sorry."

It drove me insane.

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