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Let's Compare Ball State's Eric Hedin to a Preachy Atheist Professor, David Barash

Ball State University's student newspaper, The Daily News, interviewed a student who took Eric Hedin's astronomy class a couple of years back. Professor Hedin, you'll recall, is currently under fire for using texts favorable to intelligent design in a course without ritually condemning ID. First Amendment enforcer Jerry Coyne jumps on the student's comments as "telling." From the student newspaper:

Fifth-year senior criminology major Jake Owens said he was in Hedin’s astronomy 100 class in the Fall Semester of 2011 and that he wasn’t bothered when Hedin brought up religion.

“He brought it up a lot when he would get into the constellations and how amazing the universe was,” he said. “He didn’t bring it up, obviously, when he was going into the scientific aspects.”

But Owens, who identified himself as a Christian, said Hedin did not open religion up to discussion in his class.

“I hate to say it, but it was more of a preaching type of thing,” Owens said. “It wasn’t like he said it and then opened it up to say, ‘Does anybody else have an opinion on this?’ If I remember correctly, some people did say things, whether they agreed or disagreed, but he didn’t really open it up for discussion.”

Coyne observes, "Apparently, contrary to Hedin’s [department] chair, there wasn’t much 'open discussion' about religion in the class."

If this were all we knew about Hedin as a teacher, what would we conclude? First, that he keeps religion out of his discussion of the science per se. That's good. Second, that he enthusiastically conveys his wonder at the universe sometimes in religious terms and does not put this up for discussion in the class. Which also seems appropriate -- that is, not throwing religion up for a free-for-all conversation in the middle of his teaching -- since it's a science class. Anyone who thinks this is somehow out of line with the way professors operate hasn't spent much time in college classrooms.

Sharing views not strictly germane to the class -- including on religion and politics -- is hardly unusual in a university classroom setting. It's closer to being the norm. What bothers Jerry Coyne and his comrades with the Freedom from Religion Foundation is that Hedin shares views that are friendly to religion, rather than dismissive of it.

Yes, Eric Hedin teaches at a state university. But I'm familiar with another such public institution, here in Seattle: the University of Washington (which coincidentally is where Hedin received his PhD). They've got a colorful character there, an evolutionary psychologist called David Barash. I've never met him, but I have written in response to some of his public remarks. Let's take a look at Dr. Barash.

He's an atheist. Like Eric Hedin, he shares his religious views in his science classroom. And like Dr. Hedin, and unlike Jerry Coyne, he is reviewed at Rate My Professors. I don't mean to pick on Barash. I have no doubt there are many, many more exactly like him. He just comes to mind conveniently because he's local and because I was already familiar with some of his opinions.

With 18 ratings compared to Hedin's 17, Barash gets a lower overall score -- 3.8 compared to Hedin's 4.2 -- but it sounds like he's at least as outspoken. Says one student, who notes that the class is really more about evolution than about psychology (emphasis added):

He is definitely an atheist and has an agenda to push, but he has some great points and is overall interesting.

Another:

The class is completely ridiculous! He doesn't even know what he is talking about and seems to make up random facts as he goes along to fit his so called "theory" of how humans came to be. Does not have any sympathy for any other beliefs and tries to throw dirt on those who believe in anything other than his "marvelous" theories.

Another:

He has a clear agenda to push, as he's always rambling off topic about how biology proves that God doesn't exist and requires his books as reading but are useless.

Another:

Don't get your panties in a knot just because you're a religious fundamentalist -- if you can't help but get offended, this class isn't for you, but the prof is amusing, non-aggressive, but definitely opinionated (listed as dangerous by conservatives).

So taking these reviews at face value, we find about Barash that he "pushes" an "agenda" on behalf of his own atheism, "always rambling off topic about how biology proves that God doesn't exist," while "throwing dirt" on anyone who disagrees with his views on (apparently) human origins. Some students don't mind this, while others do mind.

Do I simply accept the truth of these reviews? No, of course not. But they are precisely as credible, no more and no less, as the reviews of Eric Hedin's teaching.

Coyne sparked this whole controversy by accusing Hedin of violating the First Amendment, which forbids the government from "establishing" religion or "prohibiting" its "free exercise." To any objective, fair-minded person, it should be obvious that neither Hedin nor Barash falls afoul of the Constitution, despite both teaching at state universities. But if Hedin oversteps the law, then surely Barash does too -- along with all the other legions of professors at public institutions who bring their own not-strictly-pertinent views on divisive topics into their teaching.

What, you've never heard of a professor at a state university who delights in bashing religion, Republicans, the wealthy, etc., more than he seems to enjoy talking about the subject he's actually paid to teach? If you're going to go after Hedin, you must, to be fair, go after all of them too.

What do you say, Jerry Coyne? Don't hold your breath for Dr. Coyne to answer a serious challenge. What about you, Freedom from Religion Foundation? I continue to be amazed and appalled that Ball State's administration is taking the rabidly atheist FFRF's absurd complaint seriously.