The Course of Reason

Strange Communion: Why UI Atheists Helped Save a Catholic Demagog

August 7, 2010

Theists and atheists united in the struggle for academic freedom.

Cold Reception

February 9th, 2010 was a dismal night for University of Illinois atheists. We watched a cold-ridden John Loftus handily bested and ridiculed by smug Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza. We lost and everyone knew it. Even though D'Souza, as usual, was style over substance, the dejection was palpable. However, this is a very narrow view and perhaps misses the point. Hundreds of students had trudged through bitter cold and snowfall of the afternoon to come and see religion on the public debate table. There was excitement in the air. Any given Sunday you can win or lose, but the game is always worth playing. Competition is good for ideas and we must test our mettle in the arena of thought; we must inspire the crowd, too.

This is why I made a point of meeting Dr. Kenneth Howell after the debate ended. There would have been no debate without Howell and Phil Ferguson of Champaign-Urbana Freethinkers. Dr. Howell had brought D'Souza and his organization had contributed more than a little of the money. In our brief conversation I thanked him for his efforts and asserted my commitment to increasing the quantity and quality of public discourse on campus about religion and other topics. For such a large campus (40,000 students) there is surprisingly little discussion. Dr. Howell agreed wholeheartedly and expounded on his fear of the erosion of free discourse on campuses such as ours. He invited us to speak to Christians, though we had no time that semester for more engagements.

As the semester ended I began planning the next big debate and discussions with Dr. Howell, who was as good as his word. In planning he was always interested in us getting knowledgeable, articulate speakers on both sides. He always asked how we could use a large debate to stimulate more wide-scale discussions on campus. It was about this time that I was discovering a catholic religious studies professor was the biggest proponent of critical debate on campus that he was fired- for bigotry. Cue head-splosion.

Dr. Howell is far from blameless. He authored an email that provoked a student who wasn't even in his class to complain to the university administration. (I wonder why he stopped there, as opposed to emailing President Obama, the President of the ACLU, and Lord Krishna directly.) Dr. Howell made several errors in tone and exceeded professional bounds in trying to explain catholic moral thought on homosexuality. This deserves a reprimand and not a pink slip for two reasons. One, many professors in the liberal arts tell their students exactly how they are supposed to think about sexuality, gender, and culture and even force them to pass exams based on their agreement with purely political points of view. I do not condone it, but no one is losing his or her job for it. Secondly, if a student left Dr. Howell's class with the impression that Catholics have backward, ignorant views on homosexuality I'd say they got their Intro to Catholic Thought money's worth.


Hate speech is the slur du jour: a one-size-fits-all pejorative for anyone uncouth enough to live too far from the island of your own paradigm. At least two separate events led to allegations of hate speech against me and my secularist student group in the last semester. First, when we protested the Catholics themselves, and again when we drew the Prophet Muhammad. If we're going to assert our right to publicly protest in ways that cannot help but deeply offend some individuals, then we must assert the same right for everyone else. His freedom and ours is the same thing. We would be the grandest and saddest hypocrites not to stand up for Dr. Howell. To this end I wrote a letter to our Chancellor which included the following:

[...] [Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers] is very concerned with the educational climate of the university. More than any other part of a country, the university should enjoy the protected free exchange of ideas. No one should ever be squelched on a campus for the content of their sincere beliefs alone. No one should ever self-censor in fear of offending a dominant ideology. Tolerance and pluralism shouldn't mean we only have to tolerate specially designated minorities. If we accommodate minorities, we must also accommodate unpopular larger groups lest we sacrifice any claim to true equality. Who will next be silenced?

Following the backlash from students, the media and alumni the university has agreed to reinstate Dr. Howell with one important change. Dr. Howell's salary had been paid by the Diocese of Peoria and not the university as part of a deal that was decades old. As part of reinstatement the university will now be paying the tab. This has upset Catholics while assuaging the concerns of secularists. Catholics fear losing control of the subject matter that is a description of their own dogma. Secularists fear that Catholic-funded and controlled professors will permit religious bias over the curriculum at a public university. While I find the catholic impulse to protect their academic interests utterly reasonable, church funds for public courses is anachronistic. It looks bad, whether or not it is. UI offers classes in Judaism, Islam and Christianity without any of them being paid for by those respective sects. For Dr. Howell it also means no reasonable argument for favoritism can be supported on the basis of who signs his checks and that is a good thing for all concerned.

FIRE Alarm
Dr. Howell's reinstatement is a huge free speech win on a campus in desperate need of them. FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is an academic freedom watchdog group that maintains ratings on the relative climate of colleges in the nation. UIUC has a red light, the worst speech code rating, which according to the website means UIUC "has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts free speech." FIRE's web page on UIUC documents our less-than-constitutional speech codes and history of campus hostility to free speech. The details are without the scope of this writing but some entries are genuinely shocking.

The Way Forward
There is a very real chance the administration is merely delaying the termination of Dr. Howell. He is an adjunct professor with no contract. No justification is required in order to simply not hire him for another semester. This drives home the importance of keeping the community engaged on matters of academic freedom, of not permitting any of this to be swept under the rug and forgotten later on. The dialog must be maintained and we will maintain it. Finally, we must always remember to come to the aid even of our most ardent cultural opponents when they face political privations we would not ourselves tolerate. One's integrity should demand it, and it does not hurt to cultivate allies who will stand by us when our fortunes reverse.





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