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When Fundamentalists Clash: Creationism Collides With Scientism At WHOI

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On December 7th, Beth Daley of the Boston Globe reported on a lawsuit filed against Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) by former employee Nathaniel Abraham, who was terminated from a post-doctoral research position in December, 2004. In June, 2006, Abraham filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, asserting that he had been unlawfully fired by his supervisor, Woods Hole senior scientist Mark E. Hahn, because he expressed a disbelief in the theory of evolution.

In April 2007, the Commission ruled that “there was insufficient probable cause to find that Hahn and Woods Hole engaged in unlawful discriminatory practices.” Abraham subsequently enlisted the assistance of David C. Gibbs III of the Christian Law Association, a Seminole, Florida group that offers pro bono representation to “Bible-believing churches and Christians who are experiencing legal difficulty in practicing their religious faith.” He is seeking $500,000 in compensation for violation of his civil rights.

As with all such cases, this one is made up of unsubstantiated, and unverifiable, claims and counter-claims concerning what was said off the record, what was “understood” between parties at any given time, and so forth. In the interests of a rational approach, let’s look only at the facts we know.

According to his complaint filed on November 29, 2007 in U.S. District Court in Boston, Abraham replied to a job posting. He was hired, in March, 2004, because of “his exceptional qualifications as a zebrafish developmental biologist and specific expertise in programmed cell death,” an esoteric specialization that the grant position defined precisely.

Neither the job posting, the grant parameters, nor the subject under research explicitly required “acceptance, or application of, the theory of evolution as scientific fact.” Most relevant to Abraham’s case is Item 17 in the complaint: “Plaintiff at all times, before his employment began helping to design and construct the lab, and during his employment, performed exemplary work and was often praised and commended by Defendant Hahn and other staff members for the quality of his research, commitment and scientific presentations.”

This is the critical element of the case, disregarding all furor over just what ideological disagreements may be frothing on the surface. Abraham claims that there were no criticisms of his work whatsoever until he mentioned in a casual conversation that he did not believe in evolution. He was consequently called in for a meeting with his supervisor, Mark Hahn. Abraham says that after this point, he was pressured to change his beliefs – not his work, which up to then had been praised, but his beliefs.

Abraham insisted he would conform to the letter, if not the spirit, of the requirements of the grant, by considering evolution theoretically in his research analysis. He offered to do extra work to compensate if this was insufficient. Nevertheless, Abraham says that he experienced “continued religious discrimination, intimidation and unsuccessful attempts to force [his] resignation” before he was finally fired.

Although the complaint is a notarized statement to the court, it may or may not present an accurate and complete picture of what really happened. The only documentation we’re given to support Mark Hahn’s side is a quotation from Abraham’s termination letter, in which Hahn wrote, “You have indicated that you do not recognize the concept of biological evolution and you would not agree to include a full discussion of the evolutionary implications and interpretations of our research in any co-authored publications resulting from this work…This position is incompatible with the work as proposed to NIH and with my own vision of how it should be carried out and interpreted.”

This letter, written to defend Abraham’s termination, may or may not accurately represent what Abraham actually said in private to Mark Hahn.

If Abraham’s complaint is factual, then the real issue has nothing to do with science, evolution, creationism, or the price of beans in China. The real issue is that an employee who applied for a position and was hired on the basis of honestly stated information by both sides and who for eight months performed “exemplary” work earning him praise from supervisors and colleagues was suddenly subjected to pressure and finally terminated when he revealed a certain religious belief.

He wasn’t accused of falsifying data, lying about his background and credentials, or acting against the interests of WHOI. He simply admitted to holding a belief – one that had not, evidently, adversely affected his work up to that moment.

Obviously, there are hundreds of unanswered questions about the entire situation. Abraham’s life was heavily impacted by his termination, and he wants some satisfaction. WHOI wants to cover its own behind. All personal testimony is biased. The only way to be certain what really happened would be to send a spycam through a time warp to 2004. Any assumptions beyond the documented events are unsupportable.

This case, in just six days, has attracted immense attention in the blogosphere, especially science blogs. It’s being discussed in other countries. When I read the science blog articles and the hundreds of comments they’ve provoked, I was struck by the scathing assumptions and abusive language being used by the bloggers and commentators.

Infantile name-calling seems to be the rule. “Moron,” “douchebag,” and “slackjaw” are the mildest of them. Posters claim that Abraham is arguing for “intelligent design” (it’s never mentioned), that Abraham deserved to be fired “for refusing to do his job” (he seems to have done his job very well for eight months), and that he “ought to have known he’d have to accept evolution to work in biology” (actually, he only needs to understand the principles of the theory to discuss it intelligently, not accept them).

The derision and contempt expressed by almost all the science bloggers and commentators, all of whom clearly pride themselves on their “rationalism,” is downright embarrassing to read, but it’s not surprising. What happened at Woods Hole in 2004 appears to be something that happens constantly in the United States: a fatal clash between two fundamentalist ideologies.

The word “fundamentalist” is usually applied to a certain minority of Christian, but fundamentalism has nothing to do with specific beliefs. It’s an attitude toward the belief system or ideology that a person holds. Every belief system and every ideology — religious, political, or philosophical — has its fundamentalists. Not all of them are extremists, although extremists by definition are always fundamentalist.

There are three identifying characteristics of fundamentalist thinking:

Absolutism
The fundamentalist doesn’t consider his or her belief system to be a belief system – that is, an arbitrary way of structuring sensory input, organizing abstract thought, and interacting with the world and other minds. To the fundamentalist, his or her ideology is simply “the Truth,” or “reality,” or “the way things are,” or “what the Bible says.”

Parts of this reality may be unknown, but the system as a whole is absolute and beyond question – even beyond discussion. The fundamentalist’s attachment to his or her belief system is irrational, emotional, and visceral. He or she may think it’s a reasoned choice, but reason has nothing to do with fundamentalism.

Hostility to other points of view
Fundamentalists can’t tolerate the fact that other belief systems even exist, let alone consider them rationally. When a fundamentalist is faced with a different point of view, he or she reacts by feeling threatened and deeply offended. Fundamentalists can’t argue reasonably. They immediately resort to ridicule, verbal abuse, name-calling, derision, and logical fallacies by the truckload (the straw man argument is a common tactic).

Since they’re convinced that they’re the only ones who are right, and everyone else is not only wrong, but pernicious, dangerous, and a virulent threat to tender young minds, any means of discrediting their opponent is defensible, no matter how underhanded.

Defense of the belief system at all costs
Fundamentalists will never compromise, “agree to disagree,” or put another human being’s welfare ahead of their belief system. Anyone who disagrees with the belief system threatens it, and anyone who threatens it deserves whatever consequences they suffer.

Execution, exorcism, homelessness, or unemployment – they asked for it when they challenged the fundamentalist’s belief system, and the fundamentalist feels no remorse and no sympathy. As far as the fundamentalist is concerned, the entire order of society and the universe is at risk when people don’t conform to the “right way.”

Pseudoscience and Satanism, secular humanism and creationism, rich white men and welfare queens – it’s a wonder civilization survives at all, we’re so infested with enemies ruthlessly trying to destroy it. “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” could be the mantra of every fundamentalist.

Non-religious people are fond of pointing out the similarities between Islamic extremists and fundamentalist Christians, saying that each group demonizes the other without realizing how alike they really are, but non-religious fundamentalists are just as similar to religious ones. They also don’t recognize their own mirror images because the belief system itself blinds them.

There are scientistic fundamentalists, and they think and behave exactly like religious extremists. They’re just as irrationally attached to their point of view, just as absolutist, just as unable to consider opposing views calmly and reasonably, and just as sure that civilization and the planet can’t survive unless their version of reality is the prevailing one.

Fortunately, scientistic fundamentalists are just as small a minority among “secular” and scientifically trained persons as religious extremists are among people of any given faith. The vast majority of us have far more tolerance for ambiguity and far more mental flexibility. We don’t need the false comfort of a rigid, absolute reality grid.

I find it plausible that a Christian fundamentalist who worked for a scientistic fundamentalist could suffer discrimination and harassment if he mentioned his beliefs to his superiors. I don’t know if that’s what really happened to Nathaniel Abraham at WHOI in 2004. Taking his version of events at face value, it sounds possible, but Mark Hahn may have a whole other side to the story – and that’s the point.

The truly rational response to this news item is, “We don’t know, and we can never know. This is between the two of them.” That’s something that fundamentalists are unable to say. When fundamentalisms collide, they blast more dust, smoke, and ash into the air than a volcanic eruption.

More moderate minds need to remember that the smoke screen is all there is. It’s easy to get caught up in the hyperbole and hysteria of fundamentalists (of any kind). Fear and adrenaline is what keeps them going. By focusing on external threats, they never have to examine the illogic of their own inner attitudes. All wars are begun by fundamentalists. By highlighting this dynamic in a small way, cases like Nathaniel Abraham’s can serve as reality checks for the rest of us.

About Vyrdolak

Inanna Arthen (Vyrdolak) is an artist, speaker and author of The Vampires of New England Series (http://vampiresofnewengland.com): Mortal Touch (2007), The Longer the Fall (2010), and All the Shadows of the Rainbow (2013). Book 4 is currently in progress. Inanna is a lifelong scholar of vampire folklore, fiction and fact, and runs By Light Unseen Media (http://bylightunseenmedia.com), an independent press dedicated to publishing vampire fiction and nonfiction. She is a member of Broad Universe, New England Horror Writers, Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE). She holds an M.Div degree from Harvard and is an outspoken advocate for the Pagan and LGBT communities. She is minister of the Unitarian-Unitarian Church of Winchendon, MA.
  • http://rileycentral.net Damien

    Thanks for writing and publishing this. I have to say that I am a Christian but not a fundamentalist. I respect the study of science and it complements my world-view. I have run across vehement fundamental scientists (usually professed atheists) and they have less ground in fact than most cults who knock on my doors.

    Thanks again for the article.

  • duane

    Good writeup, Inanna. Interesting case.

    From what you’ve included here, I think the issue boils down to Hahn’s statement:

    “You have indicated that you do not recognize the concept of biological evolution and you would not agree to include a full discussion of the evolutionary implications and interpretations of our research in any co-authored publications resulting from this work…”

    Assuming that is an accurate statement…

    If a scientist refuses to publish research and discuss it in the context of a theory upon which research at the institute is conducted, that is grounds for dismissal. That part of the story is cut and dried.

    Take an analogous example: Fred is a car salesman for Ford. He is also an environmentalist. He persuades customers to go shop at Honda, instead of pushing Fords. He would be fired. It would be disingenuous of Fred to claim that he was fired for his philosophical beliefs.

    It does come down to funding at WHOI. It’s a publish or perish world, and if Abraham won’t publish in a manner that highlights the full relevance of the work to modern scientific theories, he can be replaced. The religious philosophy is not the reason for the dismissal, it’s the refusal to follow through.

    Whether or not he was ridiculed or cajoled or shunned by his peers and supervisors gets into different (and uglier) issues. That’s all workplace relations and politics. Everyone suffers in one way or another. Womanizers, bigots, drinkers, Republicans, Mormons, nerds, sluts, bad dressers, Democrats, atheists, slobs, fashion plates, the overweight, the vain, illiterates, snobs, the overly sensitive, the brash — all the crap by which people are judged — lives in the workplace, everywhere, all the time.

    Being disliked and/or marginalized at the personal level is not grounds for being fired, but that seems not to be the case here.

  • http://bylightunseenmedia.com Inanna/Vyrdolak

    Damien–thanks for your comment. I’m not a Christian, or a trained scientist (although I have some scientific training, which isn’t the same thing). But I find irrational hyperbole and rigid thinking distressing in any context. There are Neo-Pagan fundamentalists and libertarian fundamentalists and feminist fundamentalists…you name it. But the two groups who seem to have the largest, and most harmful, influence at the moment are the Christian and the scientistic fundamentalists. Unfortunately, many people seem to feel they have to defend the causes of whichever group they sympathize with, and that’s how wars get started.

    Duane: Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree: the lawsuit does boil down to Mark Hahn’s statements in the termination letter. If Hahn’s statement is true, then Abraham’s termination is defensible. But Abraham claims he did not refuse to do any work asked of him. It’s one man’s word against the other’s, which is usually what leads to a lawsuit.

    Your analogy is only apt if Abraham refused to conform to expectations. If that car salesman sincerely believed that Hondas are superior and more ethical cars to drive, yet sold Fords to customers to the best of his ability, he should not be fired for holding an opinion. He should be fired for underperforming, or sabotaging his employer, no matter what his motive, but his opinion is his right. To give a non-hypothetical example: I worked for ten years for a domestic violence shelter. I held, and openly expressed, many strong opinions about domestic violence that were at sharp variance with the “party line.” Nevertheless, I was considered a valuable employee (albeit a gadfly) because despite my views, I followed policies and procedures and served the clients to the best of my ability.

    Unfortunately, confidentiality issues probably prevent Mark Hahn and WHOI from discussing the situation in more detail. I know there is a whole other side to the story that we’re not hearing.

  • Tim

    Get the facts straight Inanna!

    The job posting states: “Results will be interpreted within the context of the evolutionary relationships among the genes and species under study.”

    The “subject under research” is developmental biology — which is inextricably linked to evolutionary biology these days.

    I am sick to death of ignorant pundits throwing around “fundamentalists” whenever REAL scientists demand that REAL science go on in science labs. I would suggest you stick to vampires and other ephemera, as you clearly know bugger-all about science.De

  • http://bylightunseenmedia.com Inanna/Vyrdolak

    Thanks for sharing, Tim! You’ve demonstrated my point admirably.

  • http://www.my-virtual-income.com Christopher Rose

    Inanna, your response to Tim shows that it is in fact you that is the fundamentalist and that you clearly have an agenda in writing this article in the first place. Apart from the first half of his last sentence, his comment was entirely accurate and factual.

  • http://bylightunseenmedia.com Inanna/Vyrdolak

    “An agenda?” Not at all. I’m very careful not to take either side, and I say repeatedly that no outside party can possibly know what really happened based on how little information is available. I’m just discussing the social/psychological issues that relate to the lawsuit, as I see them. I thought it was an interesting story that might get readers thinking, it was timely, and I needed a topic for this week’s article because I haven’t finished a review book yet. So much for my agenda.

    Characterizing and attacking the speaker while ignoring the matter being discussed is the informal logical fallacy, Ad Hominem, and typically the first response of any type of fundamentalist to something he or she doesn’t like hearing. Of course, non-fundamentalists tend to use it, too. Reasonable thought about charged issues is not a common phenomenon. You just need to read blog comments to infer that conclusion!