June 18, 2008

Religious Exemption to Critical Thinking for Christian College Students

classroomAccording to the Center for Inquiry, Christian extremists are claiming success in intimidating college professors who have the nerve to expect their students to learn reality-based information. The right-wing American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) is bragging that they intervened to prevent a Christian student at Suffolk County Community College from receiving a failing grade from a professor who allegedly sought to penalize her because of her religious beliefs. As we learn more about the details of this case, I am convinced that anyone who values education should be alarmed.

According to the ACLJ, they were victorious in protecting the religious freedom of a Christian student of Suffolk County Community College philosophy professor, Dr. Philip Pecorino. They claim that a letter sent by one of their attorneys to the college prevented the student from receiving a failing grade from Dr. Pecorino. They insist that Dr. Pecorino was going to assign a failing grade to penalize a student for her Christian beliefs.

The Council for Secular Humanism has called these allegations baseless.

"The ACLJ's spurious claim of a legal 'victory' is just slightly less outrageous than its brazen attempt to intimidate a philosophy professor from doing his job—which is to get students to think critically," commented Ronald A. Lindsay, Executive Director of the Council of Secular Humanism, who has talked to the allegedly biased professor. "As far as I can tell," observed Lindsay, "the ACLJ's letter accomplished nothing other than providing an excuse for soliciting donations."
Dr. Pecorino's academic credentials and reputation among the approximately 13,000 students he has taught over 36 years certainly do not seem to fit the ACLJ's claims.
Indeed, after the ACLJ made its baseless accusations, students in Pecorino's class, including religious students, defended him, stating that he does not pass judgment on students because of their beliefs, but simply challenges them to examine all beliefs critically, including their own.
Evidently, most of Dr. Pecorino's students are mature enough to handle this. That one Christian was not tells us more about her and the nature of her delusion than it does about her professor.
"I would not be doing my job as a philosophy professor," explained Pecorino, "if I did not require students to think about their beliefs and provide reasons in support of their beliefs— not my beliefs or anyone else's beliefs. Critical examination of beliefs, including one's own beliefs, and training in reasoning are among the primary objectives of a philosophy course, and of a liberal education in general. Only professors who are negligent or indifferent allow students to earn good grades simply by providing as a reason for an assertion 'well, this is what I believe'."
Indeed. In case the reason why we should all be deeply concerned about this sort of thing is not already apparent, it has to do with the ACLJ's claim that Christian students deserve to be exempt from a college critical thinking requirement.
As Dr. Pecorino observes, "Essentially, the ACLJ is claiming a religious exemption from the obligation of students in public colleges to engage in critical thinking, and this claim strikes at the core of higher education. If permitted to go unchallenged, this claim will weaken our democratic and pluralistic society."
When extremists groups such as the ACLJ attempt to weaken education, it is good to see that organizations such as the Center for Inquiry and Council for Secular Humanism are there to oppose them. They deserve our thanks and support.

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