Or an acceptable criteria for refusing someone a job?
There are some jobs that on their face would seem incompatible with certain types of people. I somehow doubt there are many Amish nuclear engineers.
Over at Boing Boing, Richard Dawkins has a piece which uses the case of Martin Gaskell as a jumping off point to ponder whether it should be okay to consider someone's religious belief, with Dawkins arguing it is relevant in hiring because "it is revealing" about a person.
On the other hand, people "believe" a lot of things, not all of them religious, which a group of officious people at a conference table might find silly or potentially embarrassing. If a computer programmer goes to work & does their job well, should it matter they might go home & pray to Ra, and tell everyone Ra is responsible for the sunshine? If you start down this road, the slope might get very slippery.
For those unfamiliar with the case, Martin Gaskell is an astronomer who studies black holes. He was turned down for a job as director of the University of Kentucky's observatory in 2007. Documents later revealed, that during the job search process, a member of the University of Kentucky's search committee considered Gaskell "breathtakingly above the other applicants." An e-mail written by the chairman of the search committee seems to show the University also considered Gaskell's beliefs as a Christian & the potential embarrassment, particularly with some of his past statements of problems & "unanswered questions" with the Theory of Evolution. A complaint was lodged with UK's Equal Employment Office by a professor involved in interviews of candidates, who thought the process was possibly "unfair and perhaps illegal."
Gaskell decided to sue the University of Kentucky under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In an interview, Gaskell claims he accepts the current consensus on evolution, and was referring to the debate over topics like the "Neutral Theory" of molecular evolution (although, he also cites the book of an "intelligent design" proponent in the interview as well). Gaskell has also put together essays on his personal website that argued for common ground between Christianity & scientific consensus with something akin to "Theistic Evolution."
However, there's no accusation Gaskell ever tried to teach any of this to an astronomy class. Or is there any evidence his work on black holes was biased by his religious beliefs.
Days before the Search Committee recommended someone else for the position, Professor Thomas Troland, Chair of the Committee sent an email with the subject line, "The Gaskell Affair":
"It has become clear to me that there is virtually no way Gaskell will be offered the job despite his qualifications that stand above those of any other applicant. Other reasons will be given for this choice when we meet Tuesday. In the end, however, the real reason why we will not offer him the job is because of his religious beliefs in matters that that are unrelated to astronomy or to any of the duties specified for this position (For example, the job does not involve outreach in biology.)... If Martin were not so superbly qualified, so breathtakingly above the other applicants in background and experience, then our decision would be much simpler. We could easily choose another applicant, and we could content ourselves with the idea that Martin's religious beliefs played little role in our decision. However, this is not the case. As it is, no objective observer could possibly believe that we excluded Martin on any basis other than religious....."
The e-mail in the blockquote above seems like a "smoking gun" that a lawyer would have a field day with at trial. It was announced a week ago the University of Kentucky & Gaskell reached a settlement by which UK admits no wrongdoing & pays Gaskell $125,000 ("roughly the equivalent of the extra money Gaskell would have made if he had held the directorship for two years").
Over at Boing Boing, Richard Dawkins has a piece that uses the case as a jumping off point to discuss the "general principles" of discriminating against a job candidate's beliefs, and whether their religious beliefs should be shielded from consideration. He uses two scenarios to make his argument.
- "A doctor believes in the stork theory of human reproduction, rejecting the sex theory. He applies for a job as an eye surgeon in a teaching hospital, is rejected because of his beliefs, and sues the hospital on grounds of discrimination. His lawyer makes the case that, since he makes no pretence to be an obstetrician, his views on obstetrics are irrelevant to his (breathtakingly superior) ability to operate on eyes and teach ophthalmology."
- "A flat-earther applies for a professorship of geography. He promises to keep his private beliefs to himself, and undertakes to adhere closely to the round earth theory in all his lectures. He is universally agreed to be a brilliant teacher, breathtakingly above the other candidates in his ability to get the (erroneous, in his view) round earth theory across to students."
I offer the following argument. Even if a doctor's belief in the stork theory of reproduction is technically irrelevant to his competence as an eye surgeon, it tells you something about him. It is revealing. It is relevant in a general way to whether we would wish him to treat us or teach us. A patient could reasonably shrink from entrusting her eyes to a doctor whose beliefs (admittedly in the apparently unrelated field of obstetrics) are so cataclysmically disconnected from reality. And a student could reasonably object to being taught geography by a professor who is prepared to take a salary to teach, however brilliantly, what he believes is a lie. I think those are good grounds to impugn his moral character if not his sanity, and a student would be wise to avoid his classes.
But should this all change, if it can be shown that these eccentric beliefs are based upon religion? Should religiously inspired beliefs be privileged, protected against scrutiny, where other beliefs are not? If the eye-doctor's belief in the stork theory, or the geographer's flat-earthism, or the astronomer's belief that Mars is the egg of a mongoose, turned out to be derived directly from a holy book or 'faith tradition', should that weaken our objection? Let's look at a couple more scenarios, real ones this time, not hypothetical.
A senior colleague at Oxford told me of an astronomer who, on religious grounds, believes the universe is less than ten thousand years old. This man holds down a job as a competent cosmological theorist (not at Oxford, I hasten to say). He publishes mathematical papers in learned journals, taking it for granted that the universe is nearly fourteen billion years old and using this assumption in his calculations. He bottles up his personal beliefs so successfully that he is capable of performing calculations that assume an old universe and make a genuine contribution to science. My colleague takes the view that this YEC is entitled to a job as a professor of astronomy, because he keeps his private beliefs to himself while at work. I take the opposite view. I would object to employing him, on the grounds that his research papers, and his lectures to students, are filled with what he personally believes to be falsehoods. He is a fake, a fraud, a charlatan, drawing a salary for a job that could have gone to an honest astronomer. Moreover, I would regard his equanimity in holding two diametrically opposing views simultaneously in his head as a revealing indicator that there is something wrong with his head.
However, there's a reason Title VII specifically included religion in its protected classes, since religious freedom is a component of the First Amendment. In effect, Dawkins is arguing for a "religious test" for employment, even if those beliefs are arguably not relevant to the performance of the job or any evidence the candidate had ever allowed those beliefs to interfere with the execution of the job. Dawkins argues that's okay because it puts the consideration of "religious foolishness and non-religious foolishness" on equal footing. However, as I said in the intro, the slope of going down that road can get very slippery, since the reason these kind of protections exist in the first place is that a hiring board could argue almost anything (including something that would eventually piss off the person reading this sentence) was tangentially "relevant" and dispositive.
This case may be closed, but the issues it raised are not likely to be settled so easily. Scientists are less religious than non-scientists, but they are by no means uniformly atheist. According to the Pew Research Center, some 33% of US scientists believe in God. For astronomers, the figure is similar: 29%. Interestingly, it is the chemists who are most religious, with 41% counting themselves among the faithful. Of course these statistics don't tell us how many of these scientists have beliefs that don't accord with mainstream scientific consensus. Most religious scientists in the US are Protestant, Catholic or Jewish--and all of those religious groups are likely to accept evolution and scientifically derived estimates for the age of the earth and universe.
Is it "okay" for a state institution to turn down a qualified applicant for their political beliefs, because "it is revealing" if they're a Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian or Marxist? Also, I'm not a teacher, but I have to believe that if the standard was that teachers can only teach a subject where they "believe" totally what they're teaching, it might be hard to staff some economics, law, philosophy, political science, etc. classes.
A key point: no one appears to have challenged Gaskell's primary work in astronomy. No one alleged, for example, that any of his papers on quasars or black holes were compromised by his religious beliefs... Even if you believe in evolution and think Christians are essentially believers in myth (and why wouldn't you?), you should also be extremely wary of any tendency to make hiring decisions based on something other than qualifications for the job in question. The astronomer not hired for his religious beliefs today could easily be you tomorrow—not hired for a job you're qualified for because the search committee didn't like your taste in music, or fashion, or politics. It's tempting to say that biology and astronomy are both sciences, and therefore Gaskell's beliefs in both are fair game; but it's no more reasonable to rate an astronomer on his beliefs in biology and religion than it is to rate him on his beliefs in sociology, or political science. No Marxist economists allowed? No Rasta mathematicians? Academia would be subject to even more groupthink than it already is.