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June 17, 2005

Prof. Tim Shortell busted for online atheism

Tim Shortell's colleagues elected him chair of the Brooklyn College sociology department.

Shortly thereafter...

Brooklyn [College] released a two-sentence statement saying that “Professor Timothy Shortell declined the election” as chair and that the college’s president “will be consulting with the department and appropriate members of the administration regarding the future leadership of the department.” [Inside Higher Ed, June 8.]

Shortell was forced to decline his appointment because of an (apparently unsigned and undated) atheist polemic he posted on a private website called Anti-naturals.org. The Anti-naturals appear to be a collective of writers, visual artists, and critics. The website is not affiliated with the City College of New York, or any other institution. They have a manifesto, but no list of signatories.

Shortell's controversial essay argues that blind religious faith undermines an individual's capacity for genuine moral agency. His central theme is the rather commonplace observation that people who use a code of "revealed truths" to guide their behavior are shirking the hard work of moral deliberation. The author calls these people "moral retards." Unfortunately, he conflates blind followers of religious dogma with thoughtful believers who reason independently within a religiously-informed framework. But make no mistake, the former really are moral retards. Blind followers of dogma may conduct themselves well if they seize on a sound set of rules, but "just following orders" isn't a moral position, even if you think you're just following orders from God.

I'll be blunt, anyone who claims to be shocked by this line of reasoning in 21st century is either ignorant or disingenuous.* Would the tabloids have prevented Freud or Nietzche from chairing a department at CUNY? These thinkers disparaged religion in much harsher terms than poor Tim Shortell, and they did so in the scholarly works that made them famous. Heck, Plato more or less demolished the divine command theory of morality 2400 years ago with the Euthyphro dilemma.

Jill at Feministe points to Katha Pollitt's solid defense of Shortell's academic freedom.

I don't know how the New York Sun and the New York Post connected Shortell to his essay. However, this essay by former Sociology Chair Jerry Krase gives the flavor of the vicious academic infighting in the City College department. It looks to me like someone took academic backstabbing to a whole new level and ratted Shortell out to the tabloids.

Think about what happened: A CUNY sociologist was tried in the media for an unsigned polemic he wrote as a private citizen and posted to an obscure independent website. There were no complaints about Tim Shortell's scholarship, his service to his department, his teaching, or his rapport with the CUNY community.

The culture war is for real, and it's time to take sides.

* Obviously, not all smart people find such arguments persuasive, but the shock value should really have worn off by now.

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Depressing development in New York It appears that the religious allergy to reason has not been rooted out of New York City, itself. The story: Sociology professor Tim Shortell of Brooklyn College posted a brief essay on an internet site... [Read More]

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Comments

"Would the tabloids have prevented Freud or Nietzche from chairing a department at CUNY?"

Yes, indeed. In 1940 Bertrand Russell was prevented from assuming a post at what was then City College of New York. The tabloids and churches played a major role in forcing the college to revoke its offer. See:

http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3860/is_200111/ai_n9008065

PS: Although his star has faded, at the time Russell was far and away the most famous philosopher in the world.

Russell's star will always burn brightly to me.

Katha Pollitt discusses the shameful reaction to Russell's job offer in her Nation piece. CUNY really missed out on that one.

How much has Russell's star faded? Why? I'd hate to think that it's just because some of his works that were meant for a popular audience were oversimplified, or something like that...

I think R's reputation suffers because his popular work is thought to be too glib and lightweight, while his technical work either collapsed from its own contradictions (The PM) or goes against current fashion in epistemology & metaphysics (Our Knoweldge of the External World)

Ray Monk's biography also doensn't help R's reputation as a nice man.

Am I missing something here? The essay contains his name and a date. Was that added later?

I probably just missed it. Darius, I'm seeing Shortell's name under http://www.anti-naturals.org/theory/religion.html>the artworks accompanying the essay, but not on the essay as a whole. Where does he disclose the authorship of the text?

This http://insidehighered.com/news/2005/06/08/shortell>Inside Higher Ed article is very cagy about describing Shortell's connection to the essay:

Shortell’s election as chair became controversial not because of his actions as a scholar, but because of his writings about religion on a Web site. In an essay on a Web site where Shortell said he did work as an artist, he described religious people as “moral retards.”

Oh please.. don't try to water down the man's remarks for him. I would agree that no religious faith is compatible with reason, in the 21st century, period.

I'm not defending the "moral retards", and I mostly agree with Shortell's sentiments, if not his way of expressing them, but this one gives me a little pause.

That wasn't my kneejerk reaction. I thought "another right-wing attack - how outrageous". But then I started thinking, well - what if the terms he used were the same, but he was a Christian expressing his disgust for Islam? Would it then have been OK to reconsider his promotion on that basis? I think it probably would have been. Not because he doesn't have the right to think it, or to say it as a private citizen, but because there are two competing values at work here. As much as the academy is about freedom to think and express oneself, it also is about expressing one's viewpoint in civil terms and maintaining respectful terms of debate. Maintaining a free space to think and speak sometimes might mean placing the value of civility or respectful dialogue before the right to speak ones' views freely. It's a close call - it's often a close call, and it could have been wrongly made here, but I'm not sure it's as open-and-shut as all that.

"Heck, Plato more or less demolished the divine command theory of morality 2400 years ago with the Euthyphro dilemma."

If that were true then there wouldn't be problems like the one discussed. How is it that in civic life today people with majority influence can take positions that a chosen few can yawn about as proven wrong over 120 generations ago? This disconnect is more important than, say, the "core value" of a woman's ability to freely decide not to care a pregnancy to delivery.

"Shortell's controversial essay argues that blind religious faith undermines an individual's capacity for genuine moral agency."

If this characterization of Shortell's essay were true, then there should be no controversy. But the above is wrong. What Shortell says is that there is no faith but blind religious faith; those who don't have it are nothing but cowardly fanatics.

So count me as glad that a Shortell is still short-circuited in America.

-Arun

This case is open-and-shut: Shortell argued that religion is an inadequate substitute for rational ethics and a pernicious influence on human society. That's well within the bounds of fair commentary, especially within the polemic genre.

He did so quasi-anonymously on an obscure private website. He didn't mention his academic credentials or his connection with CUNY.

The tabloids got ahold of the essay, probably after being tipped off by one of Shortell's backbiting colleagues.

Forcing him out of the chair was a despicable O'Reillian ploy.


I find no reason to disagree with your main point, but it does bring up a question in the shambles I lovingly call a mind which is, I think, within spitting distance of being on topic. I read thru the outline of the logic after which you state that if said logic is shocking to anyone said person must be ignorant or disingenuous. Well, I'm not shocked, but it is new to me and not being disingenuous, at least by design, I must be ignorant, also not by design. Right as rain. Speaking on behalf of those of us with IQ's in the double digits, what is the preferred approach to ethical questions for the ungifted? Ethics, at the highest level, it seems to me, requires considerable study, high intelligence and a certain talent. This is a pretty restrictive set of requirements. What little I know of ethics having read the comic book version, it seems that every ethical system assumes that (a) it is the sole possessor of the truth and (b) it has vanquished all rival systems, so it is a simple matter for the herd to follow along with the system left standing. Nothing could be further from the truth: no matter what cockamamie thing I choose to believe, I can always find some reasonably credentialled person who has scribbled out a defense of my point of view. So for the ungifted, ethical deliberation is no more than a random choice. If someone could answer my question, I would be very grateful. If not, I guess I will have to go mow the lawn.

Does this mean PZ Myers can't get a job a CUNY?

There are limits to the "what if he had said that about X" game. (where x is women, Blacks, Moslems, etc.) For starters, saying something bad about a group that holds power in society is a lot less bad than picking on an oppressed group, simply because the power-holders can take it. I always try to include a "this doesn't include all Christians" clause in my anti-clerical screeds, but really, if someone forgets that clause, I think the Christian establishment won't wither and die.

You don't have to be a philosopher to think carefully about right and wrong. Nor, obviously, do you have to be an atheist or an agnostic. You just have to think for yourself instead of following other people's instructions uncritically. "Thinking for yourself" doesn't necessarily mean compiling your own original meta-ethics and ethics on the fly. It just means being willing to question and reflect.

Anyone can stop and as whether a given rule makes sense. If it doesn't make sense, they can ask the relevant authority figure to explain why that rule is in place and/or ask how we know that we're supposed to follow that rule. If the answer doesn't make sense, you can ask whether the authority figure really knows what the hell he's talking about.

Send in the thought police....Waaaahhhhhhh!

I haven't had a chance to read the essay yet, but it seems to me that even if Shortell was arguing that religion is an inadequate substitute for rational ethics and a pernicious influence on human society, the really damning thing wasn't so much what he said, but rather how he said it.

Perhaps he would've come under fire even had he stated his position in a more professional manner. But he certainly would have been easier to defend.

I think if God had wanted Shortell to chair the sociology department, God would have made Shortell a devout Christian.

And none of this would have ever happened. So it's all part of God's plan. No need to get upset about it.

Or does that fuck up that whole "gift of choice" thing?

Obviously, not all smart people...

...can spell! ;)

okay, so where's the petition to get him his job back (and, if it would not be nconvenient, ram rolled-up copies of the New York Lying Cage Liner up certain tracts)? "take sides" by all means but by doing what? hopefully not the similarly lazy pseudomoral bumper sticker crap. (prof joseph massad won a similarly groundless fight with much more at stake -- the jabotinskis were calling him a Holocaust-denying terrorist. is atheism really that unforgivable?)

Cleary part of a larger effort to purge academia of independent thought.

http://www.hnn.us/articles/1244.html

It might be a good idea to drop the college president, Mr. Kimmich, a note about your opinion.

[email protected]

So now it's against the law to be an atheist!

Lindsay,

Have you been to Brooklyn? Because while religious freedom is alive and well, this guy would have been hammered by pols like a pinata at a kid's party. Athieism is not exactly going to win you friends in Brooklyn. Between the Church (the big one with the hq in Rome) and Crown Heights, this guy would have been teed off on.

This is politics. Pure and simple. This landed in the Post and it's upscale, bastard half-brother, the Sun and we're off to the races. This has nothing to do with qualifications, but the brusing fight which would have resulted.

In the early 90's, two idiot professors, Michael Levin and Leonard Jeffries had matching, if opposed, racist ideologies. Levin thought blacks should be segregated in subways and Jefferies believed in ice people and sun people. Both had tenure and neither could be fired. But they tried. Oh, God how they tried.

Shortell saved himself a lot of shit from William Donohue and Mike Long.

But remember, this was a backstab from his collegues. They raised this non-issue up and dragged it to the post.

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