A planned lecture by intelligent design proponent John Lennox has upset Samford University faculty who don’t want the Baptist-affiliated school to be seen as endorsing teaching alternatives to evolution.
A resolution introduced in the College of Arts and Sciences’ faculty senate describes intelligent design as a political movement, not science. The resolution, by Samford geography professor Max Baber, questions whether Samford should involve itself in a movement that seeks to inject religion into science education in the public schools.
“In accordance with the spirit and letter of Samford’s foundation statements,” Baber’s resolution reads, “we affirm that church and state should remain separate. We therefore protest the president’s decision to involve Samford in a political movement that stands in direct opposition to that principle.”
The senate has formed a committee to examine the issue.
Samford President Tom Corts cooperated with local Christian ministry group, the Fixed Point Foundation, to bring Lennox, also an Oxford University mathematician, to campus Feb. 23.
Corts doesn’t understand the controversy surrounding the visit.
Intelligent design is an issue in the news, and while the school’s science department teaches evolution as a basic scientific fact, that doesn’t rule out the involvement of an intelligent designer, Corts said. On the other hand, Corts said he wasn’t aware of a serious scientific theory that attempts to describe God’s intervention in creation of life.
“I don’t know anyone who presents it as science,” Corts said. Whatever the case, discussion of the idea shouldn’t be shut down, he said. “This is a university and you are supposed to talk about ideas.”
Fixed Point Executive Director Larry Taunton said there is nothing political about his organization, and its intent in bringing Lennox to campus is to move the discussion beyond politics.
Lennox is a research fellow in mathematics at Green College, Oxford University in England. He is one of a comparatively small band of academics who question the theory of evolution and argue that the complexity of biological life suggests a designer guides the process.
Intelligent design has become the latest flashpoint in the long-running battle over how evolution is taught in schools. Most scientists believe in the validity of evolution and believe theorizing about the existence of an intelligent designer crosses into a religious realm where theories are not testable by observable evidence.
“We are conscientious about teaching science as science and philosophy as philosophy and religious belief as religious belief,” said Rod Davis, an English professor and former dean of Samford’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Ron Jenkins, a biology professor who teaches evolution, is concerned about linking Samford’s name with intelligent design, particularly if the event suggests intelligent design is a science.
While Samford prides itself on its Baptist affiliation, it also is protective of it academic reputation. “Many of the faculty think of this as politically risky,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins describes himself as a “theoevolutionist” and sees no contradiction in believing both in evolution and a creator. He is considering an invitation to sit on a panel that would question Lennox after his remarks but is concerned that participating would raise the profile of the event. “There is nothing for me to gain with me being on it,” he said.
Reached at his home in England, Lennox said it is scientific evidence that leads him to believe in intelligent design. Even the simplest forms of life are so complex that it is implausible to believe random chance combinations of non-living matter produced life, Lennox said. Darwin’s theory of evolution does not address the origin of life.
Lennox is amused that such a divisive debate would begin as soon as someone suggests an unobserved outside force is at work in evolution. In cosmology and physics, theories are advanced about forces and effects from other dimensions, and it doesn’t stir controversy.
“The universe is not self-explanatory,” he said. Most of the greatest minds in history have believed that there is more to the universe than matter and energy, Lennox said.
But Lennox goes further. While he accepts Darwin’s idea that species adapt and change in response to their environments, he questions whether species evolve into other species.
In the mainstream, scientists still argue about the mechanics of the process, but not much about whether evolution has led to the emergence of new species.
“I don’t think it (intelligent design) is a legitimate field of scientific inquiry,” said Samford’s Davis. “I think of it as a political wedge to get creationism into the schools … I think there are people who want to get a legitimacy for this, and I think they could be trying to use our standing as an institution of higher learning to gain credibility.”
Issues should be discussed on campus, Davis said. “I just don’t think this is a legitimate issue. We don’t have people that want to challenge the germ theory of disease. We have to make choices.”
Fixed Point’s Taunton said their guest is not a crackpot. “He is a heavyweight. He lectures on pure mathematics,” he said. “If, in fact, Lennox’s position is without merit, then let him speak, it will be exposed as such. I don’t think that will be the case, though.”
Future of Samford:
Some of the Samford faculty’s unease could be attributed to uncertainty about the direction of the university. After more than 20 years at the helm, Corts has announced his retirement. Under Corts, Samford managed to have both academic independence and good relations with the Alabama Baptists.
Corts has been involved with civic issues such as the reform of the Alabama Constitution and of the state’s regressive tax structure. Other Baptist schools, including Mercer University and Shorter College in Georgia and Baylor University in Texas, have endured nasty contests for control between independent administrations and state Baptist conventions.
Recently, Jerry A. Newby, president and chairman of the board of Alfa Insurance Corp., has been added to Samford’s board of trustees. Alfa traditionally has opposed tax reform.
Re-elected as a trustee and taking a prominent role in the search for a new Samford president was the Rev. Jay Wolf, pastor of First Baptist Church in Montgomery. Wolf has been a supporter of ousted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and of legislative proposals to ban gay marriage.
Corts said there is nothing to worry about. Samford is not vulnerable to takeover by one faction or another. It respects differing points of view.
“This institution is built to last. This institution is not for sale,” Corts said. “I don’t think anyone needs to worry about that.”