Humanist Perspectives: issue 161: Science, Religion and Atheism in the Campus Press

Science, Religion & Atheism in the Campus Press
by Justin Trottier

The award for the worst “science” article in a student newspaper in the last year should go to an article called “Scientific Evidence Does Not Prove All” in the September 20, 2006 issue of York University’s Excalibur. According to the author of this piece:

We also know from science (the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics) that natural processes could not have brought the universe into being from nothing and that chance (or undirected) processes in nature do not have the ability to produce substantial order even in open systems, such as the Earth … considering the enormous complexity of life, it is much more logical to believe that the genetic and biological similarities between all species is due to a common designer rather than a common evolutionary ancestry.

Upon following up with the editor of the section, Jeff Justiz, we received the following:

I don’t want to hinder a person’s beliefs. The fact is, someone has grown up believing creationism is a science, and I will not trample on their beliefs. They deserve the opportunities … to write. Perhaps they want to impress their church or congregation or whatever. That’s fine. I wrote a whole article in the sports section this week to impress some people I know.

And when I write about women’s rights, it’s just to get a date for Saturday night. I wrote to the science editor at the University of Toronto Varsity newspaper, Sandy Huen, about coordinating a response to the Excalibur article. She agreed entirely that this was nothing but drivel. Then she told me about a series she was leading on pseudoscience and welcomed a contribution from me, warning:

… there are rules (unlike at York). I realize you feel very strongly about this, but I have to ask you to put that aside. Do some superficial research. Talk to some professors, not all of which need be scientists. Feel free to use phrases like “the majority of the scientific community believe … but please don’t pull a York U and write what you think — that’s not what I want to do, and not what my section of the paper is about … I realize it’s difficult to divorce opinion and fact in a debate like intelligent design, but yes, that’s what I’m asking you to do. Pit the two together. Dissect each argument and present them side-by-side. [emphasis added]

What could she mean about divorcing opinion from fact unless she was saying that evolution isn’t a scientific fact? And even if we don’t like using those words — scientific fact — surely the weight of evidence falls rather heavily in favour of evolution rather than ID. So shouldn’t evolution be given more space as well as the upper hand in the coverage of any such controversy? Or perhaps we should give equal space and avoid weighing in scientifically in such controversies as the “face on Mars”, the “moon landing hoax” or the accuracy of astrology in the face of astronomical knowledge.

Out of 92 university student newspapers, only two — at the Universities of Toronto and Waterloo — actually have sections devoted entirely to science. The McGill Daily has a Science and Technology section that serves as a decent blend of the two, but York’s Technology section deals with pure science only about 10% of the time and the Business and Technology section of Ryerson’s Eye Opener is hardly worth mentioning for science content. I have brought the idea of adding a science wire to the Canadian University Press on two separate occasions (spaced about a year apart so that the executive would have changed), as an attempt to motivate other schools to add such a section. There appeared to be no interest.

It is also interesting to compare the sympathetic manner in which religious students and student groups are treated in terms of incidents of supposed hate, in comparison to atheists or secularists. As an example, a story in the Ryersonian covering the discovery of anti-Semitic flyers found around Ryerson buildings was titled “Purveyors of hate caught on tape” despite the fact that the police officer investigating the incident was careful not to immediately label the incident a hate crime. “There is some ambiguity with acts such as these because being too quick to label behaviour as a hate crime runs the risk of infringing upon a person’s freedom of expression,” he was quoted as saying. “Prosecuting something as a hate crime depends in part on the intent of the person or people responsible.”

In another case, a series of acts supposedly targeting the Muslim community at the University of Toronto occurred in March 2006, including anti-Islamic epithets yelled at a Muslim student, a hit and run, and, reported along with the others, the posting of fliers around campus with the dreaded Mohammed cartoons. These were all in reality either non-incidents perfectly within the boundaries of free expression (anti-atheist epithets are a routine at my job) or the motivation was clearly ambiguous, as in the hit and run in which the description of the incident points to the likelihood that the assailant was drunk out of his mind. However, when reported in the Carleton University newspaper the Charlatan the opening line read:

A series of racist acts and hate crimes at the University of Toronto has prompted student groups to speak out against discrimination and left the school’s president ‘disappointed’ and ‘concerned.’

The police and administration had been careful to avoid the use of the term ‘hate crime’.

In comparison, after the assault against me (or more accurately my nose) as a result of my putting up posters for a talk by Dr. Victor Stenger on his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, every article bent over backwards to avoid weighing in on that hate crime designation.

University of British Columbia’s Ubyssey titled their piece “Assault victim at Ryerson claims hate crime” opening with “Justin Trottier, president of the Freethought Association of Canada, was assaulted March 28, at approximately one am, and is claiming that his assault should be considered a hate crime.” The Ryersonian piece read “Atheist attacked, says it’s a hate crime” while that put out by The Eye Opener did not use the term at all. To be fair, this phenomenon was not limited to school papers. The Globe and Mail featured a piece “Atheist says he’s victim of religious hate crime” and then, skeptical not only of the designation but apparently of the incident itself, ran the subtitle “Man says he was assaulted at Ryerson.” [emphasis added]

The Varsity titled their piece “Atheist claims assault was ‘hate crime’”, opening with the line “Should an assault on an atheist activist be prosecuted as a religious hate crime?” Then, fearing the public might come to the wrong conclusion (which they almost unanimously did) published an editorial “Trottier makes poor martyr”, with such comments as:

Is what happened to Trottier really on par with the desecration of Jewish cemeteries with spray-painted swastikas, or with burning a mosque? Local police are so far treating the incident as a plain old assault. On this count, The Varsity is inclined to agree.

To be a victim in the media is a desirable prize. But in order to really be a martyr, Justin, you have to have a religion first. In our interview with him, he did call the principles of atheism “beliefs.” But that either means the “justified true belief” of knowledge, or it means religious faith, and only one of those is protected under the laws against hate crime.

We’ll give him a word or two of advice: if you’re going to crack wise to just anybody on the street in the dead of night, start working on your left hook, and leave the Charter defense to the real victims.

Considering the triviality of the event, according to The Varsity, one wonders why they chose to cover the incident at all, not to mention running it on the top of their front page.

With the exception of the hit and run, notice that the religious incidents all involved flyers, posters or vandalism, while mine was the only unambiguous hate-motivated physical assault. Yet regardless of the severity of the incidents, the media’s sensitivity to the issue is entirely premised on the simple fact that an atheist is not to be given the same sympathetic shoulder as those from the religious community.

While campus papers tend to have a depressingly low readership and to be quite rightly mocked for their partisanship and for consistently leaning so far left they almost fall over, we should remember that many of our political leaders and prized journalists started at a campus newspaper. And so the environment of the campus paper office can, in this manner, have far reaching consequences.

Justin Trottier is Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry, Ontario, and President of the Freethought Association of Canada. He is a recent university graduate and has experience working with a variety of student newspapers and student unions.

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