You may have heard that the University of Kansas was initiating a course to be taught by the chairman of their religious studies department who is, of course, an atheist. The class was intended to be a parody of Intelligent Design and creationism - as if having an atheist chair the religious studies department isn't parody enough for one university - with a rollicking assault on students' religious beliefs thrown in. Denis Boyles captures the flavor of the course and the professor who proposed it in an article in National Review Online:
Personally, I think it's a good thing that universities are finally being used for satire rather than self-parody, and on this point I appear to agree with the chairman of KU's religious-studies department, Paul Mirecki, and the campus group he mentors, the 120-member "Society of Open-minded Atheists and Agnostics" - a.k.a. SOMA.
Mirecki announced plans earlier this month to teach "the fundies" - as he referred to his theological enemies - a lesson by offering a course called "Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies." The course announcement was instantly picked up by AP, CNN, and a bunch of daily papers and TV stations across the country. "The KU faculty has had enough," Mirecki told reporters with gusto.
Conservatives were irate, of course, but universities - well, what can you do? The class would have passed into the archive of goofy courses all colleges offer for whatever reason. However, Mirecki had made the strategic error of using SOMA's Yahoo usergroup to post his view that the purpose of the course was not education. It was theater:
"To my fellow damned," he wrote to the students, "Its [sic] true, the fundies have been wanting to get I.D. and creationism into the Kansas public schools, so I thought 'why don't I do it?' I will teach the class with several other lefty KU professors...The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face...I expect it will draw much media attention. The university public relations office will have a press release on it in a few weeks, I also have contacts at several regional newspapers.
The forum post was forwarded to an ad-hoc group of conservative Kansas bloggers and writers led by John Altevogt, a former Kansas City Star columnist and a political activist. Altevogt blew the whistle and the embarrassing post caused KU chancellor Bob Hemenway - a fervent backer of the course - to blink. Calling voters "fundies" wasn't helpful to a public university.
After nearly a week of backpedaling, Mirecki apologized for the statement: "I have always practiced my belief that there is no place for impertinence and name calling in a serious academic class," he wrote. "My words in the email do not represent my teaching philosophy or the style I use in class." The word "Mythologies" was dropped from the description. The chancellor said he would conducting a "review" of Mirecki's e-mail. The university insisted the show would go on.
But the cat was out of the bag. As Hemenway was telling reporters the course was "serious," Mirecki was telling readers of his SOMA list - at least until a few days ago apparently open to any who wished to join and read it - "This thing will be a hoot." Conservatives had set about conducting a review of their own, sorting through and circulating the rest of Mirecki's SOMA posts on the Internet, and they came away more concerned than ever. "These aren't just lighthearted messages," said Altevogt.
There's much more to the story, and indeed it gets better. It is astonishing, as Boyles' article informs us, that the entire religious studies department at Kansas is comprised of atheists and agnostics. As Boyles puts it, it's like having a bunch of David Dukes in the African-American Studies department. Paul Mirecki sounds like a pretty sorry excuse for a college professor although he's probably fairly typical of the left-wing genre.
Anyway, for the condign denouement of this sordid tale go here.