Brooklyn Prof in Godless Shocker

Brooklyn Prof in Godless Shocker

People who believe in academic freedom should denounce CUNY’s treatment of an atheist professor.


So it’s 2005 and this is the academic question that has driven the Daily News and the right-wing New York Sun into apoplectic fits, and caused heartburn all over CUNY: Should Tim Shortell, an atheist, be allowed to assume the chair of the sociology department of Brooklyn College? You know, an atheist–someone who doesn’t believe in God. An anticleric. A disrespecter of religion. A mocker of Christianity. Someone like, oh, Diderot (“Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”). Or Voltaire (“The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning”). Or Bertrand Russell (“The Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world”). Actually, Russell is a particularly relevant example here. The appointment of one of the twentieth century’s greatest logicians to a professorship at City College in 1940 set off a hysterical campaign against the “Godless advocate of free love” on the part of the Episcopal and Catholic churches, the Hearst papers and Tammany Hall. A flagrantly trumped-up lawsuit was fast-tracked through the system, Russell was denounced in the state legislature and the job offer was withdrawn.

Unfortunately, Shortell is no Bertrand Russell, whose Why I Am Not a Christian did so much to enliven my teenage years. For one thing, Russell was an energetic antireligious propagandist, while Shortell’s low opinion of God and his fans is confined to a brief essay, “Religion and Morality: A Contradiction Explained,” posted at, an obscure website with a vaguely Situationist flavor. For another, Russell was a terrific writer, while Shortell’s essay is self-satisfied adolescent twaddle. Believers are “moral retards,” “an ugly, violent lot”: “In the heart of every Christian is a tiny voice preaching self-righteousness, paranoia and hatred. Christians claim that theirs is a faith based on love, but they’ll just as soon kill you.” Moral retards? Well, at least he can’t be accused of linguistic PC.

Shortell’s fighting words may have been intended, as he told me, as a “manifesto” aimed at a few avant-garde artists, but they gave the right plenty to work with in attacking his election to the chair. After reports of his election appeared in the Sun and Daily News, Brooklyn College president Christoph Kimmich wrote a letter to the News saying he found the essay “offensive” and had “convened a committee of three high-ranking Brooklyn College officials and asked them to investigate the situation.” The handwriting must have been on the wall, because even as I was writing this column, Shortell withdrew his name from consideration. Whatever one thinks of the sentiments or the prose style of his essay, this is not a happy turn of events. A college president should champion academic freedom and professional standards, not side with those who assault them on the basis of someone’s nonprofessional writing. Academic procedures exist for a reason. Do we really want the tabs micromanaging departmental decisions?

Besides, so what if Shortell’s essay is offensive? Brooklyn College is a public, secular institution, not a Bible college. The Sun claimed Shortell’s disdain for religion would cloud his judgment of job candidates, but there was never any evidence that this would be the case. No student ever complained about his teaching; his colleagues trusted him enough to elect him to the post; the student work posted on his website is apolitical and bland. Predictions of bias, absent any evidence, are just a backhanded way of attacking his beliefs. You might as well say no Southern Baptist should be chair, since someone who believes that women should be subject to their husbands, homosexuality is evil and Jews are doomed to hell won’t be fair to female, gay or Jewish job candidates. Or no Orthodox Jew or Muslim should be chair because religious restrictions on contact with the opposite sex would privilege some job candidates over others.

But nobody ever does say that. As long as a believer ascribes his views to his faith, he can say anything he wants and if you don’t like it, you’re the bigot. Simplistic as Shortell’s essay is, it does raise a useful point: Faith and morality are not only not the same, as Americans like to think, they express contradictory impulses. I believe Kierkegaard said something along these lines in Fear and Trembling in his discussion of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Or as the physicist Steven Weinberg put it more recently: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Would Weinberg be too “offensive” for CUNY?

The Tim Shortell case is not a blip, even at CUNY. Around the same time it went after Shortell, the Sun ran a front-page story accusing Priya Parmar, a young untenured professor in Brooklyn College’s School of Education, of attacking standard English as “the language of oppressors,” based on a reading assignment and complaints from two students accused of plagiarism. Under the guise of depoliticizing academia, David Horowitz is pushing the “Academic Bill of Rights,” which would empower state legislatures to mandate “balance” in the classroom. His website invites students to report their teachers for such sins as “introduced controversial material,” “mocked political/religious figures” and the ever-popular “biased grading.” (What was the point of complaining, one student wrote sadly: “He has ten-year.”)

People who believe in academic freedom have got to take these incidents seriously and get active before it’s too late. “The perfect case is never going to come along,” my old friend the historian Joshua Freeman told me. “Nobody is going to fire their Nobel laureate.” Actually, City College almost did that: Ten years after losing his CCNY post, Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He certainly had the last laugh, but others weren’t so lucky. The campaign against Russell blossomed into the Rapp-Coudert hearings, a general witch hunt for leftists in New York City’s public schools and colleges. Some 800 educators were denounced; more than fifty lost their jobs, and a climate of fear was created that lasted for a long, long time.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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