Human Exceptionalism

The Neo Inquisition: Stifling Freedom of Thought

Jet lagged from my recent journey to Ireland/UK, where there is an 8 hour time difference, and up at 3:30 AM, I decided to see what I had missed at The Corner and ran across an entry by Jonah Goldberg discussing a debate between two philosophers, Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett. Plantinga apparently claims that Darwinian theory is compatible with faith and theism, while Dennett is one of the new atheists who believes science has proven religion to be wrong.

I don’t know the work of either man, and since that is not my field and is beyond our scope here at SHS, and I don’t want us to get into the religion versus science, science versus religion controversy here. But what caught my eye was a plea made by a “live blogger” of the event who is terrified at being identified by peers and colleagues as someone who tends to sympathize with Plantinga’s approach. From the account of the anonymous blogger:

I was at the talk. It was packed with professional philosophers and graduate students in philosophy, most of whom sided with Dennett. I wrote live comments on the debate/session. I prefer to remain anonymous for various reasons, in particular because I am inclined towards Plantinga’s position over Dennett’s and were this to become well-known it could damage or destroy my career in analytic philosophy. This is something I prefer not to put my family through. I almost didn’t publish these comments at all, but as far as I could tell, this would be the only public record of the discussion.

Friends, if you can identify me, I request that you keep my identity secret. I am sharing my thoughts as a service to the philosophical community and all those who have an interest in such debates. But I prefer not to suffer at the hands of my ardently secular colleagues. This is not to say that all secular analytic philosophers are this way; they most certainly are not. But enough of them are that I cannot risk being known publicly.

If the blogger is correct about the impact of colleagues knowing his or her world view–and can there be any doubt that his or her fear of consequences is reasonable in the current atmosphere?–we are in an era of the neo Inquisition. There may not be burnings at the stake, literally, but the careers of anyone straying from certain Orthodoxies will be subjected to searing pain and being reduced to ashes. And the perpetrators will always find some other excuse than their utter intolerance of diversity of opinion and lack of respect for truly free thought.

We have seen the same kind of McCarthysim that the blogger worries about in analytic philosophy directed at life scientists who oppose human cloning and ESCR for ethical reasons. Ditto the screeds against climate change skeptics, etc. And imagine what would happen to the most erudite and astute bioethicist seeking tenure at a major university if it became known she she was pro life.

The Left still screams about McCarthyism and the blacklist, and that’s fine. A lot of injustices were perpetrated in that era based on what people believed or on their past associations. If that was wrong–and I sure think it was–how is this any different?

The atmosphere of fear on our campuses and within our professional societies hurts freedom and undermines intellectual integrity by making the open exchange of ideas too costly for those holding minority views to speak out. And the irony is that free thought is being snuffed out by the very people who call themselves free thinkers and who screamed the loudest about the importance of free speech and respecting dissident views in the 60s when they were the in the minority.

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