This story was reported a couple days back in the Des Moines Register:

A community college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted.

Steve Bitterman, 60, said officials at Southwestern Community College sided with a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a western civilization class Tuesday. He said he was fired Thursday.

snip

Bitterman, who taught part time at Southwestern and Omaha’s Metropolitan Community College, said he uses the Old Testament in his western civilization course and always teaches it from an academic standpoint.

Bitterman’s Tuesday course was telecast to students in Osceola over the Iowa Communications Network. A few students in the Osceola classroom, he said, thought the lesson was “denigrating their religion.”

“I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn’t given any more credibility than any other god,” Bitterman said. “I told them it was an extremely meaningful story, but you had to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense, that if you took it literally, that you were going to miss a whole lot of meaning there.”

Read the rest here.

It is difficult to imagine any college firing a professor– adjunct, tenured, or full-time –over such a thing, so I’m inclined to withhold judgments when encountering stories such as these. On the other hand, as a full time philosophy professor that works in a very religious part of the country under a contract that can be terminated any time, without tenure, it’s difficult not to experience a cold shudder when hearing such things. How had this professor wronged his students? Simply by articulating a different position? After class he allegedly referred to these stories as “fairy tales” to one student. Not a smart move, and his original claim was far more absolute than I would have put it. Yet is this really an offense requiring a lawsuit? How are such people, people who are so easily offended, able to function in a multi-cultural world where everyone doesn’t share their beliefs? Then again, it’s Iowa, so perhaps the world isn’t like that there.

This semester, in a rather ill-conceived plan to change my intro courses a bit, I elected to teach Plato’s Euthyphro and Apology, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Hume’s Enquiry, and Deleuze’s Nietzsche & Philosophy (the theme is critique). The Euthyphro, of course, is a dialogue about whether or not Euthyphro genuinely has knowledge of piety. De Rerum Natura seeks to free humans of their terror caused by superstition through an understanding of true causes (“superstition” is unfortunately translated in this translation as “religion”, despite the fact that Lucretius isn’t an atheist). Hume devotes a lengthy chapter to the critique of miracles in the Enquiry. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Nietzsche & Philosophy, so I can’t recall whether religion is a central focus or whether the focus is primarily on moral psychology. I should emphasize that this is a new syllabus and that usually I have a component on Augustine, Descartes’ Meditations, and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling or Sickness Unto Death.

At any rate, when I teach philosophers critical of superstition such as Socrates in the Euthyphro, Epicurus, Lucretius, Hume, etc., I’m careful to apply the arguments to a wide range of religious beliefs such as the Aztecs, Christianity, the Kaluli, etc., etc. I find that students often distance themselves from arguments, claiming they only apply to ignorant pagans or those wicked “others”, rather than applying them to their own familiar belief systems as well. For instance, Lucretius begins Book I of De Rerum Natura arguing against the claim that it is a crime to think in these materialistic terms by arguing that tremendous crimes have been propagated by priests in the name of superstition. He evokes Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter to make this point. Drawing on Kierkegaard’s analysis of the tragic hero versus the knight of faith in Fear and Trembling, I then make reference to the story of Jeptha and his sacrifice of his daughter in the Old Testament to show that this point isn’t restricted to the Greek world. Does that cross the line? I don’t know. Do I cross the line when teaching Epicurus’ and Lucretius’ claim that superstition produces dread when encountering unusual phenomena (such as comets, eclipses, earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, tsunamis, etc), which people who don’t have knowledge of natural causes explain in terms of the wraith of the gods by pointing out that some religious leaders in the United States explained Hurricane Katrina and the recent Tsunami as resulting from God’s wraith? I don’t know.

Regardless of the material I’m teaching, I’m always careful to emphasize that the students aren’t required to accept any of these arguments or endorse any of the philosopher’s positions, only to understand the arguments. The value of this, I claim, is that through an encounter with these different positions we become more aware of our own positions and hone our own arguments in arguing against the premises on which these positions with which we disagree are based. I never penalize students when they evoke their political or religious beliefs in an essay or on a quiz, though I do insist that students not evoke sacred texts to make an argument in a philosophy paper as this violates the “rules of the game” (such arguments inevitably being circular and not addressed to the stranger that doesn’t acknowledge the sacredness of those texts), and that students understand the arguments of the philosopher they’re writing about. Perhaps this crosses the line. Most importantly, how can any philosophy class avoid crossing the line on some point or other?

I sincerely hope this professor was selling heroine to students or eating young children, and that the time of his firing was just an unfortunate coincidence. How would a professor teach geology, chemistry, biology, astronomy, etc., at this college without violating the literality of Scripture?

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