KU official responds to course critics
Provost tries to put class in context; conservatives threaten to attack funding for higher education
A Kansas University official tried Tuesday to calm critics of a new religion class that labels intelligent design as “mythology,” but conservatives said they might take aim at the university’s funding.
“It is unfortunate that the course title’s reference to ‘mythologies’ has been misconstrued,” Provost David Shulenburger said in a written statement released Tuesday afternoon. “The terms ‘myth’ and ‘mythology’ are common in the academic study of religion and not an affront. A myth refers to the common use of stories or rituals to symbolize in a meaningful manner the core beliefs of a religion; it does not refer to any religion as a whole.”
But some conservatives, such as Sen. Kay O’Connor, R-Olathe, were unmoved.
“Why poke a stick in somebody’s eye if you don’t have to?” she said. “If you’re going to have an intelligent design course and call it mythology, I think in the very least it’s a slap in the face to every Judeo-Christian religion that’s out there.”
And John Altevogt, a conservative columnist and activist in Kansas City, said Tuesday that state officials should require the university to change the name of the Department of Religious Studies to the “Department of Religious Intolerance.”
“If we can’t do that,” Altevogt said, “maybe we settle for some cuts in spending.”
Tuesday’s comments came after news broke that the university will offer the new class, “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationisms and other Religious Mythologies.”
Paul Mirecki, the religious studies departmental chairman behind the new intelligent design class, is a tenured professor who joined the faculty in 1989. He holds a doctoral degree in theology from Harvard University and specializes in ancient Mediterranean cultures, languages and religions, and ancient Greek and Coptic manuscripts.
The course will explore intelligent design, the idea that life is too complex to have evolved without a “designer,” presumably a god or other supernatural being. It will cover the origins of creationism, why it’s an American phenomenon and why Americans have allowed it to pervade politics and education.
That concept is at the heart of Kansas’ new public school science standards that critique the theory of evolution.
Paul Mirecki, chairman of KU’s religious studies department and the course’s instructor, said he had received about a dozen calls and several e-mails after the class was publicized.
“They’re overwhelmingly positive,” he said of the e-mails.
Mirecki addressed the issue of the term “mythology.”
“Mythologies are important,” he said. “but they do not address scientific solutions, but rather impressionistic solutions to help people address their place in the universe.”
Shulenberger, KU’s executive vice chancellor, said that on Tuesday he felt the need to put the class in context.
“This is a serious course, and Mirecki is a serious faculty member,” he told the Journal-World. “My hope is the students who take the course will end up with a good foundation concerning the various creation stories and intelligent design. That’s it. That’s what we’re about. We’re about education.”
In his statement, Shulenburger further described the objectives of religion classes at KU.
“The courses are designed to give students the appropriate methods for the objective study of religion,” the statement said. “The topics and titles of courses in religious studies are not intended to promote or debunk any particular beliefs, but instead encourage students to explore religion and its place in the world.”
Altevogt was still angry.
“There’s nothing intellectually honest about this at all,” he said Tuesday. “This is purely hate-mongering, just for the purpose of hate-mongering. It’s not a religion class. It’s a class of religious intolerance.”
Sen. Roger Pine, R-Lawrence, said he doesn’t believe KU’s move to offer the course should have a negative effect in the Legislature as long as the course is handled in a serious and intellectually honest way.
“They should be commended for taking the challenge – if it’s done in that manner,” Pine said.
But O’Connor said anything was possible in the Legislature.
“If they press forward in this area and continue to kick sand, the ultimate will be a negative of some sort,” she said. “I don’t know what the negative will be … You can’t kick sand in someone’s face and then expect a positive. And that’s what this is – a sand-kicking contest.”