Update on the Georgia Southern creationism case: McMullen denies preaching Christianity or creationism

November 28, 2014 • 7:37 am

The case of Emerson T. McMullen, the Georgia Southern University (associate) professor of history who foists creationism on his students (see here for my previous posts on the matter) is getting more publicity, now on the national level.  Earlier, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science formally complained to the administration about McMullen’s activities, and both the FFRF and I have notified the biology department.

Now the journal Inside Higher Education (IHE) has done its own report: “Extra-credit creationism?” by Coleeen Flaherty.

If you’ve kept up on this, you’ll already know the allegations in the case, which constitute most of the IHE story, but there’s a few new bits. McMullen, for example, has responded: IHE quotes McMullen from the local newspaper in Statesboro, Georgia:

McMullen did not respond to a request for comment. In an interview with the Statesboro-Herald, he denied trying to convert his students or preaching creationism, but also confirmed his disbelief in evolution.

“In some of my classes, like for instance, World History I, we’re doing Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and then Christianity, and then later Islam, and also, I might add Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism,” he told the newspaper. But, he said, “I don’t buy that we descended from a common ancestor.… I don’t accept that as a scientist. I was an agnostic, thought science had the answers and, investigating science, I realized science didn’t have all of the answers, including descent from a common ancestor, and then came to believe in God.”

McMullen’s Ph.D. is in the history and philosophy of science, he also has a master’s of science in engineering administration.

Well, whether or not you consider those degrees qualify McMullen as a “scientist” (he’s certainly not doing science), this is about the worst thing he could have said to the paper. “No comment” would have been more judicious, especially in light of these comments from students who took his class:


The Statesboro paper quotes McMullen further trying to exculpate himself:

In discussing the role of science in history, McMullen talks about a number of scientists and philosophers whose views have been controversial, he noted, listing examples.
“So we cover a lot of topics that could be interpreted as me preaching in the classroom. I don’t preach creationism,” McMullen said. “Basically, we’ve got across-the-board, broad-brush charges by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Dawkins’ Foundation.”
The extra credit assignment involving God’s Not Dead was to write about one particular scene, in which a professor and a student debate whether God exists, McMullen said.
With two classes given this option, he said, about half the students wrote about the movie, and all who did so received full extra credit. He said he also offered another extra credit option but no students asked for it.

This semester, McMullen gave students an extra-credit choice of writing about a talk he gave on John F. Darly Jr., a local man who served as a World War II medic on D-Day in Europe and was later killed in action on Iwo Jima. The alternative was to write about McMullen’s paper “No Evidence for Evolution: Scientists’ Research and Darwinism.”

Not preaching creationism? What the deuce is this about then? What does creationism have to do with D-Day or John F. Darly, Jr. ? The Statesboro paper goes on:

    The majority of students who took the extra credit, he said, chose to write about the Darly talk, which he also made available online.
McMullen confirmed that the model essay answer with the 11 lines of cons and two lines of pros for evolution was his.
In every case, he said, students can disagree with him without being penalized.
“They can. I don’t mark them down or anything like that,” McMullen said. “They can disagree. That’s what the whole thing about academia is, you know, that there’s a freedom of thought to examine different issues.”

Yes, but of course McMullen, caught here with his pants down, never asked the students to analyze an essay by Richard Dawkins or anyone else who accepts evolution. As for making the students see “God is Not Dead,” well, that speaks for itself. McMullen is forcing his views of Christianity and creationism down the throats of his students, period.  There may be “freedom of thought” for the students to dissent in their essays, but where will they get the evidence for evolution? And do they get extra credit for seeing atheist movies (if there are any)? Nope. Freedom of thought requires that you adjudicate diverse and conflicting opinion and information.

IHE quotes Professor Ceiling Cat, as I was interviewed by Ms. Flaherty:

Jerry Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, runs a blog called Why Evolution Is True and reviewed some of the allegations and evidence against McMullen for the Freedom from Religion and Richard Dawkins foundations. He’s quoted in their letter as saying that “virtually everything [McMullen] says about evolution is dead wrong. He’s teaching lies to students and pushing a religious viewpoint.”

In an interview, Coyne said that McMullen appeared to be doing far more proselytizing in his classes than others who have been investigated and reprimanded following such allegations in recent years. Eric Hedin, an assistant professor of astronomy and physics at Ball State University who was investigated last year for proselytizing in a class called “Boundaries of Science,” for example, asked students to read intelligent design proponents.

McMullen, on the other hand, allegedly was “giving students credit for reading and analyzing articles about his own religious beliefs,” Coyne said. “This is just the worst, most embarrassing kind of creationism.”

Coyne said he was confident that the university would find McMullen in violation of the First Amendment, which dictates the separation of church and state. Coyne, noted, however, that the teaching of creationism at the college and university level has never been legally tested.

I told the reporter that both the FFRF and I had called McMullen’s activities to the attention of Georgia Southern’s Biology department, and suggested that she call its chairman for a statement. Apparently she did, and, as I expected, the response was “no comment”:

Stephen P. Vives, chair of the university’s biology department, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. But the department’s webpage says it “recognizes the foundational importance of evolutionary theory to all of modern biology, and is in full agreement with the Society for the Study of Evolution’s statements on evolution and on the teaching of evolution.”

Well, if Vives referred the reporter to the webpage, that was a good enough response. If he didn’t, and she found the statement herself, then the chairman was derelict in his response, regardless of the investigation. Any biology chairperson should be able to say, “Our department accepts the truth of evolution” without compromising an investigation.

In the end, McMullen will be forced to curtail his “preaching,” even if he says he didn’t do it. His claim, of course, contradicts all the evidence we have. The man is an old-fashioned creationist, short-changing the students of Georgia Southern by teaching them lies about biology. Many of them, raised in the heavily Christian southern U.S., may find these lies congenial. But college is supposed to challenge your ideas, and what better challenge is there than the truth about nature?

49 thoughts on “Update on the Georgia Southern creationism case: McMullen denies preaching Christianity or creationism

  1. quick small correction: He said that he teaches those religions in a world history class (“World History I”), not “World War I” class. I had to read it a few times before I noticed that myself. I too was confused!

  2. Oh no, not that movie!

    How can he justify such a topic? I need hardly point out that the existence of God is nothing to do with the history of science.

    Also, why is *watching a pop movie* part of his class? I would die before assigning a Hollywood depiction to my classes. Not that there are any mass-market movies about the debate between chemistry and alchemy, but, can’t he at least assign a book?

    1. Watching a pop movie even this movie might be appropriate in a history class in order to study it; for instance as an example of how some people were perceiving the issues and how some were trying to shape the perception. The current evidence; however, does not seem to support the idea that deep analysis was the aim of the assignment.

      I do wonder why apparently no one seem to have asked the history department chair for his views (though perhaps ‘no comment’ wasn’t sufficiently interesting to include in the articles). At issue is his professionalism as a history professor.

      1. A deep analysis was likely not his goal, as any student who did the x.c. assignment got full credit. This is consistent with just a check to see if they wrote something, then the rubber stamp came out.

    2. It’s not the same reason why he assigned it, but when I took a hard boiled detective fiction class in college we watched The Maltese Falcon (after reading it..), The Big Sleep (also after reading it), and Chinatown. There was a superhero fiction and scifi class during the summer that I missed which were taught by the same professor and probably also showed relevant pop movies.

      1. Those are really important movies to the subject your were studying. How both the books and the movies conveyed their messages, and what they meant culturally, were just what your class was analyzing. If there were movies on chemistry, actual chemistry, where the class could learn something, I’d assign those, in addition to texts.

        Also, your professor could do that with a clear conscience because all of those are really good movies.:) Imagine forcing any living being to sit through God Isn’t Dead. It’s probably grounds for a manslaughter conviction.

      2. I recall when I was studying English Literature (a required course at school, but not required for university entry, so I didn’t exactly exert myself) we had [thinks] Julius Caesar as our set bit of Shakespeare (may have been another set book too – I forget). Bizarrely, and I do mean “bizarrely”, the teaching programme explicitly recommended that pupils NOT be shown any presentation of the actual play before the exam. Which for a bloody play just struck me as being absolutely in-facaere-sane. I mean, the thing is designed to be seen on stage, not bloody well ploughed through in a classroom full of bored teenage boys.
        The teacher also thought it was insane – and being the film studies teacher too, he had the equipment and could access a video tape to display it (tapes were news then ; this was probably a half-decade before I knew anyone with a private video machine), but was again banned from using it by the head master (an English graduate himself).
        There are things I don’t understand about some fields of study.

        1. I can see not seeing it before reading it for the first time, so that you can bring your own impressions to it. But it seems that it would have been very helpful to see a video or live performance of it thereafter. Saw MacBeth in High School in Vienna in German. Glad I had read it in English beforehand. The 3 witches were chimney sweeps, which worked OK.

    3. The only time I ever saw a pop-culture movie in a college class was when I took Geology. The teacher, as a joke, showed The Core instead of having a lab on Thanksgiving week. We got credit for attending, and extra credit based on how many geology mistakes we listed.

      1. Perhaps he could give his students a choice between ‘God’s not Dead’, and ‘Religulous’.

        There’s an outstanding documentary series on WWI, based on Strachan’s book. They’d be far better off watching that.

      2. Sounds a reasonable use of class time to me. The free-form aspect of the assignment is the sort of thing that causes the student to think relatively deeply about the science of what is being presented.
        Prof Ceiling Cat’s introductory genetics class could probably do a good hatchet job on, say, the genetics of Jurassic Park and get good value from the exercise.
        Related – how long until the first Ebola-themed movie? Sorry : second Ebola-themed movie, we’ve already had “The Hot Zone” (the book of which wasn’t bad).

        1. The criticism I’ve heard about The Hot Zone is that the author sensationalized details like how the Ebola virus spread and attacked the body instead of sticking to medical facts.

          1. There were certainly criticisms to be made. But on a scale from ‘documentary’ to “Star Trek” it was a long way from Star Trek.

            1. What I heard was that it was more like Walking With Dinosaurs: not complete fiction but with enough liberties taken in the name of excitement and plot that it wasn’t really useful as a source of information.

  3. McMullen is obviously incompetent and deceitful and should not be teaching anything outside of church bible class. Let’s see if the university is classy enough to deal with him appropriately.

  4. he denied trying to convert his students or preaching creationism…

    I am looking forward to the first smartphone videos. It’s remarkable how some people seem unaware that technology exists.

    1. I’m going to guess that in his mind anything short of “I’m going to stand here until you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior” is not “preaching” or an attempt to “convert.” He’s just telling them the facts as he sees them — the students can draw their own conclusions.

  5. His defence is so pathetic. The university must be embarrassed because they let this happen despite student comments.

  6. The important part of this story should be on the view of this University and that people see what goes on in these schools. The fact that they have this Georgia Cracker, on the payroll at all is something for everyone to see and wonder about.

    At a time when the price of education is almost beyond belief, to have a teacher such as this in any school is sickening.

    Please support the FFRF because someone has to do it.

  7. So he investigated science by studying junkyard rock-bottom-of-the-barrel creationism, which caused him to see the light and convert to believing in God. Sorry but I question whether he is lyin’ his tail off.

  8. ” And do they get extra credit for seeing atheist movies (if there are any)? Nope. ”

    You should see “The Invention of Lying” with Ricky Gervais.

    1. Isn’t there a Billy Connolley one about “The Man Who Sued God?” I rather doubt that is going to be full of praise for adolescent sky-fairies. (Don’t think I’ve seen it though.)

  9. “I don’t buy that we descended from a common ancestor.… I don’t accept that as a scientist. I was an agnostic, thought science had the answers and, investigating science, I realized science didn’t have all of the answers, including descent from a common ancestor, and then came to believe in God.”

    How can this man be a “scientist” and not understand the function of the job description, or even how science works?????

    Most scientists KNOW science doesn’t have all the answers..THAT’S why they LOOK for the answers, form and TEST THEORIES.

    This man sounds more like a Ken Ham clone than a scientist.

    1. “ow can this man be a “scientist” and not understand the function of the job description, or even how science works?????

      Most scientists KNOW science doesn’t have all the answers..THAT’S why they LOOK for the answers, form and TEST THEORIES.”

      This seems common with the creationists who are engineers. I guess that with engineering if you don’t have the answer you don’t do it, instead building only with known quantities.

      So, what is it with engineers and creationism? There seem to be a disproportionate number of them? Are their any stats on whether there is a real correlation of some sort?

      1. Common but not universal.
        Thomas Belt, a (self-taught) English mining engineer, was one of Darwin’s most influential supporters. He was the first to suggest that many tropical ant x plant interactions were mutually advantageous and co-evolved. That was 1874 in his book “The Naturalist in Nicaragua”.
        Of course, a counter example is not a refutation.

      2. Anecdotally, I find many of my coworkers in software engineering to be at least nonreligious, which would tend to rule out Creationism. Then again, software engineering is viewed as a bastard child of true engineering in many circles.

      3. I don’t know about good, randomly-sampled survey data, but I have noticed the high incidence of evidence-challenged thinking in the mid-80s Boulder Physical-and-Chemical Engineering departments before I switched majors to non-engineering biochem. The engineering programs seemed to be intent on memorizing little facts (that were best looked up in a CRC handbook anyway), with little goddy-woddy things tacked up on professors’ offices.

        When I switched, the focus tended to be on general scientific principles, and the incidental god-bothering absolutely disappeared. I’m downloading some data from the NORC (Tom Smith’s group), spitting distance from Jerry’s office — and if I get the time, I’ll see if there’s any indirect indicators I can post (e.g. religiosity vs. occupation). Those data are some of the best there are (properly randomized, stratified, oversampled when need be, etc.) http://www3.norc.org/GSS+Website/Download/SPSS+Format/

      4. Quick and dirty check by occupational category (1988 census categories)

        When I aggregate all the engineers (physical, mechanical, architectural, civil, mining) – we’re talking small numbers responding (n=43), but I get 12/43 saying “definitely true” to the question about humans “evolving from animals”. (which is not how the question was asked, but is the name of the variable). 15 said “probably true”, 3 said “probably not true”, and 13 said “definitely not true”.

        Aha… if I add “engineering technicians” into the mix, I get bigger numbers (n=69… I like that denominator for some reason, so I’m going with it) but a similar pattern:

        yes: 29%, probably: 30%, prob not: 12%, hell no: 29%

        Changing to scientists (non-engineer scientists of all kinds, softer science and technicians excluded – technicians were just as bad as chemical and physical engineers, i.e. the worst as a group) gives me: n=49
        yes: 39%, probably: 26%, prob not: 10%, hell no: 24%

        I’ll note the computer geeks were the best, as a group (system designers/analysts like me were best [42,17,17,25 => N=24], programmers next [33,33,11,22] => N=9).
        Geek overall: [39,21,15,24 => N=33]

        Table napkin stuff – a more fruitful approach would probably be to aggregate all kinds of occupational data by their proportions, then look to see if there are any patterns by general occupational classification, throwing out outliers. (for example, there’s only 1 person classified as a life science’s professional, and (s)he’s in the “definitely not” camp. — so this is a fruitcake who felt motivated to answer the survey). There’s likely to be data problems when things get chopped up so finely.

        In any case, the engine for poking around the datasets is here: http://www3.norc.org/GSS+Website/Data+Analysis/

      5. In the early days of trying to profile who was more likely to become Islamic terrorists post 9/11, the only thing they could find had the slightest correlation was being an engineer.

        1. Damn, where were you 20 years ago when I was in a graffiti fight with an engineer in the humanities library at school? 😉

  10. IN the normal course of his class it is impossible to determine how far his delusions have penetrated into the teaching of relevant history. the students would have to rigorously fact check every thing he said. It seems that this is not the expectation of a student who should be able to rely on his professor to be non-delusional and at lest candid about his material.

  11. It appears that the professor thinks that only a strong form of ‘preaching’ about creationism crosses the line. It does not. Any activity that seeks to argue for this particular view is an entanglement.

  12. Thank you Prof. Coyne. You closing paragraph more than summed up why students should understand the true evidence for evolution. A student should have an open mind for alternate theories to evolution but it better be backed up with real scientific evidence not blind faith in religious dogma. It is okay to have an open mind but not so open that your brain falls out.

  13. Plus he says that “I realized science didn’t have all of the answers…”. Well, since no one ever claimed that science has all the answers, he doesn’t seem very qualified to teach either the history or philosophy of science.

    Plus, where does he get the idea that Christianity has all the answers?

  14. Re: “And do they get extra credit for seeing atheist movies (if there are any)?”

    There aren’t many overtly marketed as atheist movies, though Ricky Gervais’ “The Invention of Lying” comes close, but for 5 years (but not 2014) San Francisco hosted an annual atheist film festival which included the Darwin movie “Creation”, “The Magdalene Laundries”, the documentary “The Revisionaries”, the Gervais movie listed above and many others.

  15. “I don’t buy that we descended from a common ancestor.… I don’t accept that as a scientist.”

    For McMullen to say that, as a scientist, he doesn’t accept the fact of common ancestry is tantamount to saying he doesn’t buy the fact that the earth orbits the sun. I simply don’t understand how such a denier can be allowed to teach at Georgia Southern.

  16. “McMullen did not respond to a request for comment. In an interview with the Statesboro-Herald, he denied trying to convert his students or preaching creationism, but also confirmed his disbelief in evolution.”

    Shades of John Freshwater.

  17. It seems odd that a professor in an educational establishment should have a page with links to 21 articles denying *science*.


    His journey from scepticism to Christianity apparently started after a poor piece of driving from him didn’t result in an accident, and from that he reasoned divine providence, and it’s all about him!

    Finally, it implied that God was personally interested in me and involved in my life.


    How did he know it wasn’t Allah intervening, if he really thinks it wasn’t just physics? Well, naturally he was brought up Christian, so remarkably it’s the Christian god he investigates.

    His story bears all the hallmarks of someone looking to confirm a hypothesis, not disconfirm it. Odd for someone who has studied the philosophy of science.

    1. Thanks for investigating further and adding these important details. This makes him more of an enigma than ever. How does one study scientific method and development for decades and then revert to what he learned on his mother’s knee?

    2. In following this story, one can only conclude that Georgia Southern University Administrators have decided ensuring their students learn about science is irrelevant to their education.

      How did I draw this conclusion? Simply follow the link to the articles displayed under Science. No one can conclude that these articles have only now come to light. Yet they remain a part of this professors repertoire and posted on a website under the University’s badge.

      Did no other faculty member notice these? Did no one in the biology faculty (or any other science faculty) challenge their existence? This reflects a broad failure of the whole of Georgia Southern Academic standards at minimum, and existence at worse. This is shameful.

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