PZ Myers on Kenneth J. Howell and Hate Speech

Kenneth Howell runs the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois and up until recently was an adjunct instructor at UI until a student complained about him. Readers of this blog know that Howell and I are friends and have even allowed him to post some things at DC seen here. He wrote a blurb for Richard Carrier's chapter on science in The Christian Delusion seen here at the bottom, and moderated my debate with Dinesh D'Souza. (although didn't do a good job of it).

In any case, PZ Myers had some interesting comments about his dismissal:
Kenneth Howell was an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois. He is not being rehired at the end of his contract, apparently because he has been accused of hate speech against gays by a student. He had written an email to his students defending the Catholic position on homosexuality, and a friend of one of the students wrote to the university and the media accusing the professor of "hate speech", of "indoctrinating students", and "limiting the marketplace of ideas".

I hate to say it, but I think the student was wrong. I read the professor's email, and I don't think it is hate speech at all.

It's stupid speech.

A letter that condemned students, that threatened students if they didn't agree with his views, that discriminated against a segment of society, or that denied people full participation in the culture for their views or background or private practices…that would be hate speech. This letter, though, is a pedantic and polite explanation of the views of the professor and of the Catholic church and of his interpretation of utilitarianism, and in fact is careful to say that he isn't condemning any individuals. We can't endorse using this kind of discussion as an excuse to expel people from academia — we want professors and students to be able to communicate freely with one another, without fear of retaliation. I see no sign that the professor was discussing the matter in a way that disrespects any of his students.

And the student complaining was doing so poorly. The professor's ideas made him uncomfortable. He disliked what he said. He thought the professor was insensitive.

Those are not good reasons. If a student is never made uncomfortable, that student is not getting an education.

Bad reasons are given, but I still think UI made the right decision in not renewing this guy's contract. Kenneth Howell is in ignorant fool who mistakes his religious dogma and his personal prejudices for knowledge.

While Howell is clearly ignorant about homosexuality he definitely knows something about science so it's still an honor that he recommended Carrier's chapter in TCD.


Auntie said...

Fox says he lost his Newman Center job as well.

"After he lost his teaching job, Howell also was fired as director of the St. John's Catholic Newman Center's Institute of Catholic Thought. The on-campus center directed questions to the Diocese of Peoria, which had paid for his position."

Which is correct?

Anonymous said...

Auntie thanks, corrected. I'll see if I can find out.

Ken Pulliam said...

Why is it surprising when a Catholic speaks out against homosexuality or abortion? Why doesn't someone cite the Pope for hate speech? Why doesn't the US revoke its diplomatic relations with the Vatican? Why? Because it would be devastating politically thats why.

Anonymous said...

Francis Beckwith made an excellent
point here about the stupidity and hypocrisy of the university's firing of Howell:

"Imagine everything in reverse.
Suppose the LGBT center on campus has a director who teaches adjunct in the philosophy department, and because of an arrangement with the university he teaches one course every semester, "A Philosophical Introduction to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies." The professor is a good teacher and tells the students that they do not actually have to agree with him, but because he is an honest and forthright teacher, the professor says that these are his views. Over the course of the semester several students write him concerning his views, and he proceeds to dialogue with them in a variety of email notes in a candid though respectful manner. One of the students, a devout Catholic, expresses offense about comments made by the professor. In a lecture and several email notes the professor asserted his belief that the Catholic view of human sexuality is mistaken, disordered and ultimately harmful to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders. Even though the professor is respectful, offers reasons for his position, reminds the student that he need not agree with him, etc., the student complains to the Dean that he feels "excluded" from the university community because of the professor's comments. The student also makes the point that the message sent to him is that Catholics are not welcomed as full participants in the life of the university. The Dean is moved by this complaint and does not renew the professor's contract. He offers the very grounds offered by the Dean to justify the university's termination of Dr. Howell: "the e-mails sent by the professor violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us.

"If this had actually occurred, no one would have seen this as anything but the employment of naked power to punish a professor who is properly exercising his academic freedom. But the real case of Dr. Howell, in terms of the issue of academic freedom, cannot be distinguished from this fictional case in any meaningful way."

It's interesting that PZ and Beckwith agree on the main point, but, as always, PZ can't help himself: If he begins by saying something intelligent, he almost always follows it with something mind numbingly stupid:

"Bad reasons are given, but I still think UI made the right decision in not renewing this guy's contract. Kenneth Howell is in ignorant fool who mistakes his religious dogma and his personal prejudices for knowledge."

Um, the class was about Catholicism, PZ. Specifically, it was "An Introduction to Catholicism." Catholics defend a natural law theory of morality, and Howell was explaining how a natural law analysis of homosexuality differs from a utilitarian analysis. (If you don't think this is what he was doing, read the e-mail for yourself.) He wasn't mistaking "religious dogma and his personal prejudices for knowledge." Actually, mistaking prejudice for knowledge is what the otherwise undistinguished PZ Myers is known for.

Anonymous said...

Well said Eric, and for that reason I'm changing the word "excellent" to "interesting" with regard to PZ Myers' comments.

Anonymous said...

"While Howell is clearly ignorant about homosexuality"

Being ignorant about a perversion is a virtue. Being knowledgeable requires that you be a perve.

Chuck said...

I think Howell is a fool and have stated how I feel his apologetics bears no resemblance to honest scholarship but the true idiocy of this debacle lies with the University of Illinois in offering a class that amounts to religious indoctrination. The U of I is a public university funded by state and federal tax revenues and as a resident of Illinois I find their willingness to hire a noted Roman Catholic apologist as a professor is short-sighted, stupid and unconstitutional. I'm glad Howell was fired because I don't want my tax dollars going towards the establishment of Catholic dogma. If Howell wants a teaching job that affords him the opportunity to spew his superstition than I suggest an application at some of the noted Catholic universities here in Illinois.

On a side note, what truly seems ignorant is having a graduate student who doesn't have the intellectual courage to even start a blog referring to a noted Doctor/Professor as undistinguished simply because that student's personal fairy-tale was deemed ignorant.

T said...


You wrote, "[PZ Meyers] almost always follows it with something mind numbingly stupid..." You then quote PZ for the reasons PZ thinks it was good to get rid of Dr. Howell.

Mind numbingly stupid? PZ just offered an opinion. So, PZ thinks that Dr. Howell teaches his students in an overly biased manner unrelated to this incident (he openly states that he doesn't support UI for firing him related to this incident). However, PZ does think that there are reasons UI should dismiss Dr. Howell. PZ argues that he thinks Howell confuses doctrine for knowledge in support of his opinion. This is not mind numbingly stupid... it is just an opinion you disagree with that you use an "appeal to ridicule" to support your argument. However, your argument in support of PZ's statement being "mind numbingly stupid" is a STRAWMAN. PZ stated he doesn't think UI should have fired him over this incident. PZ gave an example of what he thinks Dr. Howell's contract should not have been renewed for and then gave reasons showing how faulty Dr. Howell's reasoning was.


I don't care that you disagree with PZ, but PZ's comments are hardly ever "mind numbingly stupid." They are usually well-thought, but controversial opinions that stir emotions.

If you'd like to support your argument effectively that PZ "almost always" follows his intelligent thoughts with mind numblingly stupid ones, then do so. Give real examples of his mind numblingly stupid thoughts without appealing to fallacies to support your arugment.

Chuck said...

"If this had actually occurred, no one would have seen this as anything but the employment of naked power to punish a professor who is properly exercising his academic freedom. But the real case of Dr. Howell, in terms of the issue of academic freedom, cannot be distinguished from this fictional case in any meaningful way."

This is just bald assertion and amounts to the type of persecution complex Roman Catholics labor under - the conclusion does not follow from the hypothetical but once again Eric offers a source that agrees with him as apologetics disguised as analysis.

Anonymous said...

Eric; problem with your (Beckwith's) comparison is that it's focusing on criticism of a belief and the other is criticism of a sexual orientation.

For example, I can call you an idiot for believing something stupid (like natural law), but I can't call you an idiot because you are caucasion or heterosexual, etc...

Bill Snedden said...

@ beowulf2k8 "Being ignorant about a perversion is a virtue. Being knowledgeable requires that you be a perve."

Um, no. Ignorance is a state of affairs, like being Caucasian or being Romanian. It is not, and cannot be, a virtue. Willful ignorance, on the other hand, is the very opposite of virtue and is an apt characterization of Howell's PoV and the corrupt and incoherent form of NL to which he and the Catholic church officially adhere.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Re Eric's argument that Howell was just teaching Catholicism, and was within his rights to defend the Natural Moral Law theory (NML):

Obviously Howell was just defending NML. The point is that his argument for NML was both ignorant and stupid. See here for an analysis.

Perhaps Howell's email was not an act of hate speech, but it was an ignorant and idiotic argument for the anti-homosexuality agenda. It was not a competent analysis or discussion of Catholicism or any other realm of ideas.

And, I'm sorry, but PZ is wrong about Howell's email not being hate speech. It most certainly disparages homosexuals--it claims homosexuality is a crime against nature. That qualifies it as hate speech.

Incidentally, I don't think it's wrong for a professor to teach kids about the ideas Howell is talking about. As I explain on my blog (if you follow the link I posted above), Howell should not have been fired if he discussed these ideas critically and intelligently. But he did neither. He propagated an anti-homosexual agenda out of ignorance and incompetence. That is legitimate grounds for dismissal.

And, by the way, Richard Carrier is no scientist--he's a historian, and his own views on science and philosophy are rather suspect. (See here.)

Little Green Penguin said...

This is going to sound bizarre coming from a very non-Christian, very lesbian woman, but I'm on the professor's side here.

Yes, the NML is retarded, and a critically-thinking teenager could see through this professor's implementation of it...but he was hired to teach Catholic philosophy, he IS a Catholic, and he was just expressing his views.

Stupidity isn't a firing offense, at least not that kind. He may be an idiot but he's basically being *paid* to be an idiot of that particular stripe.

This is especially worrying to me because people are going to point to this as another example of the "homosexual agenda."

Jason Streitfeld said...

That doesn't sound bizarre, Little Green Penguin. I think there is a strong temptation to come down on the side of free speech here, and I don't expect a lot of intelligent and well-meaning people to recognize the nature and extent of Howell's incompetence. Fortunately, that's why we don't require a popular vote to decide who gets to teach philosophy courses. But, unfortunately, that also means that when an incompetent professor is fired after offending a lot of people, they will get defended by a lot of well-meaning people who just don't know what they're talking about.

What Howell wrote in his email is not deserving of the name "philosophy," period. Yes, it is a course on Catholicism, but that doesn't mean intellectual integrity can go out the window. It's not just that Howell's views are stupid or offensive. It's that his ignorance and stupidity prevent him from satisfying reasonable criteria of competence. He shouldn't be teaching philosophy.