A few thoughts on the firing of Illinois Professor Ken Howell for airing his gay-hating Catholicism

Hold your church’s millenia-old beliefs at your own risk?

University of Illinois Instructor Fired Over Catholic Beliefs
Published July 09, 2010

URBANA, Ill. — The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech Professor Ken Howellby saying he agrees with the church’s teaching that homosexual sex is immoral . .

Howell, who taught Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, says he was fired at the end of the spring semester after sending an e-mail explaining some Catholic beliefs to his students preparing for an exam.

“Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” he wrote in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”

An unidentified student sent an e-mail to religion department head Robert McKim on May 13, calling Howell’s e-mail “hate speech.” The student claimed to be a friend of the offended student. The writer said in the e-mail that his friend wanted to remain anonymous.

“Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” the student wrote. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.”

This is a tough call. On its face, the professor’s case seems like a reasonable one: if he makes it clear that he’s airing his beliefs, then what’s the harm? It’s a venerated tradition in university settings to allow personal views to be expressed without them limiting or defining the intellectual discussion. In a best case scenario, one’s personal feelings can be ultimately changed by a decent battle of ideas. One realm is considered to be both bigger and more rigorous than the other.

But then intellectual arguments can be slippery. Your position can change pretty quickly depending upon the day, the arguers and the facts on hand at the time. Your beliefs are much more likely to be solid and un-changing.

So I can understand that a gay man would take offense at hearing that his professor believed him to be ‘immoral’ in both the religious and natural sense. You can’t imagine a professor saying the same thing about someone who happened to be black. Even if it’s only his silly belief, even if it’s merely (ostensibly) in a classroom discussion, it’s probably shocking and painful to hear.

So, how did we get to this unfortunate place, where a professor’s routine (for many Catholics) beliefs ended up getting him fired? It sounds like some sort of law has been broken, doesn’t it?

It’s because this particular religious belief is dangerously out of step with modern thinking and understanding. Specifically, religious folks Here we are!who damn what appear to be a group of behaviors, homosexuality, are actually damning a whole group of people. It’s tantamount to hate speech.

Even if it’s a sacred part of your religion, why should society tolerate this? Calling murder, or incest, or even theft a sin is a valuable tenet from society’s point of view: these behaviors cause damage to people. Society seeks to prevent and punish such things.

But the key difference that swings the religious view to publicly intolerable is that homosexuality is no crime: there’s no victim by definition in a routine, consensual homosexual act. In a civilized society, two adults certainly should be able to engage in this manner without condemnation or harassment. Or being barred from society’s benefits, or barred from work, or their animal persecutors being barred from prosecutions and imprisonment.

Especially when, as we are aware now, homosexuals appear to be born homosexual. It is almost always the case that a gay person will tell you that they have no recollection of ever being any different. I have no reason to doubt them. And any intention to disregard these memories because one prefers to view the reporters as morally flawed is a callow one.

Homosexuals are simply born gay, there’s no debate on this any more. So, when you call their behavior — natural behavior — unnatural or immoral or evil, it’s not just factually wrong, it’s an egregious act. You can try to hide behind whatever you like, but the net result is the same: it’s particularly uncivilized speech. You’re harming society. Period.

Thus, a college professor gets fired. Understandably, fired.

There was a time, centuries ago, when religion led society as a moralizing, civilizing power. It taught people to obey the rules, to respect life, to love one another and to get along when little was known of the natural world, or the people in the next hamlet, or county, or country. The secular world wasn’t quick to learn, but there’s no denying that religion worked as perhaps the only major institution to enlighten it.

Now, it seems as if the roles have reversed: it’s society which seeks to drag religion into the new world. I see no reason to be shy about expanding secularism’s role here as long as we can agree that it’s not anything to be taken lightly. The facts that homosexuality has always been and always will be part of humans’ existence, is a naturally occurring expression of sexuality and is a positive, not remotely criminal, way of behaving are damning of religion’s moribund or alabaster responses to the discovery of truths. If religions now refuse to honestly accept or discuss man’s essential worldly and spiritual characteristics, then we’ll be forced to shift the heeding of voices wholly into the public, secular realm.

This discourse, absent of ancient religious dogma, then becomes more than a cosmopolitan exercise, it becomes critically important for us to function in a meaningful way. It carries a bigger, more universal responsibility than it once did. And maybe it’s time that it should — do we really need to indulge people who believe that “sexual acts are only appropriate for people who areSexually uncomplementary. And demonically possessed. complementary, not the same”? That’s an argument conspiratorially stupid, one that any decent high-schooler would shred in mere seconds. For someone like me, with a background in Genetics, it’s a howler.

Well, then, what should the poor professor have done? After all, they’re only his personal beliefs, right? Yes — but his beliefs are insulting to civilized society. Sounds bad, but that’s because it is bad. Iron-clad religion can be very bad for us, and that’s a truth we’ve got to openly admit to if we’re to do right by our fellow man. If we’re to do more than pretend to make a moral world for everyone to exist in, we’re demanded to say it.

A wise professor might wonder if stating his beliefs, though they be held dear, amounts to categorically abominating a blameless fellow man. Society only increasingly sees this as anachronistic bigotry. I’ll ask that he refrain from it at the University, or at any other public place.


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