On my first day of work as a new assistant professor at the Permian Basin branch of the University of Texas, I signed in and bantered with one of the university secretaries, a nice woman who wanted to make me feel welcome. After we established that I did not wish to purchase any Amway products, she invited me to go to church with her family that weekend. "Oh, no thanks," I said.
"It's a lovely Lutheran church. You'll love it." After a few more urgings on her part, I gave her the truth: "Um, actually, I'm an agnostic." "Oh. Well, I don't think we have one of those churches here. You'll probably have to drive to Lubbock."
That was my introduction to the community in which I was to live and teach for three years. Each week I seemed to discover a new facet of the city's religious fervor. At faculty orientation, a history professor told me of a note that he received from a European history student explaining she would not attend class that week. The lecture topic: Darwin and the influence of On The Origin of the Species on late 19th-century English social policy. Even discussion of the theory of evolution as an historic event was not acceptable to this student.
I started my senior-level university evolution class with an introduction to the scientific method, and a brief history of the development of evolutionary theory, including its legal status. About a month into my first semester, I got my first hint that all was not well. I found a photograph of me from the student newspaper taped to my door with horns, blacked out teeth, and a "666" on my forehead. I took it down; another one was put up the next day. This seemed annoying but harmless.
Shortly after, the first assignment in my evolution class was due: a written review of a Stephen J. Gould paper. Here I discovered the anger of my students at being "forced" to take a course in what they perceived was blasphemy. Although I never stated my religious beliefs, by being the teacher of this subject, I was assumed to be an atheist, a communist, and a source of evil. Here is a sample of comments garnered from those student papers:
"The Word tells us there will be many false teachers in the end times, and I firmly believe that anyone who detracts, further interprets or lessens the context of the Word by applying worldly standards and principles is falling into Satan's deception and rapidly becoming one of those false teachers."
The persuasiveness of Gould's argument annoyed one student: "Just as some religion has attempted to manipulate with emotion, Gould has tried to coerce with intelligence."
I learned that one of my students was required to "confess" to the sin of attending my class before her whole church congregation. She eventually dropped out of class.
I also ran into conflicts when I taught my environmental ethics course. At least half the class maintained there was no need to be concerned about environmental deterioration, because the Apocalypse was coming. One student wrote: "I believe the Lord instituted marriage for the purpose of procreation and He did not set limits on family size....I believe the Lord is coming back to the earth to take the Christians to Heaven before overpopulation will have a chance to destroy the earth!"
This all became a great deal more serious when I began to get messages on my home answering machine threatening to assist me in reaching hell, where I would surely end up. I also received threatening mail messages: "The Bible tells us how to deal with nonbelievers: 'Bring those who would not have me to reign over them, and slay them before me.' May Christians have the strength to slaughter you and end your pitiful, blasphemous life!"
An envelope containing student evaluations from my evolution class was tampered with. A student wrote a letter to the president of the university claiming that I said in class that "anyone who believes in God gets an F." Despite the fact that she had never been in my class, and it was clearly untrue, a full investigation of the charge ensued.
There were other problems. Often I arrived in class to find "Dr. Feminazi" scrawled on the blackboard. An emotionally disturbed student assaulted me on campus. In town, Maurice Sendak's award-winning book Where the Wild Things Are was removed from school libraries, as it might "confuse children as to the true nature of Beelzebub." The California-based Institute for Creation Research (ICR) preached in the county stadium to 10,000 local people.
I finally resigned when I received an admonition from the dean in my yearly reappointment letter to "accommodate the more intellectually conservative students with a low threshold of offensibility" in my evolution course. Rather than compromise my academic freedom, I chose to leave what seemed to be a dangerous place.
Gwen Pearson is currently an assistant professor at Albion College in Michigan. Potential publishers for her book, God in a Box, may contact her at email@example.com.