LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A Christian astronomer who sued the University of Kentucky for religious discrimination says the perceived divide between faith and science is an "illusion."
Martin Gaskell claimed he lost out on a top science job because of his professed faith and statements he made that were taken to be critical of evolution. The controversy fueled the long-running debate between scientists and Christians who believe the Bible refutes some scientific discoveries.
Gaskell said the two sides can find agreement. He has, as a devout Christian who uses the tools of science to study the universe.
"That's one of the things that people like myself really want to counter, is this idea of some sort of incompatibility between religion and science," Gaskell told The Associated Press.
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The university reached a $125,000 settlement with Gaskell last month in exchange for dropping the civil action. He said professors who discussed his employment misunderstood his faith and his views on evolution in interoffice e-mails that later became court evidence.
Gaskell, who studies supermassive black holes at the University of Texas in Austin, said he considers himself a "theistic evolutionist": a Christian who accepts Darwin's theory along with evidence that the earth is billions of years old.
"We believe that God has done things through the mechanisms he's revealing to us through science," he said. He has also written that evolution theory has "significant scientific problems" and includes "unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations."
Gaskell said scientists shouldn't be discouraged or rejected for holding non-mainstream views.
"The question some people ask me is 'If I were a biologist and if I did have major doubts about the theory of evolution, would that disqualify me from being a biologist?'" he said. "And I'd firmly say 'No ...'"
But some prominent scientists disagree with Gaskell on that point.
"You can't discriminate based upon religion," said Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, a science advocacy group in Oakland, Calif. "You can discriminate based upon scientific views. It's perfectly legitimate to discriminate against a candidate based on whether that candidate's scientific views are acceptable to the discipline."
Best-selling atheist author and biologist Richard Dawkins recently wrote about the Gaskell case, suggesting that a scientist's religious beliefs should not be exempt from scrutiny.
"Even if a doctor's belief in the stork theory of reproduction is technically irrelevant to his competence as an eye surgeon, it tells you something about him," Dawkins wrote. "It is revealing. It is relevant in a general way to whether we would wish him to treat us or teach us."
Gaskell, 57, attends church weekly and was raised in a church-going family in England. He came to the U.S. as a college student when he received a scholarship to University of California at Santa Cruz.
He brought impeccable credentials to Lexington in 2007 when he applied for the director position at UK's new student planetarium.
Gaskell said he grew suspicious during the interview when he was asked about a lecture he gave that explores Christianity and science. A few months later, Gaskell learned from a colleague that he didn't get the job, and he was told that scientists in a separate department — biology — had been consulted.
In one e-mail from court records, a biology professor said he believed Gaskell's "public premise is to provide as much intertwining between science and religion as possible and this will most certainly lead to misconceptions about scientific evidence."
Scott, who taught at UK in the 1970s, said UK scientists were likely "really, really sensitive" about the university's image as the newly opened Creation Museum was attracting national attention to Kentucky by asserting the Earth was 6,000 years old.
A member of the search committee worried that "creationists in the state would be eager to latch on to" Gaskell's hiring.
Gaskell said he never felt apprehensive about suing the school.
"If it had been a more borderline case, if the evidence had not been so clear, then I would have (hesitated)," he said. "But it was so clear right from the start."
The $125,000 settlement was based on lost income, and the amount is what Gaskell would've received if he had gone to trial and won the case, he said.
Gaskell said since the case ended he has received about 400 e-mails with words of encouragement ranging from atheists to soldiers and other Christians who work in the sciences.
He said he wants to work to encourage more Christians to enter the sciences.
"One thing I feel really strongly about that we need to convey to students that the scientific questions are not all settled," he said. "If all scientific questions were settled I think science would be rather dull, because what I like doing is research and solving unsolved problems."
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