A Dutch university prohibits a PhD student from thanking God in his acknowledgments
A Dutch university (Wageningen University) prohibited a PhD student from thanking God in his thesis acknowledgments. The student, Jerke de Vries, wrote, “My Father God, thank You, it’s the most wonderful thing to be loved and honoured by You.” The university refused to grant him his thesis unless he deleted this reference to God. The university argues that science should be independent from politics or religion (political statements are also banned). The student refused to delete God from his acknowledgments and instead tore the whole page of acknowledgments out altogether.
Is the university right to state that science should be independent from politics and religion, or is this a case of discrimination against religious persons? The university has refused to clarify their decision.
One hypothesis is that the university still holds a pre-postmodern view on independent research, and thinks that research can be entirely objective. Just as there are some dubious cases of research done for the pharmaceutical industry that are motivated by profit, most research is funded by some organisation, and politics often has a huge say in which research will be funded. So how can research be independent from politics? In previous blog posts, I advocated for researchers to make their normative assumptions explicit: if someone has a strong political or religious view on the world, I might like to read about it in the ‘declaration of interest’ section, or in the acknowledgments, if it is relevant for the topic. With the publications of Heidegger’s latest notebooks, it became increasingly clear that he had a strong affinity with Hitler’s politics. Does that mean we should disregard his whole philosophy? Some think we should. I would have preferred an explanation from Heidegger himself about how his political views informed his work, or vice versa, and how his political views might have changed over time. Now we will never know.
Another hypothesis is that the university thinks that religious statements make a work less credible. This is based on a certain view on religious thinking that views it as contradictory to scientific thinking. Before the Enlightenment, knowledge was thought to be revealed by God, and the Bible was an important source of knowledge. Doing research was seen as doubting God’s wisdom. But later, another view emerged within the Church claiming that the best way to honour God was to study his creations. Although many important scholars are religious, and some non-religious scholars claim that they got some of their insights through ‘revelations’ during the night or while relaxing in the bathtub, the view is still persistent among some people that religious people are less scientific.
Even if a religious statement in the acknowledgments makes people seem less scientific, the same counts for certain other acknowledgments. Acknowledgments are mostly used to outline which scholars one collaborated with, and in this sense, they say something about the professional relationships the researcher has. A small paragraph showing that one has a social life outside the academic career adds to an exposition of skills as well: one is more than a scientist alone, but has a social network as well and a good work-life balance. Wageningen University has a policy on political and religious statements in acknowledgments, but not about acknowledgments that are too personal and not professional enough (for example, thanking one’s pet, or being too affectionate in thanking one’s partner). I once read an acknowledgment wherein someone thanked scholars whom that person never collaborated with. The thanked scholars were surprised to be in the acknowledgment. Can I thank Nietzsche or Foucault in my acknowledgments? Their works have changed my life, but isn’t this a little bit misleading? Is this a kind of fraud that a university should develop a policy on? There are no other known cases in Wageningen University’s history of censoring these kind of acknowledgments (that is, ones that are too personal or misleading).
In all of the above scenarios it seems wise for the university to reconsider their policy. They have several options for this: 1. abolish their current policy and instead encourage people to be explicit about their political and religious thoughts if this is relevant for their work. 2. abolish their current policy on religious statements because it is informed by a wrong view on religious people, 3. Extend their current policy to encompass other statements that are too personal as well.