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.

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16 Responses to A Dutch university prohibits a PhD student from thanking God in his acknowledgments

  • Keith Tayler says:

    As an atheist I would like to see religion removed from education and just about every other area of life. However, PhD and higher degree acknowledgements are a bit like Oscar acceptance speeches – sometimes amusing and interesting, mostly long, over inclusive and duplicitous.

    I do not think the examiners should have sight of the acknowledgement until they have made their decision to pass or fail the candidate. Their concern should be the contents of the thesis, not who is or is not being thanked by the author. The acknowledgements can be revealed when there is no chance they might influence the examiners decision. If someone then wants to thank God, a lucky mascot, or claim they acquired their knowledge when they were abducted by aliens, so be it. Who knows, instead of always thanking supervisors we might find some honest souls say they were lazy incompetent plagiarists. If candidates are allowed to be uninhibited in what they say, it might in itself provide an area of research for future intellectual historians.

    • North Gienow says:

      Great comment Keith. I agree wholeheartedly.

      Freedom of religion and belief is a principle that was created to support the freedom of an individual in public or private to manifest religion or belief. To me this appears to include through teaching and practice and day-to-day routine. It is considered by many to be a fundamental human right. I myself, do not attribute myself to any organized religion or sect but have no problems with those who do.

      An acknowledgement should have no merit whatsoever towards the final mark of a thesis and should in no way influence a final decision. It would be perhaps a slightly different story if it were a high school essay, but in the case of a doctoral thesis, a certain degree of personal influence and belief is to be expected.

      Provided the student did nothing to insinuate that others would benefit from the presence of God in their lives or that his methods were in any way superior to others’, I see nothing condemning about his acknowledgements including some minor, innocent, religion condentations.

      On a more basic degree, if the university’s individual policy is to prohibit the use of personal religious beliefs in student-created thesis’, it is entirely within their rights as a public institute and it is on the student to ensure that they are familiar with school policy. The university argues that science should be independent from politics and religion, but it could be easily argued that none can exist without the others.

  • Kelsey Rieger says:

    According to the Netherland’s (where the university is located) laws, freedom of religion is allowed. This PhD student, in my opinion, should be allowed to thank the superior being that he believes he lives his life for. Science and Religion have always been an issue on whether they belong together or not. Some people agree and others don’t. I think that everyone should be able to believe what they want on that matter and also respect other’s choices on what they believe. Personally, I don’t think it’s respectful for people to shove their religions down other peoples throats if they already have a religion or don’t have one at all. However, this student doesn’t sound like he wants to do that. Yes, the university has a policy of religious statements in acknowledgements and that policy should be respected. But freedom of religion should also be respected. I myself am not a religious person but to hear someone thank God is not offensive to me and I’m sure not to other people as well. I think that this student should be able to thank God in his acknowledgement as long as it is simple and respectful.

  • Gary says:

    As someone who spends a great deal of his time moaning about how european liberalism has spent the last 20 years telling people what they can and can’t think, I’m glad to finally find an example where political correctness is to my own benefit. I don’t want to be reading people thank God in their thesis.
    However, I still believe in people’s right to think and speak in any way they choose, without constantly being told what is and isn’t correct. It’s a bit silly to thank God on a thesis. Please just let him suffer the court of public opinion. Let the marketplace of ideas determine what’s correct.

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    There is a great deal of difference between thanking God in the acknowledgments and citing “God: personal communication.” as a reference. In the first case it is a matter of a “social” relationship – some form of thankfulness, honor or emotion directed towards another part – while in the second case it is epistemic (and likely very debatable).

    It makes sense to academically demand that dissertations have good epistemic standards, but it is less clear we should judge authorial social chocies. If somebody thanked a notable climate denialist in the acknowledgements for warm support we might wonder about the choice of friends, but there is little epistemic reason to worry (there would be if they are used as information sources of course). Even more so for thanking an infamous racist or dictator: it might reflect badly on the author, but it does not have anything to do with the dissertation content. And since the content is the only thing judged, the acknowledgments are irrelvant.

    I think the reasoning the university may use is that the dissertation is a publication of the university, so if it thanks God, then the university is complicit in religion. But this would also make the university take a stern view towards academics expressing uncomfortable views or investigating unsavory topics that – despite actual intellectual merit – may affect the reputation of the university. It seems that the best policy is to acknowledge that the views of the dissertation are the author’s own; if any shade is to fall on the university it would be that it has not educated the student well enough, or not filtered out bad content (whether stupid writing or plagiarism). Anything else both limits academic freedom and forces the university to wrestle with value questions.

    (Of course, some religious universities likely do have the opposite kind of rules: I would not be surprised if a Catholic university would object to an atheist or protestant acknowledgment. But they at least can claim explicit values underlying their academic work. Whether we outsiders would think more or less about them for this is another matter.)

  • Morton Rubinger says:

    It’s ludicrous to suggest that there is any logical connection between acknowledging subconscious thoughts or ‘revelations’ in the creative or scientific discovery process and whether ‘religious people are less scientific.’ Clearly there are respected scholars who are religious. But scientists, whatever their beliefs, cannot use the way of religious thinking in their scientific work. The scientific method proposes ‘provisional truth’ that is subject to testing by anyone. Religious thinking proposes absolute truth based on accepted authority and is not open to testing by anyone in any level below the top of the hierarchy.

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      One interesting example is the work of the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. A mathematical prodigy, he claimed he was given insight by the goddess Lakshmi. However, he *proved* theorems: regardless of whether he got divine inspiration, just copied Lakshmi’s copy of The Book (vide Erdös), or did everything himself, each step of the proofs is inspectable and understandable. Their validity does not depend on where they came from. He made a lot of conjectures too, some of which have held up, some of which have failed: here we might apply some measure of how often we noticed him being right in judging our credence of their correctness. Again, whether there was a goddess involved doesn’t matter to their truth or falsity (although it is embarassing for the theists that some were provably wrong). The divine aspect may play only a part in our (and his) storytelling about his work.

      If somebody claimed their dissertation was divine revelation and hence unquestionable, then they would likely have trouble getting it approved. But I suspect they would not care for what mortal institutions thought. The real problem would of course happen if somebody started pointing out factual errors. But as we have seen, religious people are pretty good at handling such problems with their scriptures.

      • Tim Roberts says:

        This is a splendid comment. I quibble only about the embarrassment of theists. Only those theists who believed in Lakshmi, and also believed that Ramanujan was always infallibly inspired by Lakshmi, would have have been embarrassed. Scientists are not much concerned when a particular hypothesis fails an experimental test. They abandon the hypothesis, modify it, or try the experiment again. They do not abandon the scientific method.
        But maybe to raise this argument only confirms how good theists are in meeting challenges to their beliefs?

  • Libby Abrams says:

    I believe that the university should have granted the students thesis. This student should be able to have the freedom to thank God in his acknowledgment. Only if it is in his religion and if it is not insulting others. Science and religion are two very different topics but I believe that you cant have one without the other. This student didn’t mean any harm or to insult others by this comment and he shouldn’t have had to take it down because the University disagrees with it.

  • Ibrahim Taiwo Adeleke says:

    Dear friends,

    In the first place, the University needs to note that it is the religiousity of people that make them conform with ethical standards which reasearch and scinece preaches always. Hence, it is good to assume thoroughness and ethical thoughtfulness in resaearch when a religious person is involved. Indeed, those who fear the Supreme Being who created everything are considerably and relatively more reliable and they form part of good researchers.

    Secondly, thanking Allaah (God) is an obligation that every sane human owe his Creator whether in scientific writing or in mundane activities. It points to his responsiveness and being responsible.

    In the same vein, acknowledgement in thesis unlike in scholarly publications, is not just to honour those who render direct scientific assistance. Rather, all who matters in the student’s academic life like parents, lecturers, spouse, immediate family and course mates. Imagine, appreciating these people who have no direct scientic touch without appreciating Allaah, The Supreme.

    I urge the Univeristy to grant this student his PhD thesis without further unnecessay scrutiny.

    Thank you

    Adeleke IT
    080436H

    • Nikolas Schaffer says:

      “Hence, it is good to assume thoroughness and ethical thoughtfulness in resaearch when a religious person is involved.”

      Nonsense. Many religious teachings can be shown to be highly unethical in nature. Islam, for example, encourages the practice of Taqiyya and Kitman, deliberate deceit when communicating with non-believers. Also, scientific theories are often “privately” subject to religious interpretation by religious believers – for example, the theory of evolution as “understood” by the Vatican is quite different from the actual scientific theory. If anything, the knowledge that a scientist is highly religious should mean that their work is subject to particularly sceptical scrutiny.

  • Jake D says:

    I understand the intentions of the university’s policy, to limit the influence of religion and politics, in scientific research. Scientific research should remain unbiased, and should not be influenced by anything other that the truth, and data that presents its self. This is science. I fully support honest research, and I believe that it should remain untouched by political or religious motives that may cause omissions, bias, or other flaws in the results.

    On the other hand, being religious does not necessarily mean that the individual is incapable of conducting proper research. For many ( if not most) religion is a part of ones personal life, and may not affect other areas such as research. IF it is kept to a personal level I see no issue with it. In this case it was only on a personal level, as far as I know it did not interfere with the research, or actual science of the work. Their for I do not believe that it violated the university’s policy on trying to maintain the purity of science. A merely personal comment, such as this is by no means unacceptable, and I believe that it shows a general un-acceptance of religion amongst this scientific community, and a continued bias against the ideas of religion.

    Although religion and science, are quite different things, I believe that religion offers a useful moral grounding, and a system of ethics, that would not interfere in any way with the principals of science. If anything I believe that these traits could potentially be beneficial to science, and scientists.

    a slight personal touch such as this is just that, a personal touch. I believe that this is to some degree expected on a thesis acknowledgement. It is by no means a threat to science, and I think that the universities response was to some extent rather childish, in their inability to see the distinct separation. Although I am not a religious person I see no issue in this what so ever. Except the university’s in ability to recognize that as a public institution it is their duty to accept the personal lives of it’s students, as just that, personal. And to be open to the public, and allow the public to remain free within (with in reason).

  • Mikayla Specht-Ponto says:

    I believe that this student should have been able to thank whomever he may choose in his acknowledgments, because they are solely his own and have no influence of his scientific information.

    By acknowledging God in his thesis, this student is merely showing appreciation for someone who he believes has had an impact on his work; which should in no one influence the quality of his thesis. Religion too many is a form of community and expression, and if the university believes that taking away something as wholesome as that from someone will in anyway determine their scientific abilities, then all other acknowledgements may have a contrary side as well.

    Although I myself am not viewed towards one religion, and am still learning what religions have to offer, I do not believe that someone thanking God in a thesis would have any influence whatsoever on their scientific abilities. Although the student could have taken into consideration the rules and policies of the school when stating his religious acknowledgments, which I understand, I do not believe the school should base the quality of his thesis off of who he chooses to thank or not to thank. If his thesis is good that’s all there is to it, it has nothing to do with what he’s thankful for.

    As well, if the university believes that science should be independent from religion, then I don’t think thanking God should have any impact on this student’s thesis. Although I would understand the issue that may be at hand if this students based his religious views towards his scientific views, by perhaps saying that his views were right or better because God was on his side. However, the student was merely thanking God for whom he believed had helped him on his journey to a scientific discovery, much like he may thank his parents, peers or professors. Therefore, although in some cases religious and political views could account for a thesis if the student for example based the value of his work on God. However, merely thanking a higher being in something as simple as an acknowledgment should have no impact on this students scientific abilities or his thesis.

  • Morton Rubinger says:

    I think Keith Tayler’s comments back on Jan 20 were on the mark and that many subsequent remarks were surprisingly weak. The quality of the thesis and not any acknowledgements should be the deciding factor in the success of the candidate. And if it is evident to the examiners that should be sufficient.
    I was surprised by how many writers seemed to equate a PhD thesis to a personal communication something like a book or even an email. That is clearly not the case. It is a work of scholarship meant to demonstrate a high level of thinking that meets the standards of the university. And every university has stringent requirements about the manner of citation, presentation, etc. of the work. Other ways of presenting the work would probably not diminish the quality of the work. But universities believe that demonstrating that the writer can meet a set of standards lends credibility to the work. So why was the university concerned?
    I think because giving thanks to God in the context of a work of scholarship detracts from scholastic credibility. It is clear that belief in western religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) requires belief in magic. The belief in miracles and other supernatural powers is a belief in magic. And calling something a religious belief does not exempt it from being a belief in the magical. As Russell Shorto says in Gospel Truth, his book on the search for the historical Jesus, “There is no such thing as magic. In the real world, people do not return from the dead or walk on water or turn into frogs.”
    But anyone thanking God must appear to believe in one of these religions (and it is always only one because each religion claims to the only true religion). I would think that most universities would be reluctant to include in the thesis of their candidates for PhD a statement that suggests that “Our most advanced students believe in magic.” I think that this is a good reason for banning thanks to magical beings in a work of scholarship and is probably a more credible indication of the high level of a thesis than a statement that says “We are a world class institution.”

    Morton Rubinger

    • A. Peters says:

      You do realize that a great many of the faculty at the greatest institutions in the land believe in God right? Should the institution be ashamed to say that its top members believe in God? Should they include such criteria when hiring a faculty candidate? Such an idea is absurd and I am sure agreement with it is exceedingly rare amongst faculty. I know plenty well enough to say that.

  • Abi N says:

    Although I can understand where the University is coming from in saying that they do not want this student to acknowledge God in his speech, I personally believe that the student should have the right to acknowledge whomever he pleases in his speech. If God helped him out along the way, He should definitely be acknowledged.

    I do not believe that science and religion are different from one another; they go hand in hand. Therefore I don’t understand how being religious can cloud a scholar’s judgement. If people can look to other scholars for more knowledge, and create their own ideas, should they not be able to look to God as well?

    Some people believe in their professors, and it is perfectly acceptable for them to be acknowledged in a speech. So why is it different for a student who believes in God? Everyone believes in different things — material objects, other people, or God. Why should this student be denied a thesis because of his belief, while another student be awarded one for his?

    This could be turned into a debate on Freedom of Religion, but I don’t think that is necessary. I just think that people should acknowledge that everyone has their own belief systems, and can credit whomever they choose for their successes, failures, etc. Whether it be God, Buddha, or your mother, people deserve to have the right to credit their God for their success in life. No one can do anything absolutely alone; there are always people there to help them out in some way. And those people deserve to be given an acknowledgement, no matter who it is.

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