Whether Darwin would have stood a chance against Dr. Terry Mortenson in a debate at Furman University on Wednesday night, the world will never know.
Not only is Darwin no longer among the living to participate in such a debate, but no Furman professors who were approached by a conservative student group to endorse Mortenson’s lecture as a part of a program that grants academic credit for attending cultural events were willing to support it.
The group, Conservative Students for a Better Tomorrow, is accusing faculty members of bias against conservative Christian speakers.
Brent Nelson, a political science professor who is chairman of the school’s Cultural Life Program Committee, which decides whether to grant credit for events, said it wasn’t because the topic was creationism that Mortenson’s talk never got traction as a for-credit event but because the speaker is academically unqualified to lecture on the origin of life.
Mortenson holds a Ph.D. in the history of geology from Coventry University in England. He also has a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Minnesota and a master’s of divinity in systematic theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois.
But he isn’t a scientist.
“It was not because of the content of the program,” Nelson said. “In this particular event the problems were with the credentials of the person that was to speak. He is a historian of geology. He is not a scientist.”
Mortenson told The Greenville News he believes he is qualified to speak on creationism because he has been doing it for more than 30 years.
“I’ve lectured since the late 1970s in 22 countries on this subject. I’ve spoken in universities, I’ve have had seven formal debates with Ph.D. scientists in four different countries,” he said.
He also “read a lot of geological writings” in doing research for his doctoral thesis, he said.
Lauren Cooley, chief executive officer emeritus of the conservative students group and one of the organizers of Wednesday’s lecture, said Mortenson’s degree “is incredibly applicable, even though it’s not a science degree. It’s a history degree.”
She noted that Furman has granted credit for students to attend such programs as a lecture by a drag queen performer. Nelson said that performance was put in context by a philosophy professor who spoke on gender issues.
Furman students must earn 32 cultural credits for graduation by attending approved events such as lectures and concerts, Nelson said.
Nelson, a former Republican candidate for governor and state superintendent of education, said Mortenson’s appearance could have worked as a for-credit lecture if the group had gotten someone to debate or give context in the area of Mortenson’s expertise in the history of geology.
Cooley, a political science major from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said she pitched the idea to Bryan Bibb, a Furman religion professor and got nowhere.
“I think the real problem is that there aren’t professors here that are even willing to sponsor conservative Christian speakers, so there’s no way we can even entertain the idea of having them be a part of the Cultural Life Program,” she said.
Bibb, who is a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, said he wasn’t interested in debating Mortenson because Mortenson isn’t a biblical scholar. Bibb said he offered to help the students organize a debate over biblical literalism in the book of Genesis with scholars from other universities, which could have qualified for credit.
“They were not interested in doing that because of the rhetorical points that they think they score with this particular speaker,” he said.
“And the distressing part is that then my refusal to debate somebody who’s not in my area was construed as an attempt to suppress the idea, which in my case has to do with literal biblical scholarship, which is something I was very eager to see debated on campus.”
Mortenson said he thinks Furman should let students decide for themselves if speakers who lecture on campus are qualified.
“If Furman University is teaching kids how to think and how to be scientific and how to understand truth, then this should be a tremendous academic exercise for them to come and listen to me,” he said.
“If I am an idiot who doesn’t know anything about what I’m talking about they should be able to spot all of my phony arguments and it would be a great educational experience for them.”
Nelson said the university had no problem with Mortenson speaking on campus, only with giving students credit for hearing him.
“Nobody has shut down his speech,” he said.