We all remember when UConn was infamous for a strutting, screaming maniac, fists balled, spewing profanity.
But it used to be the basketball coach, not the anthropology professor.
In 2014, the coach is Kevin Ollie, a reserved fellow who keeps his head when others are losing theirs, the kind of person who — when his team's chances were slipping away in that penultimate game against Florida — gathered them on the sideline and calmly wrote on a dry erase board, "Even Now, Faith."
In 2014 , the screaming, shoving, ball-fisted fanatic is anthropology professor James Boster, caught on YouTube Tuesday verbally abusing a creationist guy on the Storrs campus. In his shouted tirade, Boster made many references to a waste product of cattle farming and placed his fists at the creationist's chest level and pushed him. You could imagine an unhinged baseball manager doing this to an ump, except an ump would be wearing a chest protector instead of a sign that read "Evolution is a lie." Of course, you could also imagine the manager being summarily ejected.
I believe evolution is the truth, but I do not believe it is helpful to make that point by closely mimicking the behavior of a mountain gorilla working out its dominance issues.
"[Waste product]! [Waste product]! You are full of ignorance and lies," Boster shouts at the creationist, who backs away from him. The creationist is Don Karns, a self-styled open air preacher who, on a good day, is the guy you back away from. For years, Karns has traveled town-to-town, rattling nerves by yelling about Jesus in public spaces, and has been arrested more than once for his troubles. It's quite a feat to make the rest of us feel sorry for him, but Boster pulls it off.
They ain't making atheists like they used to. In fact, the new atheists do the exact thing that used to bother them so much about Christians: evangelize. There may be no connection, but in early April, UConn hosted atheism rock star Richard Dawkins, on stage at the Jorgensen, invited by university President Susan Herbst herself. Having Dawkins come talk about atheism is like having Bear Bryant come talk about football or, more pertinently, Billy Graham come talk about God.
Asked onstage about his aggressive views, Dawkins answered, "I'm not aggressive! Well, perhaps I'm angry. But I do believe in truth. I am moved by the beauty of life, as it has evolved. I think any child who is being denied that knowledge is being cheated. It's wicked that children are being brought up in that way."
Of course, Boster may not be an atheist. After he got out of Karns' face, he preached to a small crowd that "the divine saturates nature the way gravy saturates cornbread." Emerson? Schleiermacher? I can't place the quote.
In his research, Boster appears to be deeply interested in the emotional states of people with very different belief systems, especially the Shuar, an indigenous Ecuadorian people. The Shuar were especially famous for their tsantas, or shrunken heads, which, back in the day, they used to transfer the souls of enemies into the group of victors. Closely allied with this process are the invisible magic darts which the Shuar shaman stores in his phlegm and which can be used to bewitch a victim.
Of course, not all of this is borne out by hard science.
Now UConn leadership has a problem. In February, they came down hard on an assistant football coach who wanted players to know that Jesus is always in the huddle. Herbst wrote a letter to The Courant balancing UConn's commitment to "value everyone in our community, and treat each person with the same degree of respect, regardless of who they are, what their background is, or what their beliefs may be" with her insistence that "that our employees cannot appear to endorse or advocate for a particular religion or spiritual philosophy as part of their work at the university."
Can they bully an advocate of a particular religion? I'm not a believer, but I find "Even Now, Faith" more eloquent and inviting than "[Waste product]!" Boster should spend some time with Ollie. Or see a headshrinker.
Colin McEnroe appears from 1 to 2 p.m. weekdays on WNPR-FM (90.5) and blogs at http://courantblogs.com/colin-mcenroe/. He can be reached at Colin@wnpr.org.