Religious debate should not be met with fear

In my article on May 23, “Dalai Lama’s Visit to the U Raises Big Question,” I noted the warm reception given to one religious thinker by the University community, but I called for more openness and greater freedom of expression concerning all religious perspectives. I made no reference to any one religion in particular. In that article, I lamented the fact there were people who were frightened because of that prospect. My assertion was their fear did not justify nullifying the right to free speech for students.

I was not surprised, therefore, to read Geoff Gunkler’s response to that article. In his letter to the editor, he immediately characterized my rather bland commentary as “another in a long line of truly frightening articles published by the Daily.” He also portrayed my article as “yet another weakly veiled attempt to instill Christian religious cosmology into our university’s science classes.”

Since fear does not foster continued dialogue, my hope is to put to rest some of his fear concerning my comments. My goal in that article was to foster an atmosphere at the University where all reasoned perspectives are respected.

In his letter, he makes reference to students’ science papers. Since I am not a science teacher, I have not been subjected to what I can imagine are many badly written science papers expressing religious points of view. When I wrote my article, my intention was not to defend those who still insist the world is flat or, as Mr. Gunkler cited, students who don’t “believe” in plate tectonics. I specifically anticipated this kind of problem when I said, “Debates have rules. Effective writing follows rules of evidence and argumentation. Academic freedom limits one to the topic at hand.” If Mr. Gunkler were open to it – and I hope he is – I am sure he could find some examples of well-written scientific papers incorporating religious-based insights.

Regarding his defense of science teachers, he states, to his knowledge, no teacher has ever lowered a student’s grade because of not believing in plate tectonics or something similar. He, of course, cites the most ridiculous example. While I anticipate few science teachers are going to admit to any prejudice, I am equally convinced there are many serious religious students who would testify to the contrary. Regardless of who is right, one thing is for sure: We have a definite conflict of perception regarding the facts. That needs to be addressed.

Rather than reacting with fear and outrage at the prospect that someone from a religious perspective might have an opinion regarding science, the scientific community would do well to prepare itself intellectually for the questions those perspectives raise.

Such an initial attempt was recently made. On May 6, scholarly papers were presented at a conference concerning the contributions Buddhism could lend to health care providers. Money for this conference came not just from the private sector but from the public as well, including the University. I have no problem with that. However, it seems to me, rather than just pick the currently favored religion, the University should be open to the intellectual contributions many religious traditions provide. Currently, Western students are deprived not just because Christian thought has been nearly eliminated on campuses, but also because few students are exposed to the contributions of any religious thought.

An example is the ignorance surrounding the contribution of Islamic scholarship to Western thought during the Middle Ages. Indeed it was the effort of those scholars (and at the same time Jewish thinkers) who kept knowledge alive during that time. Much of their effort laid the groundwork for the later scientific revolution, an intellectual movement built upon the religious premise that there is order in the universe.

No, the scientific community need not fear religious thought. (Nor should they whine about badly written papers.) Rather, they should welcome the challenge religious thought provides. Indeed, it is this liberal approach that characterizes a liberal education.

In order for this dialogue to happen, a distinction must be made between reasonable, thoughtful representatives of certain religious perspectives and those who are ignorant or intellectually dishonest. I am sure Geoff and I would agree on that.


Editor’s note: To read Michael J. O’Connor’s original piece and readers’ responses, visit Daily archives at for the dates of May 23, June 4, June 6, June 8 and June 11.


Michael John O’Connor is a University alumnus and owner of Language and Educational Services in Minneapolis. He welcomes comments at [email protected]