Secular focus neglects preparing U students

One of the characteristics of the West is it doesn’t want to appear to discriminate against any religion or creed. The thinkers of the culture manifest this fear by never thoroughly investigating the teachings of those creeds.

Now that we are engaged in a war with militant, radical Muslims, it pains Western opinion-makers to admit our current crisis is at least in part religious. This tendency to avoid these issues is a luxury we can no longer afford. This is especially true for Western universities.

One important issue is whether public universities, such as the University of Minnesota, can exist as a place of religious and cultural diversity and, at the same time, thoroughly investigate the premises upon which various religions and cultures build their thought systems. It seems to me we cannot sacrifice either approach.

Recently, public universities have given much support to creating a welcome and diverse environment. However, in doing so, they have had to sacrifice intellectual integrity. Important issues such as religion have been neglected. Given the recent events that have occurred not only in the United States but also throughout the world, attention is now turning to the issue of religion.

Chief among issues is the need to examine the possible connection that exists between a religious idea system and its influence on human behavior. To do so does not mean we are beginning a campaign to deprive people of their rights or their religion, nor does it mean everything of their religion is wrong. It is only admitting ideas have consequences.

In fact, such an inquiry could be of great benefit by causing positive changes and should be done with great compassion and sensitivity. It seems to me this investigation should be conducted especially by the religious members themselves, but not limited to them. Universities should encourage scholarly religious communities to develop within the university walls. These would be scholars who would foster honest investigations and submit to working together in a collegial fashion.

The University, as one of the culture’s leading “think tanks,” carries with it certain obligations. For the University not to investigate these issues, especially for fear of offending or for fear of reprisals, would prove to be not only anti-intellectual but also cowardly and uncaring. The issues are too important and the well being of too many peoples are at stake.

There are some within public university communities who engage themselves in religious investigation, but only on an experiential or aesthetic level. They are impressed by the beauty of the poetry or the adventure of a story. Indeed, much can be said about the beauty of the many traditions and their stories. However, few investigators really wrestle with the truth claims of those religions. Often they feel religion is beyond the realm of factual or historical analysis. As a result, they either reject religion as a source for finding truth or they become captive to following subjective visions and are left without any means to objectively investigate them.

There are many questions regarding religions that need to be examined calmly, squarely, and with courage. Here are a few: What in the religion is worthy of positive, universal attention? What does it have to say about the human condition or the nature of the divine? What is the relationship between a religion and the surrounding culture? Does the religion respect freedom of conscience or does it impose conformity by cultural sanctions, even by physical force? Do the sacred writings or critical teachings of a religion overtly promote violence against other religions or cultures? Are the members of the religion encouraged to think critically about what they read and hear or must they just accept and memorize without questioning? If so, how does this influence their philosophy of education, their way of thinking, and their society as a whole? How do religions differ one from the other? What are their key concepts? How do they differ within their various subdivisions or denominations?

Unfortunately, most universities are ill-equipped to tackle these questions. When it comes to religion, academic inquiry almost crawls to a halt. For example, when questions like these are raised, there are two common ways to avoid them. Many (if not the majority) of university scholars, following a philosophical position called logical positivism, have rejected all other philosophical inquiries because they deem them to be mythic, superstitious, or irrelevant. Or the postmodernists, who reject positivism, avoid serious religious issues by saying all such questions are relative and therefore morally equal. In contrast to the logical positivists, they assume everything, not just religion, is mythic. To date, both approaches have failed to produce much insight concerning religion.

It seems to me one of the important roles of a university is to be involved with the great debates of its time. A university should be a place where issues can be discussed in a civil and intellectual fashion without fear of reprisal. No one intellectual filter should be allowed to limit that debate. Nor should we exclude individuals from the debate who hold to a certain philosophical framework.

Right now the great debate of our time has less to do with strictly materialistic concerns and more to do with religious, ethical, and philosophical issues. For some time now, most universities have buried their heads in naturalistic, scientific sands.

A scientific approach alone, however, will not insure the University fulfills its mission. This will come only as a university pursues intellectual inquiry in all of its many facets. Students, however, need to be better equipped if they are to succeed in this task, especially regarding religious issues.

Michael O’Connor is an alumnus and former University teacher. He welcomes comments at
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