Religion should stay out of science classes

As Michael John O’Connor pointed out in a recent opinions column, the visit by the Dalai Lama to the University campus did indeed raise some “big questions.” The answers that O’Connor had for his questions, though, leave much to be desired. Instead of making an honest exploration into the mission of the University, as well as considering the impact religious and faith communities have on campus, O’Connor uses faulty reasoning to make a plea to inject a religious worldview (no doubt he would prefer his own specific one) into science classes across the campus. There are many reasons that would explain why it is better to keep a distinct line between science and religion, especially on the campus of a public university.

The first baseless assertion he makes is that there has been an effort to “shun rather than explore religious thought within the University.” However, far from the godless campus O’Connor envisions us to be, this is indeed a strong and vital religious presence on campus. According to the Campus Involvement Center’s Web site, there are 38 “religiously affiliated” groups on campus. So more than 10 percent of registered groups on campus exist to proselytize on behalf of their faith. These groups hold Bible studies, public events and worship on campus.

As opposed to proselytizing, the classical and Near Eastern studies department offers opportunities for an objective study and exploration of religion and religious thought. The section of the department dealing with religious studies is small but has been quickly growing over the past few years. Additionally, the Academic Health Center maintains a Center for Spirituality and Healing which attempts to meld “spiritual” healing techniques with western standards of medicine. Boynton Health Service has even become involved with “alternative medicine,” offering workshops for people who are interested. Though the University is secular and does not take a specific stance on religious issues, it would not be difficult to say that religion, as well as some spirituality, do permeate and impact students on campus.

O’Connor then claims “certain religious points of view are singled out for censorship.” This is where it gets to the heart of his complaint with our supposedly godless University. He states the University is not friendly toward students who question the “theoretical premises of their biology instruction” and that writing a psychology paper with “religious presuppositions about human nature is usually not well received.” He may have a valid point. However, there are some mitigating circumstances behind these actions, which are important to consider.

There exist many ways to define the relationship between religion and science. The spectrum ranges from claims that the two work together to reveal truth, or they operate in different realms of thought, or that they are mutually exclusive. In general, it would not be amiss to say science and religion acquire knowledge in very different ways. The scientific method, among other things, is based on empirical evidence, hypothesis, a willingness to incorporate newly discovered information into an already existing framework of knowledge and a self-correcting ability to catch errors. Religion, on the other hand, operates through revealed truth offered by supernatural beings. Primarily based upon blind faith, it proposes one possible moral and ethical framework for people to live by.

Science can only be used to gain knowledge about physical existence; it does not make value judgements or decide someone’s moral system. Science cannot give meaning to a person’s life, nor can it define a purpose for humanity, if one even exists. Indeed, at best, science can explain what, not why this world is. Despite O’Connor’s claims, science is not “the supreme and universal method for determining knowledge.” It instead serves as the best and currently most valid method to gain objective knowledge. This means in the future, it is entirely possible that some other method that can provide better tools to explain the universe will emerge and supplement or entirely replace the scientific method.

So with O’Connor’s example of a biology class; in actuality, it is possible and should be encouraged for students to question and discuss, from a scientific viewpoint, some of the premises they are taught. However, the “religious or philosophical perspective” O’Connor would like to bring in surely is creationism or intelligent design. Unfortunately, neither qualifies as scientific theories, with one reason being that neither can describe what conditions it would take to be falsified – a basic requirement for science. They are, in actuality, religious explanations. Though they offer, just as evolutionary theory does, an explanation of the earth’s biodiversity, this is not reason enough to discuss it in class. Just as a math class should be about math and not basket weaving, a science class should be about scientific theories, not religious ones.

It would be fallacious to think that by limiting what is taught and discussed in a science classroom to that which is scientific, that the University is somehow stifling free speech. Though O’Connor does not seem to realize it, a dialogue about these topics can and does exist outside of the classroom. Without a doubt, millions of students across thousands of campuses continue to wrestle with “big” questions they have. A university such as ours can continually contribute to the dialogue by producing critical thinkers, as well as offering up, especially in our science classes, the best and more recent evidences and theories about the world. It is up to the students to synthesize the knowledge gained from class with the beliefs, religious or otherwise, they hold. Universities, especially public ones, have no business attempting to tell students what religious values to accept or disregard. That, of course, explains why the Dalai Lama was part of an event students could choose to attend, instead of forcing classes to act as captive audiences.

A university such as ours has no reason to deny knowledge, suppress the truth, or squash debate. Indeed, these form the lifeblood of a vital campus. However, not every idea stands on equal footing. Especially in science classrooms, there is a standard that must be met in order for it to be part of the discussion. The religious viewpoints O’Connor alludes to do not meet these requirements. Some may interpret this as being hostile towards religion, but it is more likely that those who would do anything to interject religion into the science classroom see any attempt to rebuff this as being “hostile” toward religion. However, to insist that science be discussed in the science classroom is hardly unreasonable. Religion and science are simply different realms of thought and should be treated as such. By gaining a better understanding of the separation, limitations and potentials of the two, students are more prepared to discuss such issues out in the public square, something of vital importance which O’Connor and myself can undoubtedly agree upon.