Once she's done with her Physics 206 textbook this semester, University of Wisconsin freshman Tiffani Puccio plans to give the book to her mother. "She can kind of relate and get a different perspective, more along the lines of what I babble about," Puccio said. It's not thermodynamics or quantum theory that she's been telling her mother about, but religion. And the book isn't a hefty textbook of definitions and formulas, but rather a paperback titled "Seeking Truth: Living with Doubt," which the preface describes as a "polemic against all ideologies," including many religious doctrines. Puccio is a student in the eponymous course taught by the book's co-author, UW physics professor Marshall Onellion. Both the book and the class, the first to cover religion in the physics department, attack fundamentalism and the perceived conflict between religion and science, promoting permanent skepticism and doubt in matters of religion. "You don't have to accept one doctrine, absolute truth, religion or way of thinking to refute another," Onellion said in a sit-down interview with The Badger Herald. For the purposes of seeking truth, "our answer is don't pick any doctrine," he said. To this end, the doctrinal religions — identified by Onellion as Islam and many groups of Judaism and Christianity — are criticized for their attitude toward doubt. The course is part of a first-year interest group of the same name as the book, and the students enrolled — all freshmen — also take one zoology course and one religious studies course. They come from a variety of backgrounds, but none of them intend to major in the physical sciences or engineering, making the composition of the class unusual for physics, Onellion said. "Seeking" The students in Physics 206 don't have to take many notes. Although Onellion lectures on science topics, the class spends most of its time discussing and arguing over the assigned chapter of his book. The official purview of the class is science, the arts and religion, but almost any topic relating to the course's aim of investigating the "overlap between faith and reason" is open to discussion. During Tuesday's session, the conversation ranged from the price of condominiums in Madison to the literary beauty of the Bible. The class debated the true motivations of scientists and whether the American population is, on the whole, more fearful nowadays. At one point, Onellion even launched into an explanation of "buckyballs," the soccer ball-shaped carbon molecules that cause chimney soot to feel greasy. At the beginning of class, Onellion delivered a 10-minute lecture on the role of authorial credit in science and academia, then sat at the front of the room, often reclining with his hands clasped behind his head, as he fielded questions for the rest of the 75-minute period. Students peppered him with questions about statements from the book and his opening lecture, many of them hostile. Such discussion is encouraged; Onellion grades students on their ability to disagree with him. Those enrolled in the course write weekly papers that must dispute a point from the book, and Onellion expects them to argue with him in class. "They get points for asking questions, and, as I tell them, treating the professor as a tackling dummy," he said. The Book The open, unstructured discussion of the class is unpredictable: Although Tuesday marked the sixth anniversary of 9/11, the class made no mention of the attacks. This despite the fact Onellion's book, which decries fundamentalist religion throughout as an enemy of the truth, was inspired by the terrorist attacks. Onellion, who considers himself agnostic, realized after 9/11 that he knew relatively little about Islam. An Eagle Scout, he grew up attending a southern Methodist Church and was on his way to a God and Country Award when his family left the South. He had studied the Bible, but never any other religious texts, so he bought an English translation of the Koran and began studying Islam and other religions. Onellion began working on the book two and a half years later with Steve Fortney, a Stoughton novelist who attended a Lutheran seminary school but now practices Buddhism. They wrote the book as a reaction to a perceived difference between what they had concluded from their studies and what the media was saying about religion. "What we were hearing about science and religion was 'one is good and one is bad — you pick,'" Onellion said. He maintains that the two are not in competition, and can be complimentary: Doubt drives discoveries and innovation in science and spirituality, as well as in the arts, he says. Permanent skepticism and doubt are essential in the human quest to understand the nature of existence. "It is never really possible to find a single, complete, absolute truth," he said. The views contained in Onellion's book have struck some in his class as inflammatory. "A lot of students were surprised at how vehemently he goes after religion," class member Greg Scalzo said. "The brash opinions he puts out there on such an unknown topic bother you. It gets under your skin." Scalzo, who was raised Catholic and plans to begin attending services again once he decides on a church in Madison, disagrees with much of what Onellion says, but he says the class has caused him to question his beliefs. Religion reacts So far, controversy over the tenets of "Seeking Truth: Living with Doubt" has not spread beyond the class itself. Although Wisconsin state Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, who chairs the Committee on Colleges and Universities, declined to comment on the class, Nass spokesperson Mike Mikalsen noted that it is appropriate to study religion in state universities as long as it is done in the right manner. "We're not opposed to students, in an academic way, being presented with different religions," Mikalsen said. "We just want to make sure the university system provides a balanced approach to all religions." Several local religious figures, while agreeing with the general premise that doubt is an important part of understanding faith, drew distinctions between Onellion's view of its role and their own. A Catholic can and should entertain doubt, as long as he or she doesn't enter into a "radical stage of disbelief or rejection," said the Rev. Eric Nielsen of St. Paul's University Catholic Center. But although humans have a moral obligation to search for the truth, they should not adopt a permanent state of skepticism, he added. "Catholic teaching is that we are capable of seeing the truth and need to respond to it," Nielsen said. "To do otherwise would be to reject the truth. That's what would cause you to lose your soul." Nielsen had no problem with the university offering a class espousing the virtues of skepticism, but thought it should be balanced with contrasting views. "They should also teach a class on the virtue of finding a dogma and living by it," he said. The Rev. Ridley Usherwood of High Point Church, a Madison evangelical congregation, said the search for truth should start with faith rather than doubt. "Looking at the origin of truth, or the creator, that is a good beginning," he said. Usherwood also disagreed with the view that science and religion are equal paths toward truth, as Onellion claims in "Seeking Truth." Faith in God is "more balanced than the relevant truth we conjure up by observation," Usherwood said, referring to scientific discoveries. "We should bring research or discovery in line with [faith]," Usherwood said. UW juniors Tarek Elgindi and Rizwaan Akhtar, treasurer and board member, respectively, of the Muslim Students Association, said Islam shares the goal of seeking truth with Onellion's book but promotes a different end than permanent skepticism. "The central goal of the human is to enhance your mind and seek knowledge," Elgindi said. "That is supposed to lead you to the truthfulness of God and belief." Doubt incurred in reading the Koran is natural, Elgindi said, since it takes at least 15 years of study to begin to interpret the language it contains, and consulting a religious scholar is encouraged in Islam. But there are many parallels between the faith- and doubt-based pursuits of the truth, he and Akhtar said. "We can't know in this life if we will achieve the ultimate truth," Akhtar said. "We are, to a certain extent, living with doubt." Check out some additional commentary by Badger Herald features editor Alec Luhn in The City Within. Correction: A minor clarification was made on Sept. 13, 2007, to the original story.
Living with doubt
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