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Teaching and talking about religion

July 31, 2009

When a student brings up a controversial issue surrounding religion in a university class, the response of many professors is to change the subject – or risk finding themselves engaged in a discussion that can become uncomfortable, or even hostile.

The result is what Linell Cady, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, calls “the paradox of constrained inquiry.” Cady is a professor in the new School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“In the institution that should be most committed to free speech and academic freedom, we can, at times, fail to address the issues that matter most to people and warrant our deepest engagement,” Cady said.

To enable ASU to avoid that paradox, the center is working on the second phase of a $200,000 project funded by the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues initiative, “Teaching and Talking About Religion in Public.”

The centerpiece of the project is an 18-credit undergraduate certificate program in religion and conflict, which started last year. Six students completed the initial program and received their certificates this spring.

Certificate awardees were Rae Brendecke, Brian Hoblit, Sabrina LaZare, Whitney Meshay, Kristin Stelfox and Michelle Ritchie.

Creating the program required months of meetings to define what the certificate would be, identify appropriate courses from across the university for inclusion, and to secure faculty, departmental and college support for the plan, according to John Carlson, associate director of the center and coordinator of the certificate program.

But it was more complicated than just “plucking” existing courses from the catalog to include in the certificate. New courses were developed and existing ones revamped by the 15 participants in the inaugural faculty development seminar, which focused on the challenges faced when teaching about religion and the various dimensions of religion.

In the second phase of development, the Center will offer a series of pedagogy workshops that will “reflect further on the nature of dialogue in a classroom setting, an issue that was more complicated than we had anticipated,” Carlson said.

“These workshops play a critical role in cultivating an esprit de corps among the faculty teaching in the certificate program and will help to transform the academic culture of avoidance surrounding the teaching of religion.”

Chris Duncan, an anthropologist who teaches in religious studies and participated in the first faculty development seminar, said it taught him ways to engage students in discussions and cover topics that “may or may not be controversial” in a classroom.

Duncan said he wished that he had had the training before he encountered one of his most difficult students in his 300-level class “Religion and Global Politics.”

“The student had very strong, vociferous, anti-Islamic feelings, and he engaged in hate speech in class,” Duncan said. “He had very strong opinions that were not well educated. He liked to say things that were patently false.”

Had he had the student in class after he participated in the faculty development seminar, Duncan said he would have known better how to confront the student in a way that promoted dialogue and teaching for the class as a whole.

The second phase of the grant also will include the development of a core course and approximately eight modules that can be tailored to fit various disciplines.

"The goal of the core course is to ensure that students are exposed to a rigorous analysis of both theoretical issues and real-world cases each year," Cady added. Course modules will focus on topics such as religion and the state; issues of religion and identity; race and ethnicity; religion and the state; and religion and human rights.

A focus on religion in the university today is crucial, Cady said, because the American population is growing more and more diverse and religion is playing an increasingly public and politicized role both nationally and globally. To not address it across a wider spectrum of classes in academia has become “increasingly problematic.”

Long-term goals for the Difficult Dialogues program are twofold, according to Cady: to better prepare faculty to teach in religiously pluralistic classrooms, and to better prepare students to “live in a world of religious diversity and to understand how religion can be – but need not be – a factor in human conflict.”

Five of the six students who received the first certificates had double or triple majors, including religious studies. They found that the certificate classes meshed their areas of interest and brought them new insights.

Whitney Meshay of Mesa, whose majors were political science, German, and religious studies, said she discovered that the subject of religious conflict was “exceptionally interesting” after taking a class solely devoted to religious violence and conflict negotiation.

“I realized that this field was a perfect fit with my majors,” she said. “I then attended a peace building and human rights study abroad in South Africa, where I continued to learn about religion and conflict on a first-hand basis.”

Sabrina LaZare, who was born in Concord, Calif., but has lived in Arizona for the past eight years, majored in political science and religious studies.

“I decided to get the certificate because it blended my two majors perfectly,” she said. “You really can't understand religion without its political implications, and likewise you cannot understand politics without their religious undertones. The two claim to function in complete tandem yet wars and national crisis erupt if one goes out of the balance.”

Rae Brendecke a Tempe native, who majored in history and religious studies, said she has always loved history, and especially likes learning about great times of conflict and tragedy such as the Holocaust.

“I love studying these time periods because, in my opinion, they show the endurance of the human spirit, that even facing the most atrocious situations, with the right heart and attitude, you can survive and possibly change the world,” she said.

“The world is full of all types of conflicts, struggles against society, environment, tyranny, stereotypes, and so forth. Religion just seems to amplify the problems, taking the conflict from the worldly plane to the heavenly and also makes solving the conflict a lot more complicated.”

“I think studying the relationship between both religion and conflict is crucial to changing the world we live in, considering both are in the headlines daily.”