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Take this Non-Expert Advice

Take this Non-Expert Advice
By: Mark E. Fowler

Overview: How to teach about religious diversity without being a world religions “expert.”

Editor’s Note: This blog post was written in response to a request from a participant in our spring webinar with Teaching Tolerance, Religious Diversity in the Classroom: Applications for High School Educators. Click here to watch the recording via a free registration process.

Have you ever had to teach a subject you weren’t very familiar with? Outside of class, you were reading the textbook just ahead of your students, asking other teachers and community members for help and looking for digestible summaries of topics when trying to prepare. During the trainings and webinars that Tanenbaum provides, it’s clear that many participant teachers feel this way about teaching the major world religions. They often ask for more information and have said that their lack of knowledge about different religions prevents them from broaching the subject at all.

Teaching about religion may sound difficult if you do not have a background in religious studies or a personal affiliation.  But Tanenbaum and Teaching Tolerance believe that educators are completely capable of addressing religious diversity in a respectful, informed way – expert or not!  What’s more, teaching about religious and nonreligious identities helps students develop religious literacy – a vital skill for the twenty-first century.

Developing religious literacy includes a basic understanding of the histories, central texts, beliefs, practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world’s religious traditions, as they arose out of and continue to shape particular social, historical and cultural contexts. This literacy equips our students with the ability to get along and work with a diversity of identities.

According to Tanenbaum’s education consultant, Kim Keiserman, “As teachers, we have to become accustomed to learning new things along with our students. We may know some things in our subject area very well, and other areas are less familiar to us.” When teaching about diverse beliefs, which serve as important personal identity markers for billions of people, it is not possible to know the practices and traditions of every person. Tanenbaum’s World Religions Fact Sheet gives teachers a general overview of the world’s major religions, but when it comes to teaching about religious diversity, the method of presenting information may be equally as important as your personal mastery of the topic, maybe even more so. Fact sheets like this one show the vast diversity and scale of the major world religions, which may seem intimidating at first. As with all subjects, your knowledge and comfort with teaching about religion can grow over time.

We emphasize that teachers don’t have to be “experts” as long as they follow good practices:

  • Ensure a safe, inclusive classroom environment when discussing religious differences by following Tanenbaum’s Seven Principles for Inclusive Education.
  • Communicate with parents about the learning objectives, explaining that their children will be learning about religious differences, not being indoctrinated into different religions.
  • Allow students to explore their own identities, recognizing that the more they understand themselves, the more they can understand others.
  • Learn alongside your students with up-close exposure to diverse traditions. Expose them to the “lived religion” of real people by allowing them to read primary sources and personal stories, interact with guest speakers, interview community members and take field trips to houses of worship.
  • Explore the commonalities among different belief systems, as well as the differences. Tanenbaum’s Shared Visions project reminds us that the world’s religions share many core values. Read shared visions on the value of education here.
  • Examine your assumptions about religion. The American Academy of Religions suggests that teachers “examine what assumptions they harbor about religion generally and religious traditions in particular.” Teachers who are aware of their own biases will be better able to overcome them and present facts and ideas in an objective manner.

In a previous blog post, we encouraged teachers to coach students to “be honest about the limits of our understanding. … While we can learn a lot about them, we cannot completely understand the lived experiences of people or how their belief system influences their identity and daily lives.” This advice is relevant for teachers as well. As you discuss religious traditions in the classroom, be wary of the burden of being a spokesperson—the assumption that any one person’s perspective represents the experiences or beliefs of an entire group. Just as we may not know all of the answers to questions about a particular faith, no one person can be expected to speak as the authority on his or her faith tradition.

Navigating the teaching of world religions can be hard for teachers who are used to having all the right answers about a particular topic. However, the study of religious diversity provides an excellent opportunity to model attitudes of respectful curiosity to students. If you don’t assume you already know everything about a group of people, then you will be less likely to form stereotypes or hurtful generalizations. With this attitude in mind, students can follow suit.

Fowler is the managing director of programs at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. He would like to acknowledge the significant contribution of Rachel Sumption to this blog post.

Agree to (Respectfully) Disagree

Agree to (Respectfully) Disagree
by Marisa Fasciano

Overview: How to teach students to respectfully engage with peers of differing religious belief systems.

Most educators would agree that it’s important for students to respect classmates with different religious or nonreligious beliefs. But what if the doctrine or practices of the belief system in question contradict students’ values or marginalize or limit their identity group? Or what if a student has experienced microaggressions or harassment from peers of a different religious tradition? How do you respond when a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?”

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals make up one identity group that has experienced unequal treatment within certain religious traditions. According to a 2013 survey of LGBT Americans by the Pew Research Center, a vast majority describe Islam (84 percent), the Mormon Church (83 percent), the Catholic Church (79 percent) and evangelical churches (73 percent) as unfriendly toward them. This perception is corroborated by another Pew survey of the general American public. Although support for gay marriage continues to increase (just over half of Americans favor it), “opposition to gay marriage—and to societal acceptance of homosexuality more generally—is rooted in religious attitudes, such as the belief that engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin.”

If your students feel excluded or offended by faith-based rules and opinions, you can still encourage respectful conversations on religious diversity. Here’s how.

Distinguish People From Doctrines and Practices

Rather than asking your students to respect all belief systems, ask them to practice respecting all people, regardless of their belief system. Students don’t need to agree with their classmates’ religious or nonreligious beliefs, but they should be expected to interact with them in ways that are constructive and civil. In a previous blog post, we highlighted the multiple facets of a person’s identity. Pointing out similarities in some facets amidst differences in others can help students engage in these positive interactions.

Avoid Assumptions Based on Religious Identity

Just because an individual belongs to a particular belief system doesn’t necessarily mean he or she agrees with all of its tenets and practices. In fact, in some cases, a majority of adherents disagree with decisions of the leadership. For instance, a survey by Univision found that 59 percent of Catholics in the United States think the church should let women become priests, a belief that contradicts the current decision of church leadership.

Within Islam, vocal and active feminist movements aim to counteract misogynistic interpretations of Islamic texts by male imams. Rather than abandoning their faith in the quest for gender equality, many Muslim women combat oppression by appealing to Islamic texts and laws. For example, one of Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers in Action, Jamila Afghani, created the first holistic gender-sensitive imam training program in Kabul, Afghanistan.

By exposing your students to diverse perspectives within a particular faith, you help diminish the likelihood that they’ll incorrectly attribute specific attitudes and opinions to all individual members of a religion.

Keep in Mind That Emotional Reactions Have a History

Prior to walking into your classroom, students may have experienced bullying or negative comments about themselves and the belief systems to which they belong. In extreme cases, teachers have even made questionable or inappropriate comments to students about their religious traditions. An awareness of this potential history will put students’ emotional reactions into context and underscore the importance of creating inclusive, respectful learning environments where students are encouraged to abide by established rules of engagement.

Provide Tools for Respectful Disagreement

Educators can give students tools to respectfully disagree with people of different faiths, even if those in marginalized groups are the ones being disrespectful. By sharing these tools ahead of time, before conflicts based on religious identity arise, you will be better prepared to address and resolve such conflicts in the moment. You can refer back to what was already discussed, rather than having to come up with a response on the fly.

One tool that establishes a firm foundation for respectful disagreement is Tanenbaum’s Respecting Each Other lesson plan, which asks students to define what respect looks, feels and sounds like, and then to create their own rules of respect. If you spot any behavior that breaks these rules, you can correct it with greater credibility than if you had made up the rules yourself. Students can—and often do—take on the role of enforcer, holding each other accountable for honoring the agreements they’ve made together.

Krister Stendahl, an accomplished theologian, created another helpful tool that’s specific to religious differences. Here are his Three Rules of Religious Understanding:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  1. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  1. Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this, Stendahl means that you should be willing to recognize elements that you admire in the other religious tradition or faith and that you wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)

If everyone obeyed these rules, what a more peaceful world it would be! The unfortunate reality is that, in spite of an individual’s best efforts to follow guidelines for respect, the reactions of others may be angry and intolerant. When a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?” remind him to distinguish people from tenets and practices, avoid assumptions, consider the emotional history and remember the tools of respectful disagreement.

Fasciano is an education program associate at Tanenbaum.

A New Round of Airline Industry Mishandlings, Obama Under Pressure, and More: News Roundup

In the news this week: the airline industry faces new issues related to religion, 18 states do not provide Medicaid funding for circumcisions, and President Obama is pushed on faith-based hiring rules.

Delta Airlines is working to secure an alliance with Saudi Arabian Airlines. Once completed, the alliance would enable Delta to offer direct flights to Saudi Arabia, but only to passengers that are not Jewish or do not possess a passport issued in Israel. Delta has protected their position of following the Saudi restrictions by stating that they are bound by the individual laws of any destination country. Many in the U.S. are speaking out, arguing that by entering this alliance Delta is breaking U.S. discrimination laws, engaging in religious discrimination, and indirectly promoting anti-Semitism. (The Blaze)
 
In another example of an internationally based company conflicting with U.S. laws, an Air France employee in Washington was allegedly sent home because she refused to remove her hijab. The employee was apparently told that the hijab did not meet the company’s dress code. (Sacramento Bee)
 
Eighteen states have or are considering cancelling Medicaid funding for circumcisions in order to close budget gaps. Colorado recently took this step, which they believe could save the state over $150,000 annually. By doing so they join states such as South Carolina, Arizona, California, Maine, and Florida. According to one expert, Jewish populations are unlikely to be affected by such a decision, as Jewish circumcisions are typically performed by specialist trained in Jewish ritual rather than a hospital physician. (Sacramento Bee)
 
In 2002, President Bush introduced a policy meant to give faith-friendly organizations greater access to federal funding. In doing so, he allowed organizations that practice discriminatory hiring practices based on religion to have access to government money. Many religious organizations hailed the decision while staunch supporters of the separation of church and state decried it. Critics are now saying that Obama has yet to fulfill a campaign promise to reverse Bush’s policy and are pushing for answers. (USA Today)
 
In other news:
Sharia bill is based on a false premise    The Guardian (UK)