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:
- When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
- Don’t compare your best to their worst.
- 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.
This week Montgomery County Public Schools’ Board of Education missed the mark when they removed all references to religious holidays in the 2015-2016 school calendar. Following requests to include Muslim holidays, the Board voted instead to erase all religious holidays from the school calendar- conveying a message that religious differences are too toxic to touch.
The stakes are high – not only for Montgomery County but for classrooms across the nation. By choosing to ignore religious differences, these schools are sending a flawed message in three key ways. First, religious differences do exist and they can’t be papered over. Second, recognizing, understanding and even appreciating religious and other differences are key skills for any student who hopes to succeed in the 21st century. And finally, truly educated people recognize that religion is a force in society and an important identifier for many people – one that influences the arts, history, social discourse and even politics and policies.
By papering over our religious differences, Mongomery County’s Board of Education is turning away from its responsibilities to educate while simultaneously masking reality and stirring fears. To keep our schools from becoming a breeding ground for the bullies and haters of tomorrow, public schools need to help students explore and appreciate religious differences.
We call on the Montgomery County Board of Education to respectfully acknowledge the many ways the people in its community are different – and to teach their students that these differences are normal.
How Do I Ask That?
Overview: Encourage students to respectfully ask questions and make statements about other belief systems.
Editor’s note: This post is part two of a three-part series that answers questions posed by participants in Fostering a Culture of Respect, a joint webinar with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding that addresses how educators can help their students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing belief systems. The first blog responded to the question: “How can I coach students to respond to others with empathy and respect?”
In the webinar Fostering a Culture of Respect, one participant asked, “How can I encourage students to respectfully ask questions about identities different from their own?”
It’s important to remind students that identities consist of various characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity, race, language, sexual orientation, family composition, relationship status, religion/belief system and socioeconomic status. We use these characteristics to define ourselves, and others often use them to construct an impression of our identities. Yet, these impressions are also informed by what we don’t know and by our implicit biases.
Take, for example, a recent survey from the Pew Research Center measuring familiarity and warmness toward various religious and nonreligious groups in the United States. Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians received the “warmest” ratings. We know, however, that our classrooms also include children of Mormon, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu faith, among others, as well as atheist children—children whose belief systems received “colder, more negative” ratings.
The Pew survey also reports that personally knowing someone from a religious group is linked to having more positive views of that group. The inverse is true, too. Not knowing someone can lead to more negative impressions and opinions.
These types of biases seep into classrooms, and it’s important to address them with students—through formal instruction and in moments when you observe students uncomfortably questioning or critiquing their peers’ belief systems. Consider the following three scenarios.
Scenario 1: Before class starts, you overhear a group of students talking about their weekend activities. One student enthusiastically shares that she had a great weekend at a church shut-in with her younger brother. Another student responds critically, “Weird! What would you do for a whole weekend at church?”
Scenario 2: In a unit on Mayan religion, you explain that native Mesoamerican people worshiped deities found in nature —the sun, rain and moon. A student in class shares that his family doesn’t go to church but are devoted to the Earth. The class laughs.
Scenario 3: Most of your students are Catholics or evangelical Christians. You have one Muslim student who wears a hijab. In class one day, a student asks her, “Wouldn’t you love it if you didn’t have to wear that?”
Asking questions about belief systems different from their own can be difficult for students. Insensitive questions or statements and defensive responses are neither entirely uncommon nor always intentional. But how might a teacher respond to the above scenarios?
Scenario 1: Tell students that, instead of leading with a judgmental word or statement, they can begin with, “That’s different from what I’ve ever done.” This type of reaction will help build sensitivity and respect and can prevent the questioned students from being on the defensive. Encourage students to follow up with, “Tell me more.”
Scenario 2: Deal with the laughter right away by stating that put-downs will not be tolerated in the classroom. Follow up with, “I think we can find many differences in our belief systems, but these differences add to the richness and diversity of our class.” Tell students that, instead of laughing, they could have asked, “What are some of your family’s traditions?” and “How do you celebrate the Earth?”
Scenario 3: Remind students that they can express their curiosity in a thoughtful and respectful manner. For example, they might say, “What’s it like to wear a hijab every day?” Or, “What is the meaning behind the hijab?” You can also encourage students to connect with their classmates by sharing similar experiences. For example a student might say, “I wear a St. Christopher medal around my neck because my family believes he protects us.”
Having in-class conversations about what constitutes respectful statements and questions can be a turning point for students. Not only do they offer students an opportunity to weigh in with any concerns or questions, but they also help build a respectful school climate—even when students find themselves in discussions about belief systems on their own.
Stay tuned for our third blog answering participants’ questions. It will address how to include nonreligious students in classroom discussions about religion.
Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.
Next month, approximately five million people across the United States will celebrate the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many will need accommodations at work or at school.
This year, Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on Wednesday September 24 and ends at sundown on Friday September 26. Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Friday October 3and continues until sundown on Saturday October 4.
What happens, and what can you expect, during these holidays – both of which are often regarded as the most important of all Jewish holidays? What other Jewish holidays will take place this fall and how might they affect the workplace?
In addition, companies interested in addressing workplace diversity and inclusion can click here to learn more about the two exciting events that our new partner, DiversityInc, will be hosting this fall.
Questions? Email info@Tanenbaum.org or call 212.967.7707.