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Encouraging Respectful Conversation on Religious Diversity

Given the increasing diversity in our classrooms and communities, how do we teach students to respectfully engage with peers of differing religious belief systems? Marisa Fasciano, education program associate at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, shares ideas and resources.

by guest blogger Marisa Fasciano

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." 

Another identity group that has experienced unequal treatment is women. For example, the Catholic Church doesn't allow women to be ordained as priests, which means that they therefore can't become bishops and cardinals and have a say in the formulation of church doctrine. Despite hopes that Pope Francis would extend his progressive changes to this issue, he instead said, "The church has spoken and says no...That door is closed."  

How to Encourage Respectful Conversation
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.

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. 

Three Rules of Religious Understanding
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.
  2. Don't compare your best to their worst. (In other words, it wouldn't be fair to compare one religion's ideals, such as Christian saints, with another religion's worst examples, such as self-proclaimed Islamic terrorists.)  
  3. 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.

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This piece was originally posted on Tanenbaum's blog

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