Identifying with the Religious Other

At the close of another term of teaching world religions I feel it is an ample time for introspection and evaluation.

As I wrestle with the class’ outcomes and prepare the student’s evaluation there are certainly educational outcomes to consider, but above all I hope that one thing was attained through this class.

A little less religious ignorance.

And so, I decided to craft the class’ final examination off of the Pew Forum Religious Knowledge Survey, which many of our American compatriots failed (often miserably). I will let you know in a couple weeks how they do and, by association, how I did as a professor.

No matter their scores, I earnestly hope that these students learned a little more about “the religious other” as they listened in class, participated in religious events, read religious texts and dialogued with people from other faiths.

I care because I believe that religious literacy is vitally important in our world today, as it always has been.

Religious literacy, and its vehicles of religious education and experience, are crucial components in combatting religious cluelessness and its antecedents of bigotry, deconstruction of human identity and religious/sociological/racist/cultural violence.

As Yehezkel Landau says in an article entitled Teaching the Religious Other from the U.S. Institute for Peace, “We need to develop educational strategies to overcome the ignorance that leads to prejudice, which in turn leads to dehumanizing contempt, which in turn breeds violence.”

And if you think that type of prejudice and dehumanization only occurs elsewhere let me share a story with you: Just the other day, in one my master’s classes, a student responded to a discussion regarding the victimization of Muslims in the Middle East by emphatically declaring, “Muslims aren’t the victims, they’re killers!”

Sadly enough, he’s training to be a religious leader. It is a humbling example of how ignorance of the religious other leads to prejudice and even the “dehumanization” that Landau speaks of. Thankfully he is enrolled in the program’s course on world religions next semester, I pray he listens and learns.

While this story makes it obvious that ignorance, prejudice and dehumanization of the religious other may be prevalent in American society I am gracious that, as of yet, there is minimal religious violence in the United States (although it does happen). However, as many religious educators have noted, it is when these factors (ignorance, prejudice etc.) are coupled with ethnic, economic or political factors that violence begins to fester. As I often tell my students, “When religion and power (be it economic, ethnic or political) mix, people die…” The seed-bed for such an amalgam is already festering in some parts of the United States. Religious education is needed to undercut such a trend.

David Smock of the U.S. Institute of Peace writes, “One antidote to hatred among religious communities is to teach communities about the beliefs and practices of the religious other.”

While the goal of this religious education is not to convert the student it is, in the words of Scott Alexander, to urge the student to the point where they “can honestly say to the other, ‘I am not you, but I am incomplete without you. My dignity as a human being and as a person of faith is never fully realized unless I can assert your dignity as a human being and person of faith.’”

That’s ubuntu. That’s what this blog is all about.

Of course, you can only lead a student to water…you can’t force them to drink.

However, there are religious education methods that have borne fruit in the past and are important to keep in mind for religious education in the future.

Method (pedagogy) is important as we endeavor to teach others. It is one thing to study it from a polemic/apologetic standpoint and quite another to do some from a vantage point of methodological atheism, or at the very least, respectful theism. To engage in such a method it requires the instructor to make what is taught about the other religion identifiable to an adherent of that faith. This is done best when the religious education is done in the presence of “the other” or is even facilitated by “the religious other.” Then students will be able to not only learn more about the precepts of another religion, but also what draws adherents to that belief or practice.

Beyond exposing students to religiously “other” individuals it is beneficial to introduce students to the writings and practices of another faith via direct experience.

This may mean a student reads the Tao or pages through the Qu’ran. It is realized when a student visits a Hindu temple or attends Mass at a Catholic Cathedral. Such experiences “re-humanize” the religious other more than lecture or in-class discussion. Beyond learning, students are then able to identify with “the religious other.”

Finally, the religious instructor should endeavor to guide students towards dialogue with “the religious other.” It is one thing to learn about “the other” and another to be in relationship with them. While the teacher cannot force students to engage with people of other faiths, she can provide a framework for fruitful future dialogue.

I am encouraged to see these very things happening in religious education ever more often. However, I look forward to the day when religious education, as described in this article, is part of our regular secondary education. It is quite a sad testament to our populous and potential peace when I look at my class and note that every single one of them is in their 30s, 40s or 50s. I am thankful that they’ve learned now, but wish they would’ve learned earlier.

Let us not make the same mistake the last generation made and instead, let us endeavor to sow a little more religious literacy in our world through more prolific and excellent religious education.





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