Category Archives: Religious Education

Ubuntu Spirit’s New Outlet

It’s been my joy to write about religion and spread religious proficiency through the Ubuntu Spirit blog over the past few years and more and more people have come to appreciate it as a source for religion news and literacy.

Since May 2011 I started writing for the Houston Chronicle’s online religion news service – Houston Belief. My blog there, Sacred Duty, mirrors Ubuntu Spirit and engages with the same topics and news. I encourage you to visit Sacred Duty, continue reading about religion and to join the conversation!


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Young Americans Less Religious…For Now

Read the original post at Ken’s Blog for the Houston Chronicle – Sacred Duty

According to a recent Gallup poll, if you were to run into a liberal-independent male doctor from, say, New York who is 29 years old, there is a slightly higher chance that he is an atheist.

Good to know right?


But what to make of it?

Various news agencies and religious commentators are making different observations concerning the findings of the recent Gallup poll on belief in God. According to their statistical survey, liberals are less likely to believe in God or a supernatural being than conservatives, independents less likely than Republicans or Democrats, people living in the East less than the West, North or South, males less than females, younger people less than older people, postgraduate educated individuals than those with high school or less.

The real “discovery” is, despite the differences, Americans are still fervently full of belief and, by proxy, intensely religious.

For the sake of this article I want to keep this point in mind while focusing on the greatest statistical gap that the Gallup poll recorded – the 10 point difference between 18 to 29 year olds and every other age group. According to the survey done by Gallup, only 84% of Young Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 believe in God or a universal spirit, while among people 30 or older 94% believe.

This may strike many readers as a major generational shift occurring between the Baby Boomers/Generation X and the so-called Millennials (Generation Y) and to a point, it is definitely something that religious leaders and observers should take note of.

However, I think it is important to keep in mind the characteristics of the Millennials when interpreting Gallup’s, and other survey’s, data regarding Generation Y’s belief in God and their subsequent faith and religiosity.

According to a Pew Forum report on Millennials, they are, as a group, generally less interested in money and religion and more concerned with family and friendship. They are comfortable with technology and enjoy communication. They are less defined by racial boundaries and more open to other world views. While they value family they aren’t rushing to the altar, and many of them (nearly 80%) remain single into their late twenties.

What is important to note is that yes, Millennials are less likely to believe in the divine or an ultimate deity and that they are less religious, but that this fact might change in the near future as they grow older, settle down and have a family. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell note in their tome on contemporary religion, American Grace, there is a difference between generational change and lifetime change. What we may be seeing here is a mixture of both. While the Millennials will probably believe less than their parents (Baby Boomers) and their older siblings (Generation X) the difference will not be as striking (10 percentage points) once they grow up a little more.

Many religious statisticians and observers note that belief in God and participation in religion increase once individuals settle down, get married and have a family. Life cycle changes generally trend towards more religiosity as individuals get older. Thus, we can expect that Millennials, currently in the 18-29 range, will be slightly more religious and, by association, more believing in their later years with another decade of growth.

In addition to this sociological progression, there is also an immigrant influx of believing young people from the Southern and Eastern world to consider. As Philip Jenkins notes in his work The Next Christendom, people from Central and South America, Africa and many nations in Asia are much more religious (not just Christian) and that this has major implications for Europe and America as it pertains to immigration of such individuals to the U.S.A. Since they are moving here and the Millennial generation itself seems to be more ethnically diverse and open to other world-views, such an immigration shift may impact Millennial belief patterns.

While I don’t believe there will be a major change in their religious practice or belief in God, I think we have yet to see just how believing and religious the Millennials will be when they are in their 30s and 40s. In the end, I believe that their belief and religiosity will rise a few percentage points and that America will continue, for another generation, to be fervently religious.

Furthermore, it is one thing to discuss the amount of Millennials’ belief and religiosity and another thing entirely to discuss the content of their faith and practice. What we can infer from their general characteristics is that being more open, being better educated, being more ready to communicate and dialogue with others, being more oriented towards the family and being less partisan than generations that came before them the 84% or more of them that do believe and put their belief into practice will be much more open minded when it comes to the religious other. In addition, they will continue to be wary of religion as it is associated with religiously conservative politics (although as they grow older, Millennials may turn out to be more “conservative” politically than they once were given that older family men and women tend to be more conservative in their politics as well).

Rather than being bad news for the future, this may very well come as a “sigh of relief” to many Americans and other, less religious, countries who often associate America’s propensity for religious belief and practice with stubbornness, close-mindedness and ignorance when it comes to the religious other.

For now, Millennials aren’t quite as religious or believing as their generational predecessors, but that may change given time. I’ll get back to you after Gallup releases its statistics from surveys regarding belief in 2021; then we can see if I was right. In the meantime, it is best for the general populous to not pigeonhole this generation of believers and non-believers, we may yet surprise you.

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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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New Venues for Spreading Religious Literacy

I truly enjoy exploring other religions, sharing experiences and information with others and learning through dialogue, discussion and direct exposure.

That’s why I am so excited about some recent opportunities that arose for greater dissemination of Ubuntu Spirit’s exploration of religion, religion and culture and religious literacy.

This week a piece I wrote about the Confession App was published in conjunction with the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago in their Sightings Publication. Take a look at the article on the Sightings site.

Likewise this week, I was offered to join the blogging team at Houston Belief, the religious arm of the Houston Chronicle and its blogs. I am working with the site’s producer to discuss the tone of the blog, but it will be very much like the Ubuntu Spirit blog and cover religion in general, religion in Houston and religion as it interacts with culture, politics and the public sphere. From time-to-time my pieces will (hopefully) be published in the Houston Chronicle newspaper.

One element of this new opportunity is a new, more easily grasped, title for the blog. I have a few thoughts, but do you, the readers, have any suggestions? Please leave them in the comments section below and I will let you know when the transition happens.

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Hate is Never Far Behind

Masjid Ataqwa in Southwest Houston, the mosque students visited just days before the attack on another local mosque.

Reflecting on their visit to a mosque in southwest Houston, the college students I took there shared that the visit had changed their conception of Muslims, made them want to learn more about Islam and encouraged them to stop fearing every Muslim and instead seek to engage with them in conversation.

These were conservative Christian college students. Not progressive liberal tertiary educated hippies.

Taking the opportunity to listen, to talk, to ask questions, to grow in their understanding and actually get to know a Muslim man (who surprised them by acting and talking “like a normal human being”) changed their perception of Islam. Whereas before they viewed Islam as something to automatically fear they now understood it as something to learn more about. In regards to Muslims themselves they were no longer people to be instinctively distrusted, but instead people to get to know and befriend.

To say the least, I was massively encouraged by the occurrence and such reflections from the students in attendance. The visit to the mosque was a consciousness raising event.

This experience brings the recent arson attack at another local Houston mosque into sharp contrast.

Within weeks there were two groups of non-Muslims visiting a mosque in southwest Houston. One group came to listen, to ask questions and to understand. The other to maim and destroy.

On Saturday May 14 two men arrived at Madrasah Islamiah, doused portions of it in gasoline and then set it ablaze. Thankfully the mosque was spared total destruction, but much worse damage was done to the local psyche.

According to a KHOU 11 interview a mosque member, Atif Fattah, said, “There wasn’t significant damage. It was the act itself that’s scary.”

Mustafaa Carroll of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) claims the event qualifies as a hate-crime and has involved the FBI in the investigation. His dour reflection is that the event was bread by fear and distrust, and that unfortunately, where there is mistrust, hate is not too far behind (read more of the KHOU report here)

Distrust of another individual or group of people is often based on fear. Automatic fear and distrust is bread by ignorance. Ignorance bred by lack of experience or education. As religious commentators  Putnam and Campbell mention in their tome on American religion, American Grace, that the United States is rife with religious tension. What keeps us from abject sectarian violence like that recently occurring in Egypt is the fact that we are related to Muslims, Atheists and Catholics.  We work with Protestants, Hindus and Buddhists. While we may hold to one belief, we are often involved in a familial or friendly relationship with someone of another faith. Thus, America’s religious pluralism does not explode into religious violence…too often.

Sadly, it did here in Houston just days ago.

As many of you know, I am all for religious education, but it is my growing conviction that religious education in book, lecture or discussion form, although beneficial, is not enough. Religious experience and interaction with people of other faiths leads to better interreligious dialogue and more positive interactions in the community between people of various religious backgrounds. While transactional education often gives people information to weave into their own presuppositions, religious experiences transform people’s presuppositions, misconceptions and distrust.

Carroll aptly notes that with distrust comes hate, and with hate comes violence.

My hope is that  with experience comes friendship, and with friendship comes trust, and with trust a little less violence. My experiences tell me that this is often the case when individuals are given the chance to meet, talk and interact with people of other faiths.

Knowing that positive experiences breed friendship, growing trust and greater understanding, my question is what type of experiences, or lack thereof, brought such distrust in the two individuals who set fire to the mosque last Saturday? What happened that their thoughts turned from distrust to the hate that lurks behind such fear?

What about you? What have been your direct interactions with Muslims in the USA? What have you learned? If you were in the class that visited the mosque with me, what are your thoughts and reflections?

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Houston World Tour

"Houston World Tour" Participants at the Quan Am Boddhisatva Statue

Houston is the 4th largest metro-area in the United States. There are 6.2 million people in the greater Houston area. It is expected that in a decade or two Houston will overtake Chicago as the third largest city in the USA.

Houston is also one of the most culturally diverse locales in all of the United States. Over 90 different countries are represented in Houston and no one ethnic group constitutes a majority.

Houston is 39% Latino, 36% Caucasian, 18% African/African-American and 7% Asian. There are Mexicans, Guatemalans, Venezuelans, Panamanians, Columbians. There are Germans, Czechs, Scandinavians, Brits and Italians. There are Nigerians, Liberians, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Lebanese, Turkish and South Africans. There are Koreans, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Taiwanese.

We’ve got Texas BBQ, Kolaches, Tex-Mex, Afromex, Soul Food, Thai food, curry, pho and everything else between.

With all this diversity, and with its immense size, Houston is a fascinating melting pot of religious belief as well.

Bucking certain “Southern” trends in the USA, Houston’s religious demographics break down like this:

Catholic – 36.1% (2.1 million)

Southern Baptist – 28.3% (1.7 million)

Methodist – 10% (600,000)

Other Mainline Christian (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran etc.) – 8.5% (510,000)

Muslim – 2.8% (170,000)

Charismatic – 2.6% (160,000)

Other (Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, New Age, Non-religion) – 11.8% (710,000)

Masjid Ataqwa in Southwest Houston

Getting to know Houston means getting to know other religions. That is why LINC Houston is sure to teach world religions at LBI (a current course I am teaching) and when visitors come to town we take them on a “Houston World Tour,” which includes stops at a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, a local Masjid, an Hispanic superstition shop and some glances at mega-churches in our area.

Taking visitors/students on this journey always leads to consciousness raising. This most recent trip was no different. Whether it was a discussion about smoking, drinking and holiness at the Hindu Shree Swaminarayan Temple, Buddhist prayer ritual and Vietnamese presence in Houston at the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple or a few laughs shared with a local imam at Masjid Ataqwa it is a wonderful thing to watch when individuals get to know people of other religions as people and grow in their understanding of others’ way of ritual, belief and piety.

Touring around today, the college students that were on this trip commented that they took a world religions class before but never seen “flesh” on their topic of study. They never studied world religions by visiting mosques, meeting Buddhists or sharing stories with a Hindu devotee.

As many of you well know, I am an advocate for religious education. It is important for those who are teaching world religions, and those studying other belief systems, to integrate their book/lecture learning with “hands-on” experience reading religious texts, visiting spaces of sacred ritual and community and interacting with individuals with a different understanding of the cosmos.

If we hope to learn, and educate others, about the world’s religions, it is best that  both teachers and students experience those religions firsthand.

With that, I invite you to come to Houston and come on a “Houston World Tour.” I promise you some unique experiences, some great learning and, if you are lucky, some delicious food afterwards.


With our Hindu temple priest guide at Shree Swaminurayan


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Mainstream Mormons, Are All of them White and Prosperous?

First of all, Prof. Brian Britt of Virginia Tech penned a scholarly and wonderful article about how mainstream Mormons are these days in lieu of certain pop-culture, political and religious demographic events and trends – quite specifically the unseemly Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon.”  I enjoyed how Prof. Britt wove together various occurences to make a striking point concerning the mainstream nature of American Mormonism. With that in mind, I do want to bring up one point in regards to his article’s coverage of the LDS.

When the author says in paragraph five, “But Mormons, predominantly white and prosperous, are perceived as more mainstream and ‘American’ than Muslims” he overgeneralizes a much more diverse reality.

Although AmericanMormonism is predominantly caucasian, Mormons occupy the middle in terms of economic prosperity and education, with Jews, Buddhists and Hindus all tending to be higher educated and more prosperous. Overall, Mormons are only slightly more likely to be middle-class than the typical American (read a report from the Pew Forum here).

Furthermore, internationally, Mormonism is by no means “predominantly white and prosperous.” Indeed, American Mormonism represents only half of the international population with South Americans, Asians, Europeans, Pacific Islanders and Africans making up the other half of the international LDS church. I bring this up due to the fact that in my religious education classes many students are surprised to find that Mormons are so diverse given the very popular presupposition that Mormons are overwhelmingly “white and prosperous.”

While the majority of Mormons in America (granted, the focus of this essay) are indeed white, they are not necessarily prosperous. Internationally Mormons are much more diverse. In reporting on how Mormons are more and more mainstream, it might also be worth noting that following wider immigration trends in the U.S.A., American Mormonism is browning and becoming more ethnically and economically diverse by the day.

Again, I must reiterate my appreciation for Prof. Britt and his article, but I thought the above worth noting in terms of the wider misperceptions of American Mormons, no matter how mainstream they may be or becoming.

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