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How to Teach Religion in the University Classroom

Should university professors court controversy or respect religion?

Key points

  • Professors might offend students if they share religiously controversial material. Yet, how do we teach openly?
  • Constitutional law on religion and free speech provide some protections for professors and students.
  • Professors should create lively debate, but in an inclusive way.

Religious Controversy

A lot of us are aware of the recent controversy in the U.K., in which a teacher was suspended for using a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed during a religious studies class. This is controversial because Islam teaches that images of the Prophet are blasphemous. I’ve heard many times of newspapers provoking controversy by publishing pictures of the Prophet Mohammed, but this was the first time I’d heard of a university professor in similar hot (holy) water.

How to Teach Religion

As a psychologist of religion, I have very often wondered about how to discuss religion in the classroom. In my classes, I teach that there is robust evidence that religion can do good for people, like promoting health and well-being and meaning in life. I also know that religion can do less good, like promoting certain forms of prejudice and in-group biases.

And what about talking about my own research, which shows that religion strongly shapes what people think is moral or immoral? For example, people of different religions differ in their morals. In one experiment, Jewish and Protestant participants read a scenario about a son (Mr. K) who did not care for his parents. However, the son pretended that he did like his parents, and took care of them. Protestants disagreed that Mr. K. has good character, and disagreed that he honored his parents. Jews, however, looked much more favorably on Mr. K. when he pretended to like his parents. What if I let slip, even subtly, that I think one of these views is wiser than another? Would some of my students feel alienated or criticized? Would a student who was offended by such research have a legal case against me? However, isn’t it the job of a professor to challenge students’ viewpoints, and make them question their assumptions, even about religion? In short, how is a professor to talk about religion?

Freedom of Religion

Long feeling that this question is as complex as biblical exegesis, I took advantage of my sabbatical last semester to take a class at my university’s law school, on Constitutional Law. And the class was not taught by just anybody, but an honest to God judge—a state supreme court justice, no less. I knew I could have faith in what I learned.

I now know that as a professor at a state university, the US Constitution prohibits me either from promoting religion or burdening people’s religious practice, based on the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses. But these issues are far from gospel. Why were Amish people in the famous Yoder case allowed to exempt themselves from a generally applicable compulsory education law and pull their young children out of school, while Native Americans were not allowed, in another famous religious freedom case, to sacramentally smoke peyote as part of their religious practice? Making things even more inscrutable, I also know that as a professor, I have certain First Amendment protections as well, concerning my free speech—but neither can I create a hostile school environment for my students or colleagues by spouting off about religion in offensive ways.

Photo from Salem Media / Used With Permission
History on the Net
Source: Photo from Salem Media / Used With Permission

Bible or Constitution?

After trying to sensitively struggle as a psychologist of religion with these issues for years and then learning some of the legal principles, let me offer some non-legal and non-psychological advice. Professors are here to challenge and stimulate our students’ learning, and the topic of religion is a critical one, even in psychology (not just Bible classes). And while professors do have broad academic freedom and free speech, we also owe it to our students and our university culture to challenge our students in ways that will enlighten, but not alienate them.

Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash

Let’s apply the reasonable person standard that is so common in the law. Don’t be afraid of offending someone with any mention of religion at all, but do think before acting in a way that a reasonable person of faith would find offensive. And even if you sometimes let your own pro- or anti-religious sentiments slip through, have faith in your students’ reasonableness. They may see their professor whom they idolize has clay feet, but they probably won’t subject you to the Inquisition for it.