Research suggests religious education courses improve open-mindedness

By Claire Hettinger

On a campus that prides itself on being “Inclusive Illinois,” University religious education research suggests ways to help people be more open-minded.

Richard Layton, professor of religion, recently co-wrote the book, “For the Civic Good: The Liberal Case for Teaching Religion in the Public Schools,” with Walter Feinberg, professor of education policy, organization and leadership. 

Layton said they hoped to find what school districts could achieve through religion or Bible courses that they could not through other means. Then, they hope to present this information to school districts so they can evaluate if this is something of value to educators or not.

They decided it is most effective for high school students to take a world religions course in the first two years and a Bible as literature course during the second two years.

“(Religious education) kind of helps people see other potentials for cultures, well beyond their own world, and I think that is very positive at that age,” Layton said.  

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Masood Haque, former president of Interfaith in Action and a senior in LAS, said that the hard feelings and misunderstandings of the different cultures that he sees on campus revolve mainly on a lack of exposure to different groups and mindsets. He said sometimes the most information people have about a certain group is based on stereotypes they have seen about certain groups.

By creating a moment of real contact with different types of people, his group hopes to break down stereotypes and promote relationships that will strengthen not only individuals but the community as a whole.

One of the ways the University encourages inclusion is through the I-Connect workshops that all freshmen are required to participate in, with the idea of creating a more open-minded community.

LaDarius DuPree, an I-Connect facilitator and a senior with an individual plan of study, said he experiences diversity conflicts all the time on campus.

He said on campus, there is a certain amount of conflict that goes on because of closed mindedness. He mentioned the groups of people who believe that what their religion says is the absolute truth and that is it. He also said that, for him, an example of these groups are the people on the Quad who say things like, “If you get an abortion, you are going to hell.” And “If you are gay, you are going to hell.”

“We work really hard to educate students about like ‘Hey, pay attention to some of these issues that are happening around here,’” DuPree said. “It is really hard to have a voice in the administration on this campus if you are not the majority.”

DuPree identifies himself as queer and realizes a lot of religions are not accepting of queer individuals. 

“I distance myself on purpose from those faiths because I’m like, if you are not going to accept me to begin with, or if you are going to discredit anything I have to bring to the table because of this one identity, then I don’t want to have anything to do with you either,” he said.

But he said it is a structural problem and it is incorporated into the very essence and culture of our University, as well as our country.

Tianjun (Jennifer) Sun, an I-Connect facilitator and a junior in LAS, said the facilitators try and make the other students think about religions from different points of view. One example being how they would feel if someone tried to plan an event on one of their major holidays such as Christmas, which is a problem some religious groups encounter.  

She said they try to make students understand some people are in the privileged group and some are in the minority group because this viewpoint is not something that many people are exposed to.

“I am an international student, and I have a lot of friends who come from the same background as me. In our own country the majority — the mainstream — is not religious. So we were not exposed to religious diversity before (college),” Sun said.

She said she and her friends have experienced uncomfortable interactions with groups on campus who try to preach their religious to others. She said it is not so much that they do not want to talk to other groups about their religion, but it is just uncomfortable when people try to persuade her toward their religion.

“We are uncomfortable with people forcing ideas unto us,” she said.

Layton said he sees a difference between a Bible course and a world religion course. The researchers discovered that world religion courses help students discover other groups of people who are different from them, while Bible as literature courses help discover differences within their own familiar group. 

“The most important course would be a world religions course because that exposes students to a really breathtaking diversity,” Layton said.  

He said it is great to expose high school students to these ideals while they’re still young and in a familiar environment. He said when students take the Bible course, it is helpful for them to see people they know and trust interpreting the book a different way. This way, he said, they can learn that it is okay if people have different ideas, and they can still be friends.

One problem that occurs with Bible courses is that it is very easy for teachers to slip into looking at the book in one way and not considering the other interpretations or understandings of it as well, Layton said.

He said it gets tricky when these classes are used to try and shape the morals of students. This is the point where constitutionality comes into play, and it is a thin line between pushing what one religion says is right and what another one does.

He said he does not see a problem with different moral traditions being looked at and discussed. This is simply “asking the student to look at the world through their eyes, to assume their place for a little bit,” he said.  

Allison Alexander, sophomore in Business, said for many students the I-Connect workshop is the first exposure to different cultures and ways of thinking about the world. It is their first opportunity coming to terms with different thought processes and world views.

“We see diversity every day, but we don’t necessarily think about what it means, or how it affects each of us,” Alexander said.

She said there are big problems right now with diversity on campus, citing the backlash on Twitter toward Chancellor Phyllis Wise this winter to the Native American students who feel uncomfortable with the continuation of Chief Illiniwek’s presence. 

Sun said many students feel like they have gained knowledge of diversity and other world views that they have may have not had before.

She said the workshops are good because they give people exposure to differences that they may not have had in high school or in their time prior to the University.

But, Alexander thinks early and often exposure is key for students to be open-minded and accepting of diversity. She said freshman students should be exposed to different world views, but it’s hard to change people’s minds in an hour.

“We are surrounded by religion, but we are not often trying to either see it or know how to interpret it,” Layton said. “(But) these courses were very valuable to understand oneself as a citizen of the world.”

Claire can be reached at [email protected]