Religion in the public square

In the United States, all too often the phrase “religion in the public square” means someone accosting you and telling you that you should join their religion; so the meaning of the phrase becomes, “our religion is right and yours is wrong.” Or that same phrase can be used pejoratively to imply that all religious practice shouldb e kept out of public view; so the meaning of the phrase becomes, “all religion is wrong.” Either way, someone is imposing their own views on the rest of a democratic society.

But if ours is a truly multicultural democracy, we should allow space in the public square for a variety of worldviews, without letting any one worldview dominance over the others. This becomes a delicate balancing act. Literal or metaphorical shouting matches between religious worldviews don’t promote tolerance; mind you, sometimes you have to get into shouting matches to preserve the openness of the public square, as when we have to fight to limit Christmas displays on public property, but no one imagines that these shouting matches increase tolerance. So given that public religious expression is a delicate balancing act, what does it look like when you have an appropriate expression of a religious worldview in the public square?

Sukkah at the JLISF, Columbus and Lombard, San Francisco

Today I saw such an expression of a religious worldview in the public square, and it looked like a rented flatbed trailer with a sukkah built on top of it. The trailer was parked in front of the Jewish Learning Institute of San Francisco (JLISF), on Lombard Ave. right off busy Columbus Ave in the North Beach neighborhood. Carol and I walked by just as some people from JLISF were cleaning up from lunch. They were polite and friendly, and ready to explain that they were celebrating Sukkot, and what a sukkah was, and so on.

This is a good display of religion in the public square: present, but not intrusive; with friendly people who are ready to explain, but not berate.

Sukkah through a bus window

(Posted the next day, and backdated.)

Ceremonial deity, Phillippines

Ceremonial Deity, Philippines

Above: Sketch of a “ceremonial deity,” Philippines, c. 1930. Wood and shell. Asian Museum of Art.

One of delights of going to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is seeing the diversity of depictions of deities. Today I particularly noticed the unnamed deities — like this sculpture of an unnamed ceremonial deity, made in the Philippines around 1930. Why do we not know the name of this deity? Is it because it is a minor deity, and thus not widely identifiable (though perhaps readily identifiable by a devotee)? Did it never have a name that could be spoken by humans? Or was this a deity like the Roman Lares familiares, the household gods, who don’t seem to have had names, or whose power was so geographically restricted that their names perhaps were known only to the household they protected?

I think that the end of Christendom is allowing us to see such minor deities more clearly. In the worldview of Christendom, only the major deities — the wildly transcendent deities, Jehovah’s direct competition — were worthy of serious attention. Now maybe we can pay a little more attention to the many minor deities who inhabit the metaphorical space between those distant transcendent deities and mortal creatures.

REA: Teaching about Islam using a worldview framework approach

In the final breakout session at the Religious Education Association 2014 conference, I attended a presentation by Mualla Selçuk of Ankara University and John Valk of the University of New Brunswick titled “Journeying into Peaceful Islam: A Worldview Framework Approach.”

Valk and Selcuk reported on a pedagogical model they used to engage Muslims and non-Muslims in learning about “a comprehensive Islam.” The problem they are addressing with their pedagogical model is pervasive stereotyping regarding Islam. In particular, Islam is stereotyped as violent; as authoritarian, patriarchal, and rigid; as a religion that persecutes other religions; etc.

Sometimes the stereotyping of Islam is subtle, particularly in media coverage of Islam in the west. Media coverage of Islam “often confuses correlation with causation” — if an individual Muslim engages in, say, an act of violence, the act of violence will be attributed to the individual’s religion. Sometimes the stereotyping is not as subtle, as when anti-religious and anti-Islamic discourse cherry-picks elements of Islam (or religion more generally) to “prove” that religion/Islam is bad.

Religious education can be complicit in stereotyping, if it uses a passive passive pedagogical model. It’s not enough to give students information about religion, e.g., disconnected facts (e.g., Muslims pray using certain prescribed body motions), or prescribed answers (e.g., Islam as a whole believes X).

Valk asserted that an appropriate pedagogical model must include an experiential component. He mentioned site visits, meetings with spiritual leaders, human interaction, etc. He added that “personal engagement” is also necessary, i.e., engaging the questions and challenges of Islam: religious, spiritual, science, religion, etc. Valk said that they challenge the learners to think. “So instead of saying, ‘Islam believes in God’,” he said, “We ask, ‘What does it mean to believe in God?’ … Let the students explore the possibilities.”

Valk then outlined their worldview framework for an appropriate pedagogy. This worldview framework has five sub-frameworks, including: personal/group identity;
cultural dimensions;
existentialist questions; etc.
The pedagogy uses a “Socratic” approach of open-ended questions.

Mualla Selçuk, a Muslim, pointed out that Valk is a Christian. Thus the collaboration between them reflects their pedagogical approach. She referred her listeners to their recent article in the REA journal for more information about their work. “This worldview approach to Islam, or I would argue to any religious or secular worldview,” she concluded, “is a valuable resource for religious educators and teachers.”

One questioner asked, “Both your presentations had components of unlearning. Do you have a pedagogical model for this?” While unlearning was not explicitly mentioned in their model, this was something they had thought about.

REA: Religious literacy, bullying, and RE teaching

In the second breakout session of the Religious Education Association 2014 conference, I attended a combined colloquium. Wing Yu Alice Chan, a doctoral student at McGill University, presented work in progress under the title of “Can Religious Literacy Deter Religious Bullying?” Andrea Haith of Canterbury Christ Church University presented her work in progress under the title of “An Exploration of Religious Education Teachers’ Understandings of Religiously Inspired Violence and the Worldviews of Children in the Classroom.”

Chan presented a definition of religious literacy based on a definition by Diane Moore (2007), the ability to discuss and analyze the intersections o religion with society.

She next defined religious bullying as bullying on the basis of religious difference, including physical and psychological bullying, online bullying, etc. In a review of literature on religious bullying, she found research that indicates that religious bullying gets transmitted across generations. Furthermore, she found research that the aftereffects of religious bullying can lead to religious extremism.

At the moment, her research is focusing on two North American religious literacy programs in public schools: Quebec’s “Ethics and Religious Culture” program, and the “World Geography and World Religions” programs in modesto, California. These are the only two mandatory courses in religious literacy that she found in North America. In her research so far what is most prominent is the role of dialogue.

Her research methodology is outlined in her online prospectus here.

Andrea Haith is a teacher of religious education in the United Kingdom (U.K.). She began by saying that teaching religious education is extremely challenging, as the young people taking the courses “don’t see the point.” It is also challenging because “any discussion of Islam does evoke stereotypes.”

Haith said that the U.K. has complex legislation that implements religious education in the public schools. The challenge then is how to discuss religiously inspired violence within this framework. Her research focuses on the teaching of religiously inspired violence as it relates to religious education teaching more generally.

Her hypothesis is that religious education has become “sanitized,” in part because examination-focused learning outcomes may serve to distort the subject matter of religious education. Her research questions include:

— What is the nature of RE teacher’s understandings of religiously inspired violence?
— How are these understandings translated into teaching practice in the classrooms?
— Is there a relationship between teachers concepts of religiously inspired violence and their pedagogy?

Haith’s research project is outlined online here.

At the end of the two presentations, a questioner pointed out that a key issue is how we train teachers. Haith and Chan both agreed.

Another questioner pointed out that it is problematic to consider religious literacy out of any other context, and that religious literacy must be placed in a values-based context. Haith and Chan seemed less interested in this idea.

I asked a somewhat inarticulate question about the importance of students recognizing their own religious identity. Interestingly, in a later colloquium, I learned about the “worldview framework approach” in Mualla Selçuk and John Valk’s presentation “Journeying into Islam” (more on their research here); Selçuk and Valk’s worldview framework explicitly names religious identity as important.

I would say that I found both Haith and Chan’s research to be of great interest and importance. Chan’s research into the relationship between religious literacy and religious bullying could be especially valuable.

REA 2013 conference: teaching religion and good citizenship

“We need to cross borders and join forces for a more humane world,” said Seibren Miedema in his President’s Address during the final plenary session of the 2013 Religious Education Association (REA) annual conference. Miedema is professor emeritus at Vrije Universiteit (Free University), Amersterdam, Netherlands, and president of the REA.

“Learning to work, to live, to play together should be possible,” he said, “and should start in early childhood.”

When Miedema was goring up in the Netherlands in the 1950s, the society was “pillarized”; that is, everyone living in a given Dutch town tended to belong to the same church. I happened to sit next to him during the pre-conference session, and he said then that he didn’t really encounter anyone from a different denomination (let alone a completely different faith tradition) until he was in his teens. In his President’s Address, he said that pillarization began to break down in the 1960s, as society changed rapidly and people of different faiths began engaging in, e.g., social justice work together.

Coming from that Dutch background, Miedema now believes that state-sponsored schools can and should play a crucial role in fostering inter-religious dialogue. He spoke about “the impact of the schools’ contribution, in terms of the selected subject matter and of the arrangement of pedagogical relations and situations by the professionals, on the personal identity formation of students.”

Miedema said he agrees with the position that the “binding role” of religion in society is of “utmost importance” and “should not be neglected.” This position is opposed to the official position in, e.g., France. Miedema reminded us that John Dewey, one of the intellectual founders of the REA, believed that schools should cultivate the religious side of children. Continue reading “REA 2013 conference: teaching religion and good citizenship”