Have faith in the power of debate

April 20, 2007

Students with religious convictions will not necessarily hinder discussion.

In fact, says Harriet Swain, so long as they do not feel isolated or that their views are disrespected, they should enhance seminars

For God's sake. What the hell are students doing at university if they can't tell faith from facts? These people who've got religion just won't listen to common sense.

While you're entitled to express robust views on the subject, handling students with strong religious convictions demands a bit more listening on your part. "The most important factor is to make it clear to students that they can approach you about these issues," says Simon Smith, associate director of the Higher Education Academy's subject centre for philosophical and religious studies.The centre has produced a series of faith guides informing higher education staff about how best to support students with a variety of religious beliefs. He says it is vital to become aware of any possible cultural sensitivities so that you have the confidence to address difficulties as they arise, "but at the same time to treat all students as individuals and avoid stereotyping".

Gregory Barker, acting head of the School of Theology and Religious Studies, at Trinity College, Carmarthen, who has interviewed students from a number of different faiths about their feelings on this issue, says lecturers' fears about teaching students committed to a particular religion are often unfounded. First, such students are unlikely to take courses in subjects with which they fundamentally disagree - philosophy with Richard Dawkins, say. Second, most would consider few, if any, topics to be out of bounds. He argues that difficulties usually involve international students and are more to do with culture than religion.

In fact, he suggests that strong religious convictions can often make for particularly good students. Not only do these students tend to avoid the distractions of sex and drinking that affect their peers, but he says that sometimes their religious convictions will give them an ethic about doing well for their God, which can benefit their studies, so you should make the most of them.

Linda Woodhead, professor and head of the department of religious studies at Lancaster University, says that in her experience students who are committed to a religion are very useful in a seminar because they give other students exposure to a deeply felt religious position, "and thus reveal the contingent and contestable nature of the majority beliefs that are normally rendered invisible by virtue of being part of the general consensus".

Woodhead says her broad principle is to allow students with such deep conviction the space to articulate their view and have it interrogated by other students - and vice versa "in a way that is respectful of all parties". If students are so immersed in their faith that they cannot have a debate with those who do not share it, there is a problem, she says. But she has found this rare.

Barker says that if he plans to tackle a potentially difficult issue - a showing of The Last Temptation of Christ , for example - he will warn students the week before so they can choose not to attend.

Richard Cunningham, director of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, says: "University is a great time for all students to have their world-views and sensibilities challenged vigorously. It is important, therefore, that teaching staff should never feel unduly constrained in the content of what they teach by the sensibilities of those with strong religious convictions." But he says that as society becomes more secular, university teachers will have subconsciously imbibed secular presuppositions about religion and ethics, which may lead some to caricature and isolate students with strong religious convictions. In his view, this is a big mistake. "Isolation is the quickest way to disenfranchise students and make them more vulnerable to radicalisation," he says.

In a recent issue of the journal Discourse: Learning and Teaching in Philosophy and Religious Studies , Dee Amy-Chinn writes that where modules are going to involve discussion of topics likely to be controversial because of students' religious or other beliefs, you need an agreed strategy for dealing with moments of tension. She suggests using the first seminar to ask students what they think will make the course a success, such as being challenged by new ideas, and things that might threaten this success, such as being afraid to express an opinion. From this, students can come up with ground rules for future discussions, such as encouraging everyone to contribute, not judging people on the basis of their ideas and respecting all contributions.

Faisal Hanjra, a spokesman for the Federation of Student Islamic Societies in the UK and Ireland, says there are a number of things unique to Muslim students and that lecturers need to be sensitive to this. For example, they should be aware that if a Muslim student leaves a lecture at 3.50pm in the winter they are probably going to pray the sunset prayer, although students should have told the lecturer this beforehand. Muslim students may also fall slightly behind with deadlines during Ramadan when they will be fasting and increasing their praying. They may also bring a friend if they are seeing a lecturer of the opposite sex one-to-one.

In the Faith Guide to Islam , authors Amjad Hussain and Kate El-Alami discuss how religion will affect the attitude of Muslim students towards field trips and social events that involve drinking or close contact between different sexes, or participating in worship with other religions.

They also highlight dietary and food codes specific to Islam. But their key message is tolerance. They write: "Muslims, like any other group or individual, would prefer to be able to study in a tolerant environment where they are treated the same way as their peers."

And, by the way, swearing is not likely to get you remembered in anyone's prayers.

Further information

Faith Guides to Sikhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism , produced by the Higher Education Academy, http:///prs.heacademy.ac.uk/  publications Christian Unions, www.uccf.org.uk

Federation of Student Islamic Societies in the UK and Ireland, www.fosis.org.uk

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