In a religiously tense world, the last thing students need is a religiously tense classroom – at least according to Temple’s religion department.
“We all care very much about talking across religious differences,” said Rebecca Alpert, religion department chair. “I think for the students, their friendships across religious lines and taking courses in the religion department gets them to talk about their differences and their commonalities, and it’s very exciting.”
In fact, the topic can actually produce a mouth-watering effect.
“[Different religions] all have a flavor,” Alpert said. “I think it’s all about the flavor.”
When introducing religious content into the classroom, the subject of faith tends to be universalized. Instead of displaying religions from a personal perspective, Alpert noted that teachers attempt to step back from private views and approach the subject from an incorporating, public position.
“What we say to people in our [religion] department is that we don’t teach religion, we teach about religion,” Alpert said.
“And what we are really interested in is the public face of religions.” Understanding the role that religion plays in the scheme of human relations and how different belief systems are integrated into world interaction is another concern for the religion department.
“We tend not to look so much at the individual practice of religion; but as to what the [specific] religion is about and how it has functioned in society,” Alpert said.
Religion professors at Temple are met with certain challenges when incorporating the topic of religion into the classroom.
“The hard part about religion is figuring out how to teach your own religion in comparison to teaching other religions,” Alpert said. “But we’re obligated to teach about all world religions, so how do you do them justice? How do you really explain something if you don’t know it from the inside?”
According to Dr. James Degnan, director of Temple’s Measurement and Research Center,
one specific survey the center conducts is an incoming student questionnaire. Degnan noted that virtually all incoming freshmen take the survey, and about 30 percent of transfer students participate in it as well.
“One thing that we see in our survey is that Temple is a remarkably tolerant place, in the sense of respecting other people’s opinions,” Degnan said. “You may not agree with them, but you’re at least willing to listen and to exchange ideas.”
Sarah Fisher, chair of the Interfaith Council at Temple and Director of Hillel, a Jewish organization on campus, said she believes that religious diversity adds to the experience of every student at the university.
Fisher also noted that Temple provides an outlet for those many religions through the various religious-oriented student organizations and several religious services on campus.
T.C. Mazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.