Church and State: Teaching students to discuss religion in an academic context

As part of my syllabus for AP Literature and Composition, I am teaching The Divine Comedy (otherwise affectionately known as Dante’s Inferno). It’s an amazing work of literature, widely considered to be one of the major literary works of all time. It provides a veritable playground of imagery, figurative language, allusion, and tone for my literature students to analyze, and gives them experience grappling with interpreting a difficult text. It’s definitely AP material. However, as my unit approached, I wondered about the entrenchment of this text within the Catholic, Christian tradition.  I mean, let’s face it–this piece creates a layout of  hell (as imagined by Dante, informed by his religious beliefs) that straight out condemns certain people and behavior based upon very religiously saturated reasons and examples. The entire piece, down to its terza rima structure, is reflective of a Christian worldview. As I began to envision our classroom discussions, I wondered about my students’ ability to talk about religion in the context of literature. Would they be able to delve into ideas about the novel without turning the class into a “whose religion is right?” type of fiasco? Would they become confused and think that I was teaching The Inferno as a sacred text? I didn’t want to shy away from discussing the text, I wanted to have quality discussions that included religion, and I wanted to address my students’ lack of experience in this department. (My situation is also exacerbated by the fact that my students come from a small town where religious diversity is largely overlooked or even feared. They are, generally speaking, uncomfortable talking about difference in religious beliefs, even between Christian denominations.)
With all that in mind, I dedicated a portion of one of my introductory lessons to talking about how religion plays a part in academia, particularly in the humanities. A part of this was instruction on how to participate in an academic discussion where religion features prominently.  I created the following list to help manage our discussions, and my students have responded well so far.
Things to adhere to when discussing religion in an academic context:

žBring your beliefs, but treat their discussion as an intellectual exercise. Detach from extreme spiritual passion in this context.

žExhibit tolerance, respect, and curiosity regarding the beliefs of others.

žRefer to a religious belief/worldview as a belief, worldview, tradition, cultural stance, etc., rather than The Truth. (It may be YOUR truth, but it may not be the truth for others.)

žDo not openly react to a belief-oriented comment which offends you.

žDo not try to convert others to your point of view, or condemn your classmates.

žSeek commonalities between traditions.

žDescribe cultural impact of religious traditions.

žBe able to have discussions on ethics/morality that stand upon foundations other than that of religious tenets.

A public school classroom is the State, and not the Church, without a doubt. However, as I tell my students, intelligent people understand that these two entities profoundly impact one another in an interdependent way. Religion is powerful, and to shy away from discussing it is to water down our understanding of the world, of culture, of ourselves. Students bring their beliefs to class every day. While we don’t, as public school teachers, teach in terms of faith, we do owe it to our students to allow this part of their culture to be recognized as a part of who they are. Discussing religious themes (whether Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or agnostic in nature) can be sticky, but when done appropriately it provides a deep look into human nature and motivation that, in my opinion, composes much of what literature, humanity, and truth is all about.

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