Talking about religion

April 13, 2020, 8:13 p.m.

Last week, Tom Ehrlich, who teaches at the Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), and Ilana Horwitz, a recent GSE Ph.D. graduate and now a Postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Center on Longevity, found themselves agreeing that amid all the conversations about diversity at Stanford, religion rarely came up. Tom had noticed this after having served as dean of Stanford Law School, provost at the University of Pennsylvania and president of Indiana University. Ilana had noticed this as a sociologist of religion and education. Our shared insight led us to write this piece.

Some years ago, Tom helped lead a Ford Foundation program aimed at supporting colleges and universities that wanted to encourage “difficult dialogues” among their students. These dialogues were centered around fraught topics and encouraged students to listen to each other, but too often students did not probe their peers to identify why their views differed. University administrators wanted students to push past the attitude of “You have your views, and I have mine.” Tom assumed that most institutions would apply to fund dialogues around hot topics like race and politics. 

But he was wrong — the No. 1 issue was religion. Institutions wanted to encourage students to learn about the role and meaning of religion — or lack of religion — in each other’s lives.

Talking about religion is not just a matter of personal significance — it’s a matter of civic responsibility. As the Interfaith Youth Core points out, students attending college now are part of the most religiously diverse generation our country has ever seen: “Differences of faith and worldview have the potential to push society apart and we see a rise in this kind of polarization around us every day. But those same differences can be actively engaged to bring people together in common action to tackle our most important challenges. That’s interfaith cooperation. But it takes the right skills and practice to make it happen.”

Interfaith dialogue at Stanford appears to be rare. As Melina Walling ’20 noted last year in a Stanford Daily op-ed, discussions and debates with her fellow students are much more likely to revolve around politics, race and social class than around religion. 

Why is religion absent? Ilana’s ongoing interview with students from Stanford undergraduates suggests two key reasons. First, some students view religion as not sufficiently intellectual. As one student said, “Talking about religion feels antithetical to Stanford’s educational mission.” And because religious views are seen as volitional and based on personal beliefs, those students think there is not much fodder for debate or dialogue. Second, unlike conversations about social class and race, which have tangible implications for students in the form of campus resources and policies, religion is thought by some students to be less consequential. 

And yet, despite these views, there are many students for whom religion matters deeply, and students ought to feel comfortable discussing this — and not just with other religiously inclined students. Undergraduate years are a powerful shaper of students’ identities — who they are and how they choose to relate to the world around them. Religion has long been a defining influence in American culture and cultures around the world, and so religion has helped shape the moral precepts of all Stanford students, whether or not they practice a religion.

To be clear, promoting religious dialogue is not intended to convince your peers about your own views towards religion. Rather, the goal is to better understand your fellow peers. As Walling noted, “Our sometimes limited ability to directly address religion in the broader discourse on campus can prevent us from fully understanding each other. If we think that we know someone’s views based on their religious tradition alone, we are preemptively preventing ourselves from understanding the full story of a person’s beliefs.”

Promoting dialogue about religion means a shift at both the institutional level and the student level. During Tom’s tenure at Indiana University, residential advisors facilitated structured gatherings in student residences to promote discussions about religion. Students explained to other students how they felt about their own religions, or their lack of a religion, and felt comfortable questioning each other. These searching dialogues were especially helpful in enabling students to dispel myths and stereotypes of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, evangelicals and other religious groups. 

Our current reality of non-residential living also presents unique opportunities for students to talk about things that might be taboo on campus. The COVID-19 crisis is a time when people are more likely to contemplate and find solace in their faith. And because religious identities are often tied to family, being back home might mean that students are reengaging with their religious commitments in a way that they do not at campus. If you’re worried that religion isn’t intellectual enough, you might take solace in knowing that UC Riverside just received a $10 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study how religion impacts children’s world views, their understanding of science and medicine and their social interactions. So next time you chat with a friend, challenge yourself to push past the “you have your views, and I have mine” stage. This is an important part of your learning at Stanford. 

Tom Ehrlich is an adjunct professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Ilana Horwitz is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Stanford Center on Longevity, and has just accepted a faculty position at Tulane University.  

Contact Tom Ehrlich at tehrlich ‘at’ and Ilana Horwitz at ihorwitz ‘at’

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