Religion in the university classroom

By: Eric Moeller

Universities are designed to create an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding.

The environment created by colleges around the country aims to facilitate the growth and learning of all students, no matter what subject they pursue.

However; when the subject being taught concerns familial and cultural traditions that sometimes go back hundreds of years, a certain degree of sensitivity becomes necessary.

“I think that religion is, potentially, a challenging subject area,” said Dell DeChant, the associate chair and undergraduate director of the Department of Religious Studies for the University of South Florida. “But, if you do your best to present the material in a fair, straightforward and neutral manner, then usually you don’t have any trouble.”

One of the reasons the study of religion can be more problematic that other subjects is because of the passion found in the subject that isn’t always present in the more concrete disciplines like math and science. DeChant believes that, while this aspect makes teaching religion more challenging, it also makes learning it that much more rewarding.

“The study of religion is the greatest opportunity to (grow and learn) because you’re not learning data in the same way that you’d access data in a course in the sciences or a course in engineering, in which the data is relatively fixed,” DeChant said. “What you learn when you study religion is that (the subject) is very fluid and the relationship that you have with the material is very fluid. There’s a lot of different ways of coming at it both from an academic standpoint and from a personal standpoint.”

According to DeChant, the most important aspect of teaching religious studies courses is to let the students know early that the courses are not designed to teach faith claims or change people’s beliefs. The primary aim of religious studies courses is to present each tradition in a neutral, factual light that increases and encourages the students’ knowledge and understanding of other cultures.

To accomplish this goal, DeChant begins his courses by instructing his students to read the Dialogue Decalogue, a document that lists the Ten Commandments required for having successful interreligous dialogue.

According to DeChant, the willingness to open a dialogue is the most important aspect of studying religion in an academic setting.

“You have to recognize that dialogue is not debate,” DeChant said. “Often one of the great challenges is what ideally would be dialogue — where we would learn and change and grow — ends up as a debate, where each person is trying to win. Dialogue is not about trying to win, it’s about trying to learn.”

For students willing to follow its guidelines, the Dialogue Decalogue provides a resource that can be used in all religious courses whenever questions of appropriate conversation arise.

“It really gives you a good foundation that provides a sort of key for dealing with those issues through the rest of the course,” said Stephen Wright, a graduate student in Religious Studies at USF. “You can always refer back to that if something comes up that might be inappropriate.”

Ultimately, the use of the Dialogue Decalogue is simply a means of instructing students how to get the most out of their study of religion. According to DeChant, the Decalogue’s teachings are invaluable, not just to students of religious studies, but also to all students looking to get the most out of the college experience.

“In the end, the main goal is to have, to the best of our ability, a sympathetic understanding and, mainly, a neutral approach to all religions,” DeChant said. “You go into a dialogue with an openness and a willingness to learn and that, as I tell the students, should be the approach you have to college education. If you’re here and you’re not willing to learn and change and grow than you’re probably not ready for college.”


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