Interfaith Dialogues on Campus
For the past 7 weeks, FreshEd has focused on global learning metrics. Although there is much more to say on that subject, I think it’s time to look at something completely different.
This week Sachi Edwards joins me to talk about interfaith dialogue initiatives in US higher education. The ideas of religious identity, religious oppression and religious privilege are often overlooked when we think about social justice.
Sachi wants to change that.
Sachi Edwards is an Adjunct Professor in Higher Education, Student Affairs, and International Education, at the College of Education, University of Maryland. She’s recently published her first book entitled Critical Conversations about Religion: Promises and pitfalls of a social justice approach to interfaith dialogue (Information Age Publishing, 2016).
Citation: Edwards, Sachi, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 51, podcast audio, November 16, 2016. https://freshedpodcast.com/sachiedwards/
Will Brehm 1:57
Sachi Edwards, welcome to FreshEd.
Sachi Edwards 2:00
Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Will Brehm 2:03
You have a new book called critical conversations about religion, and you talk a lot about interfaith dialogues. What are interfaith dialogues?
Sachi Edwards 2:14
Well, that’s a good question. Interfaith dialogues mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And for the most part, it depends upon the socio-political context of the area, the particular tensions or violence that exists between religious groups in that area. So there are different needs for interfaith relations. And so there are different manifestations of interfaith dialogue.
Will Brehm 2:46
So is just simply that you’d have a group of people from different religious backgrounds coming together to talk about their own religious identity?
Sachi Edwards 2:55
Right, so it could be people from different religious backgrounds coming together to talk about what they believe on a spiritual level. It could mean people coming together to talk about their lived experiences as a person of their religious tradition, potentially even not talking at all about what they believe specifically. Sometimes it just means a panel of religious experts talking and an audience of people listening. So yes, it could take various forms, but it typically is members of different religious groups or traditions coming together to discuss something related to religion.
Will Brehm 3:42
So you’ve made a distinction between spirituality and then religious identity, the tradition of religion that someone may live in or be socialized into. Can you talk a little bit more about, you know what this means and how this relates to this idea of religious identity?
Sachi Edwards 4:02
Yes, I make a very conscious effort in my scholarship and in my speaking to differentiate religion and spirituality because in the way that I like to talk about it, religion is a very cultural, socialized identity that we all have. Spirituality is more of an individual journey or an individual
manifestation of our beliefs in the present moment. It can change and evolve much more quickly and easily than our religious culture. We are socialized into a very specific worldview that relates to the religion of our family, of our community, of our ancestors. On a spiritual level, we can have very unique, specific individualized beliefs about the nature of divinity, of the world, of life, and death.
Sachi Edwards 5:09
So I like to make the distinction between the two so that people recognize that they may have a spirituality or spiritual beliefs that are very unique and very different from the religious culture that they were raised in. But they still have that socialization, that religious socialization from their family, from their communities, that is much more difficult to get away from.
Will Brehm 5:39
So for instance, I was born and raised in America so that would be a dominant Christian religion
or culture, but I don’t practice any religion, but I would still be influenced by this religious cultural identity that just from where I was born and raised?
Sachi Edwards 6:00
Well, there are religious minorities who are born and raised in America. So if you are born and raised in America from a traditionally Christian family lineage, then yes, you have this. Whether you always realize it or not, you have certain aspects of your cultural outlook that are influenced by Christianity. You know, but there are others who were born and raised in America, who, their entire family has a very different religious practice. And so, their cultural worldview is shaped by a very different religious tradition. And for those people, the worldview that they were socialized into at home conflicts with the dominant cultural worldview that they see and interact with outside of the home every day.
Will Brehm 6:55
You know, having dominant religious identities and then minority religious identities in one nation state like the US. There could be religious oppression as an outcome.
Sachi Edwards 7:08
Will Brehm 7:09
So, can you talk a little bit about how you understand religious oppression?
Sachi Edwards 7:16
Sure. So religious oppression as it manifests in the United States, is a power imbalance. So it can take the form of institutionalized benefits that are afforded to those from the dominant group. For instance, the one that is very popular to talk about is the way that school and government calendars are really oriented around the Christian calendar. We have Saturdays and Sundays are the weekends, where people typically aren’t in school or government agencies aren’t working. We have Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, typically off on those days, even New Year’s Day, which many people believe is a purely secular holiday and not tied to religion at all, it’s based on the Christian biblical calendar of when the new year starts. And
you know, how many years there has been since the birth of Christ. A lot of other religious traditions celebrate the new year on an entirely different day, not January 1. So that’s one example. But there are lots of examples outside of that, which we can talk about more if you’d like.
Will Brehm 8:48
Yeah, I mean, I would, like, because your book is on the United States, it just would be interesting to you know, in your opinion, what is the state of religious oppression in America today?
Sachi Edwards 9:00
Sure, well, it’s getting worse. In the last, actually since 9/11/ 2001, there’s been a pretty well documented increase of religious oppression and religious discrimination in the United States, primarily directed towards Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities. And those tend to be, what the public sees, they tend to be interpersonal acts of discrimination, of violence. There have been a string of, you know, killings and murders and temple destruction and things like that. But there are also government-level policies that are put into place that scrutinize certain religious groups more than others. And so there has been, unfortunately, increasing religious oppression and religious discrimination in the United States since that time, and it’s only getting worse. I think that the rise of Donald Trump and his anti muslim rhetoric is a good example of the way that is manifesting currently, and the number of people who considered him to be a legitimate candidate for president is an example of how rampant this religious discrimination, feelings of hatred towards religious minorities really is in the United States.
Will Brehm 10:42
So I feel like I have to ask, what’s your religious identity?
Sachi Edwards 10:47
Sure, well, I have a sort of blended religious identity. My father is Hindu and my mother is Buddhist. My father is an active practitioner and so his religious practice at home was very influential in my home life and my religious teaching as a child as far as what types of stories I was taught about, you know, moral stories about gods and goddesses. Outside the home, I was raised near my mother’s side of the family, and since her side of the family is Buddhist, even though she doesn’t have active practice of her ow, nI was raised among them going to Buddhist temples for various events, funerals, death, anniversaries, holidays, things like that. So I’m sort of blended but both of them, definitely minority religions in the United States.
Will Brehm 11:58
So what was it like growing up, and going to schooling in America where, you know, you were a religious minority.
Sachi Edwards 12:06
Right. So it was uncomfortable. So much so that I sort of didn’t, I tried not to think about that a lot as a child, I didn’t share that part of myself with most of my friends or my teachers
and even family members of mine who are extended family members who are Christian, you know. They perhaps knew, but this is not something that we ever talked about. And I don’t think that it was until college or maybe even graduate school that I really started thinking more and reflecting more about that side of myself.
Will Brehm 12:50
And this is what brought you to this topic of interfaith dialogues. So, you know, what’s the connection between interfaith dialogues and education?
Sachi Edwards 13:00
Sure, so education, as many people think of it, is the way that we teach our next generation about things that are valuable in life to know about. It’s also the way that we teach our children how to think critically. So, even though it’s somewhat uncomfortable for people to talk about it in the K-12 sector, I do think that it’s an important place to start as far as learning, developing religious literacy, being able to feel comfortable having conversations about other religions with people from other religions without thinking of it as theology or as the promotion of one religion over another or over no religion. At the higher education level, we think more about promoting this idea of thinking critically, right? So, at the higher education level, it’s really important for students to learn how to analyze the sociocultural context of what they’re seeing around them to understand the inequity that exists, and this relates to all forms of identity. But with regard to religious identity, I think it’s important for schools to take the lead in
modeling these types of conversations and modeling the awareness of religious inequity, and modeling how to confront and perhaps dismantle this hegemonic Christianity that exists in our society.
Will Brehm 14:55
How common are interfaith dialogues, like initiatives in higher education these days? From my own experience, and I’m thinking back to when I was an undergraduate and I had to take a course on multiculturalism. That was kind of a required course in the college but it didn’t touch on religion. It was more about race and gender and sexuality.
Sachi Edwards 15:23
Right. They are becoming more popular in the last 10 years or so, I think this trend goes in tandem with this big push in higher education in the US, but also around the world to internationalize our curriculum, our programming, our recruitment of students, and so because this internationalization is happening, there’s more diversity on campus. There’s more religious diversity on campus. So this is, I believe, sort of a tandem, or perhaps a result of this increased diversity, this increased cultural-religious diversity that exists on campus. Also, I think that
we saw waves of promotion of conversations about racial diversity, waves of promotion about gender and equity about LGBT equity. I think that this really is the new frontier of cultural diversity programming on college campuses. It is still quite new, but it is growing in the last 10 years. Definitely.
Will Brehm 16:48
And so your research in the book that you’ve recently published, looks at one of these interfaith dialogue courses in a US University. What was this course that you were looking at?
Sachi Edwards 17:01
Sure. So, this course was a course that actually followed a very specific pedagogical model called intergroup dialogue. And this model was developed through courses about race and gender, but it is applied around the country to courses about a wide range of identities. So, sexuality, national origin, abilities, size, there are all kinds of courses that use this pedagogical model to discuss various forms of identity. So religion is one of them, and it exists around the country. It’s hard to say how many of these programs have, specifically, classes about religious identity because, you know, a school could have an intergroup dialogue program without necessarily having a course specifically about religious identity. So there are lots of courses around the country that have that. But there are also colleges and universities around the country that have courses that are similar to interfaith dialogue that don’t follow this specific model. So the course itself was targeted towards recruiting diverse students. And what that means for this model is to have half Christian students and half non-Christian students. And that was purposeful, to try to establish a balance and not to have one group feel less represented than the other. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite work out in the courses that I observed. But that was the intent. So all of these classes had 12 to 14 students in them, half, Christian and half non-Christian. And the course had an overt social justice aim, which meant that it was their intention and goal to discuss Christian privilege and religious oppression through the class.
Will Brehm 19:35
What did you observe? Like what were these students discussing? And what were some of the debates that you witnessed?
Sachi Edwards 19:43
So it’s really interesting because I sat through as a participant observer in three separate sections of this course for the entire term. And all three had a completely different process, and discussed completely different topics. And so the first class for instance, really, the facilitators tried to discuss inequity, privilege, and oppression. But because they didn’t redirect the students to talking about religious identity specifically, when the students heard the word privilege, they started talking about white privilege and male privilege. So the course then ended up being somewhat social justice-oriented, but not in terms of religious identity. And so when the facilitators would try to bring in religious identity back into the fold, it was briefly, they would briefly talk about something related to religion, and then they would kind of, the students would naturally veer back towards topics that they were seemingly more comfortable or familiar talking about, which was race and gender.
In the second course, it became what I call a religion 101 course where the students were asked to basically teach their peers about their religion, which ended up being quite unfair for these students who were the only person of their religious identity. Because they were, you know, put on the spot, by themselves, to explain their religion. You know, and these are traditionally-aged college students 18 to 20, most of them and, you know, they don’t know facts about their religion, and they don’t know how, they’re not well-versed in explaining a religious tradition to someone that’s never heard of it. And so, it was difficult, to say the least, for some of the students.
The third class ended up being a very heady philosophical discussion about the existence or not of a higher power and whether or not students would, what they believe about, you know, things like life after death or the existence of evil, or, you know, one topic that came up a lot in that class was, would you continue to believe in God if aliens came to earth? And so it ended up being one of those conversations that people crave and they like to talk about, you know, really heady things, and have these conversations because they don’t really typically get to have these conversations with their peers. But it didn’t pertain at all to religious identity, and it certainly didn’t pertain at all to social justice.
Will Brehm 23:00
So you mentioned that, you know, this first section that you observed, they felt much more comfortable talking about race and sexuality, and privilege in those two domains. What is religious privilege?
Sachi Edwards 23:18
So Christian privilege is very similar to white privilege and male privilege and heterosexual privilege and it’s just unearned benefits that Christians, whether they be practicing believing Christians or non-practicing just culturally Christians, there are certain benefits that they enjoy living in the United States that they did not earn, and they did not ask for. And just everyday experiences in life tend to be easier for them. For instance, interviewing for a job or flying on an airplane, or making new friends, these are all things that Christians can fairly confidently know that their religious culture is not going to be a detriment to them in these experiences, whereas religious minorities tend to live with a little bit of fear, perhaps, about how am I going to be perceived by my, you know, potential future employer or by this TSA agent, or by this new group of friends, who doesn’t share my religious identity. And so those are some examples of how the concept of privilege, sort of, manifests when it comes specifically to religious identity.
Will Brehm 24:54
It’s so fascinating that the students, and maybe even the instructors just felt much more comfortable talking about race and sexuality, or just talking about different religions, and we know, what are their practices rather than interrogating this idea of identity and religious identity in particular. So I guess, is it the issue of instructors? Like, is the reason that these courses that you observed didn’t necessarily meet the intention of talking and discussing and critically engaging with the idea of social justice, is it because of the instructor him or herself who, you know, more or less focused on areas that they felt most comfortable with?
Sachi Edwards 25:41
I hate to blame the instructors, you know, and put the responsibility on their shoulders alone, because I really feel that the lack of literature in this area makes it difficult for them to fully understand this concept and the same goes for students, right? So many of them felt comfortable talking about white privilege or male privilege or heterosexual privilege because they had heard of the concept or been taught about the concept in other classes. So this was something that was familiar to them. Also, there was a syllabus template that all the facilitators got, with suggested readings and many of them were oriented towards race and gender. And so if the facilitators weren’t proactive in seeking out different readings that applied to religious identity in particular, you know, then there was less written assistance to them to help explain the concept to the students. And so, yes, in a way, the facilitators or the instructors of these courses did, sort of, help to allow the classes to go off track a bit. But I think the reason for that is because there isn’t a lot of literature about this topic for them to draw from. There isn’t a lot of discussion about this issue among people who are in diversity and inclusion circles, who are in social justice education circles, this is not an issue that is commonly discussed. And so this is not an issue that the facilitators may have heard of, or thought very much about before.
Will Brehm 27:53
Why is that? I mean, it’s, you know, it’s ironic that you would have circles of social justice and diversity experts or instructors and they exclude religious identity?
Sachi Edwards 28:05
Sure, I think there are two ways that I could answer that. The first being that there’s this long standing tradition in education to separate religion and government, right? And so, whenever someone is to raise anything related to religion, there’s that immediate, sort of, fear or hesitation, are we crossing that boundary? We don’t want to cross this boundary. The other answer that I could give is that a lot of these critical paradigms are rooted in Christianity. And so a lot of people approach social justice work or critical work, inspired by or motivated by their faith, by their Christian faith specifically.And it is uncomfortable for them to discuss or recognize or acknowledge or reflect on the privilege that they have as Christians, especially if they have multiple other oppressed identities. But this is true for all forms of privilege right, that if you have it, it’s hard to see and it’s uncomfortable to talk about. And so I think that those are perhaps the two reasons that converge that make this issue really difficult to talk about in these circles.
Will Brehm 29:45
So what do you think universities can do to avoid these pitfalls that you’ve identified? Like, how can they make these interfaith dialogue courses more effective to meet that aim of social justice?
Sachi Edwards 30:01
Sure, so I think the first thing is, I lay out five specific suggestions in my book, a lot of them are very practitioner-oriented. But if we take a step back from that, I think the first thing to do is to start allowing these conversations to occur in the higher education setting, because I think that would make the other things that I suggest in my book easier to accomplish. So for instance, what I suggest in my book, first, is that you be upfront about the social justice orientation of the course and what that means specifically in terms of religious identity. So, for instance, making sure the students know we will be talking about Christian privilege and religious oppression in this class. And so, of course, it’s easier to be able to say that and know what you’re talking about if, as a faculty member, you have had that conversation elsewhere, you know, in your professional or academic life. So the second thing I recommend is that they focus on religious identity and not on spiritual belief. Again, this is easier to do if people understand the distinction between the two. The third thing I suggest is that they encourage students and facilitators to discuss lived experience, rather than theology or hypothetical scenarios. So for instance, why don’t you let the students tell each other what it’s like to live in the world as a person of their particular religious cultural background, rather than talking about aliens. Fourth thing I suggest is that you assign and train facilitators who understand this concept of religious identity in the socio-cultural sense. And facilitators who are aware of their own privilege or oppression and can articulate how that manifests in everyday life. Again, I come back to, it’s easier to find and recruit and train these types of facilitators if these conversations are happening on campus already. And then the last thing I suggest is to create a diverse demographic in the classroom, maybe not half and half Christian, non-Christian because that really leans the power towards the Christians in that the non-Christian group is broken down into multiple different non-Christian religions. And what that meant in my research was that there are a number of students who are the only person of their religious identity in their class. And that’s, you know, in my last suggestion in my book is that, definitely should not happen. There should not be a single person who has nobody else in the room who shares their religious identity.
Will Brehm 33:29
It sounds like there’s so much research to be done on this field. So I’m sure you have quite a full research agenda going forward.
Sachi Edwards 33:39
Will Brehm 33:41
So I wish you the best of luck in that. And thank you so much for joining FreshEd, Sachi!
Sachi Edwards 33:45
Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.