Religious discussions present problems

Understanding different culture is necessary for a non-offensive dialogue

Religious+education+is+important+in+order+to+respect+and+appreciate+others+spiritual+beliefs. illustration/ ASHLEY YUNG

Religious education is important in order to respect and appreciate others’ spiritual beliefs.

   Among the ideas that founded the American republic was the idea that all people have fundamental rights, one of which is the maintenance of democracy through freedom of speech. 

   But what happens when the right for people to communicate their ideas infringes on another person’s opinion? 

   Many court cases relate to the issue of freedom of speech within a classroom setting, whether it applies to students or teachers. Among fraught topics is the issue of religion. The Supreme Court has ruled educators need to “teach, not preach” and “educate, not indoctrinate.’’

   However, teachers can still teach religion, as it is still a pivotal part of history and current events and adds to a student’s education.

   David Tastor has been teaching the International Baccalaureate course in World Religions at Granite Bay High for six years and “knows the sensitive nature of the course,” so he structures his class to make everyone feel safe and comfortable. 

   “When students phrase things in ways that are unintentionally offensive, it’s a matter of teaching them how to rephrase,” Tastor said. “We try to teach them just to understand and be aware of the language they use. (I want to) allow students the opportunity to ask questions and to make it a safe environment, to not laugh or tease when students ask questions when they don’t know.”

   The class starts off with three rules when talking about religion. The first is: don’t compare your best to their worst. Two, when you want to know, ask someone of that faith. And three, leave with a silence of holy envy.

   “(Holy envy is) when you’re looking at these religions, whether you believe it or not, whether you’re atheist or religious, is to go ‘that’s pretty incredible that they practice or believe that,’ ” Tastor said.

   However, talk about religion in educational environments is still controversial. The Constitution supports both sides of the argument as to what’s acceptable and what’s not.

   Recently, an incident related to religious instruction at GBHS resulted in some turmoil.

   Phoenix Johnson, who teaches IB English, showed a documentary about Malcom X and his notorous association with a group called the Nation of Islam that didn’t represent the Islamic religion itself. The movie introduced a prophet that married multiple wives who were exceptionally young.

   Ryan Cochran, a senior in that IB English class, said the debate started as a normal conversation.

   “(Johnson asked) if (the class) doubted anything with our own religion,” Cochran said. “No one raised their hands.” 

   Johnson then shared her story on how she doubted her religion, which was Christianity, because of her experience with the treatment of and lack of women in Christianity.

   “She then asked the two Muslim students in the class if they had opinions on the marriage of the older men in the Middle East to younger girls,” Cochran said. “The Muslim students tried to defend that they don’t base all of their religion off of that prophet (in the Nation of Islam).”

   From that point, according to Cochran, things got somewhat confusing.

   “(Johnson) claimed to have read the Quran and was trying to empathize with (students), but it got twisted,” Cochran said. “I think that her intentions of trying to (demonstrate) her understanding of the religion were conveyed as an attempt to degrade the religion.”
  The grey area then becomes whether a teacher has the right to voice her ideas about a student’s religion. 

   Whether the conversation was direct or indirect, the repercussions were inevitable. One student’s family hired an attorney to address the situation and ensure there wouldn’t be additional issues and to make sure the school was listening to their students.

   “The problem was that it started to get focused on me and (the other student) and our religion,” said senior Nabeel Qureshi, another student in the IB English class. “It was weird for us and uncomfortable because we didn’t exactly know how to respond. I knew it wasn’t of bad faith, and I knew (Johnson) wasn’t trying to be malicious or anything. I think she was just misinformed and misinterpreted the situation that got carried away.” 

   A teacher’s responsibility is to educate students without injecting or denigrating any particular religion. So, when teachers do talk about it, they’re teetering on the edge of a sensitive issue.

   “The problem was that it was toward the end of the period and we had around 15 minutes of discussion,” said Caroline Tak, another student in the IB class. “All of this got opened up, but we never figured anything out. The whole situation started with the moral ambiguity of religion.”

I knew she wasn’t trying to be malicious or anything. I think she was just misinformed and misinterpreted the situation that got carried away.”

— Nabeel Qureshi

   “I don’t think her intentions were bad,” Tak added. “It wasn’t to make fun of a religion or use her power to force religion on anyone.”

   This wasn’t a case of religious intolerance or ill intent, but the impact of misconceived interpretation still had its effects on students. So, how do teachers avoid having this happen in their classrooms?

According to Tastor – who regularly has religious leaders of different faiths speak on campus – knowledge is enlightenment. 

   “When I had my speakers on campus, I always invite all the teachers who have the opportunity to come to watch and then hear them speak,” Tastor said. “We have our interfaith panel … which has speakers from five different religions and talking on the topic of, ‘What does it mean to believe?’ They’ll go into various questions from there that’s opened to the public.”

  Despite these positive efforts, this doesn’t diminish the fact that there’s conflict and ignorance on the GBHS campus.

   For example, the Advanced Placement and IB exams in the spring are being held during Ramadan, but compared to Christians who get Easter or Christmas off, the students who celebrate Ramadan don’t get a day off. They still have the same makeup policy as everyone else. 

   “It doesn’t mean people are actively trying to be intolerant, but our system is built in a way where it’s kind of intolerant,” Tastor said. “Kids see it. A kid walks into the classroom and sees a Christmas tree up. Automatically, they know their difference is already pointed out.”

   Unfortunately, he has also witnessed direct intolerance. 

   “(I’ve seen) groups… on campus that promote certain points of views that are actively (targeting) other groups because of what they believe,” Tastor said. 

   The solution, for Tastor, is simple – we need to know more about each other, not less.

   “Whether people are purposely intolerant, ignorant or just simply don’t know and can’t define the blurry line on what’s tolerable or not,” Tastor said, “the vast majority agrees the more we can learn about people, the better off (we are).”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.