Buddhism teaching

Professor Cal Poly SLO on teaching religion in a culture war


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People walk the artistic 'Path to the Cross' at Modesto's Church of the Redeemer.

People walk the artistic ‘Path to the Cross’ at Modesto’s Church of the Redeemer.

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In my religious studies classes, students are encouraged to read about the lives of some of history’s great religious figures, such as Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Lao Tzu, and Siddhartha the Buddha. Their stories often involve a struggle before revelation; some form of Golgotha ​​usually precedes the resurrection.

Recently a student complained that I should attach a “trigger warning” to a particular reading I assign on the life of Siddhartha because the details of his extreme fasting experience 2,500 years ago might traumatize people. students today who struggle with eating disorders.

I can imagine conservatives citing this complaint as a perfect example of Gen Z “snowflakes” falling back on a “woke” agenda infiltrating our schools.

But the same fear of creating emotional discomfort appears to be behind recent laws in Florida, which give people the right to sue schools and teachers if students become “discomfortable” with course content.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has made no secret that the intent of his “Stop Woke Act” is primarily to protect white students from any guilt or worry about the history of race, gender and gender. religion.

I can imagine liberals citing this bill as a perfect example of white conservatives sticking their heads in the ground, trying to protect their declining status.

Many of us professors feel caught between this cultural battle being fought on strikingly similar terms on the left and on the right. Without appreciating the political subtext, one could legitimately worry about the fate of today’s students. However, I have more concerns about the future of education.

The fear of potential lawsuits based on the subjective perception of 19-year-olds – especially on matters that touch the skin, such as religion – seems like a perilous policy.

Although I am (and should be) careful with my words, I cannot always control how they are received by an audience. It is not hard to imagine how such prosecutions could be militarized to such a degree as to create a chilling effect in the classroom.

I also don’t know how to be a responsible scholar while avoiding topics that might cause discomfort. I like to emphasize the positive elements in the history of religion – the times when religion provided personal inspiration, social transformation and community solidarity – but any fair presentation of religious history must also share its uglier history; the time when the product of religion was not love and compassion but hate, scapegoating and violence. Responsible storytelling requires engaging the whole story.

But on a deeper level, I don’t want to protect my students from emotional discomfort, quite the contrary. I want my students to experience some degree of emotional discomfort, as this is the gateway to change and growth. Discomfort is the internal cue that something has gone wrong and is an important part of the process of striving to understand others, share their pain, and imagine ways to improve the world.

I want my students to feel uncomfortable learning about the horrors of Shoa (the Holocaust) and hope they will be inspired by some of the Jewish theological reflections on these horrors.

I want my students to feel uncomfortable when confronted with Christianity’s role in encouraging slavery in America and hope that they will be inspired by how the same Christianity also inspired the abolitionists.

I want my students to feel uneasy when confronted with the role of Buddhism in the development of suicide bombings in Sri Lanka and I hope they will be inspired by how the same Buddhism has inspired the global movements of radical nonviolence.

You see, some discomfort seems to me to be a prerequisite for growth. If we as a society aim to protect students from emotional discomfort, we will end up hindering their potential for growth in wisdom. If education promises to shape the next generation to light up our world, we let them down when we don’t allow them some discomfort along the way.

Instead of shielding students from discomfort, how about giving them tools to deal with it? Maybe we should teach them to turn the things that trouble them into motivation to change the world that created those problems. If we take away anything from the lives of great spiritual leaders like Siddhartha, it may be that there are always struggles on the path to enlightenment.

Contributing columnist Stephen Lloyd-Moffett is a professor of religious studies at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

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