Religion in the Classroom

by BRIDGETTE TAYLOR | 11/12/09 11:00pm

Correction appended

Do students at Dartmouth tiptoe around the subject of religion? Susan Ackerman, chair of the religion department, thinks so, and said as much the panel discussion "What does G( )d have to do with it?" last Wednesday with professors David Peart, Eric Posmentier and Sergei Kan.

"Dartmouth students are amazingly polite," she said. "It can work against having really hard conversations in a classroom. Everyone wants to be so deeply respectful of everyone else."

The panel considered the role that religion plays in a secular institution.

To Kan, the anthropology department chair, the key is to balance respect for students with bluntness sometimes religion is simply irrelevant in the classroom.

"You should expect fairness and respect and empathy from us," he said. "But you can't expect that every class somehow involves religion."

Earth sciences professor Posmentier agreed, but mentioned that the religious beliefs of others affect his teaching style.

"When preparing material for discussion, I do need to consider how that consider reconciles with my personal beliefs and how it might relate to the personal beliefs of everyone sitting in front of me," he said. "Especially when it comes to issues like evolution, uncertainty, physics, origins of the universe."

Many students said that professors too often avoid religious discussion in the classroom.

"Many of the students are very concerned about offending people," one Dartmouth student said during the question-and-answer period of the panel. "We need input from the professor to create a better environment for discussion."

Yet the professors noted that certain faiths clashed with their own beliefs, making teaching difficult at times.

"You may get a student who comes from a particular religious tradition, and they might get very offensive," Kan said. "There's an attitude amongst some scholars that It's [the student's] belief, anything goes. They believe women are inferior, that's OK!' There's part of you that rebels against that. It's something to think about."

In an interview with The Dartmouth, faculty director of the Ethics Institute at the College, Ronald Green, said he seeks to both express his own beliefs and explain the rational behind controversial ones.

"While I disagree with the subordinance of women in certain religions, I feel like it is my responsibility to explain why the religion holds that view, express my personal beliefs, but not be dismissive of that tradition," he said. "There are many religious ethics with which I disagree, but I don't think it is right to dismiss or ridicule those traditions. They should be given a hearing."Green said, however, that some conflict may be inevitable

Posmentier, speaking at the panel, emphasized that professors cannot portray science as infallible, but can teach what is probable.

"The responsibility I do accept is informing students what theories are tested in 17 different ways and have passed 17 tests so far," he said. "We do not know the truth, but we have the responsibility to tell you which theory is closest to the truth, and why we believe that."

To Riley Kane '12, a practicing Catholic, these exertions of truth have no effect on his religious ideology. Kane specifically mentioned Biology 12 and the course's assertion that humans evolved from apes, saying that he believes that Adam and Eve were the origin of humanity, he said in an interview.

"I make the professors happy, and I go on believing what I believe," he said. "I do the work as they would want to see it."

Kane, however, has not felt pressured to alter his religious opinions.

"In general, [professors] have respected my beliefs," he said. "They never force me to change my beliefs. They either respect my beliefs or ignore them completely. That's a good thing, because I don't think they'll ever get me to change my beliefs."

Eliana Ramage '13, a follower of the Orthodox Jewish faith, however, chooses to keep her faith independent of scientific theory.

"I always try to keep religion and science separate otherwise I would lose my mind," she said. "I would never be able to understand anything. I try not to think about it."

Ackerman, at the panel, said that the religion is an integral component in education, although it may cause discomfort.

"The study of religion is something that needs to be present," she said. "Understanding religion is understanding human experience."

**The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Professor Eric Posmentier teaches in the mathematics department. In fact, Posmentier is an earth sciences professor.*

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