UW News

February 16, 2006

Religion, violence, peace: Undergrads explore connections across time and cultures

Devout Christians blow up abortion clinics as an act of protest. At the same time, equally devout Christians stage nonviolent protests of the war in Iraq. Today and throughout history, all religions have been connected with both violence and peace. And this quarter, about 150 UW students are spending time learning about those connections in a new “University Course” called Religion, Violence and Peace.

Taught by Scott Noegel, professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization and James Wellman, assistant professor of western religions in the Jackson School of International Studies, the class is made possible by funding from the Office of Undergraduate Education, which created the interdisciplinary University Courses as a means of encouraging innovative teaching methods in large classes.

Religion, Violence and Peace actually grew out of a symposium on religion, violence and conflict that Wellman helped plan two years ago. “We brought in scholars from around the world and put together a volume of edited chapters on religious violence across time and cultures,” Wellman said.

Noegel participated in that symposium, and as he and Wellman talked about the subject, “we began to expand our thinking to include peace as well as violence,” Wellman said. When the two saw University Courses advertised, they decided to apply.

They have very different expertise. Wellman studies contemporary Western religious traditions, while Noegel studies ancient Near Eastern traditions. Together, they wanted to bridge the gaps between East and West, ancient and modern and “cut across time and tradition to make students think generally about issues we’re faced with every day,” Noegel said.

The class meets twice a week, with Noegel and Wellman alternating to present a case study on some aspect of the subject matter. In a typical lecture, Noegel showed students slides of various religious images that had been transferred from one religion to another. For example, one slide showed an Egyptian sculpture originally labeled as the goddess Isis and her son Horus but later labeled as Mary and Jesus. The question Noegel posed to the students was, did this change and the others depicted in his lecture represent a polemic — one religion taking over another — or accommodation — a religion assimilating local symbols of belief?

The aim, Noegel and Wellman say, isn’t to teach students a body of factual information about contemporary religions or historical ones, but to use the case studies they present to pose questions they don’t have answers for. That’s why each case study is followed by class discussion, with further discussion taking place online.

“This is a class that’s all about dialogue,” Noegel said. “We’ve come into it saying these are questions you need to debate as citizens, doing your civic duty as a human being on this planet. You’ll have this debate with you a long time, and you need to know where you stand.”

Case studies dealt with in class have ranged from the Christian Crusades to religious figures of peace. Often, what was happening in the ancient world is juxtaposed with contemporary issues to show that what is going on now is nothing new.

Talking about religion can be touchy, but the instructors have laid down some explicit rules.

“We’ve told them it’s not good enough to say, ‘I believe this and therefore you’re wrong,'” Noegel said. “You need to argue your case based on evidence. The class discussions have been very civil and provocative and show us we have real thinkers among the students.”

The discussions on the online discussion board are equally lively but civil. Last week, for example, there was an exchange about the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that have caused violent protests in Europe. One student quoted an article he/she had found which said, “How can Muslims demand that their sensibilities be respected when they assault other religions and don’t even begin soul-searching to rethink their own intolerance and religious prejudices?”

To which another student replied, “What does it mean to ‘assault other religions’? I thought only people could be assaulted.”

Then the first came back with, “I respectfully disagree with your points…. An idea or symbol can also be assaulted, for example, in burning a flag. Destroying statues of Buddha or publishing cartoons that offend Muslims is an assault against a religious icon, and an offense to followers of that religion.”

Other students chimed in with their own points of view, but there was no name-calling or discounting of an opinion without some attempt at using evidence for their arguments.

Noegel and Wellman deliberately designed the class so that students can remain somewhat anonymous as they speak. They need not use their real names on the online discussion board, though the class instructors and TAs know who is participating. And although Noegel said he usually makes an effort to learn students’ names, even in large classes, he hasn’t done so in this one.

“We want them to feel they can talk quasi-anonymously,” he said. “Obviously they’re sitting with others who know them, but from our perspective I think it allows them a certain amount of freedom.”

Everything that is done in the class is leading up to case studies the students will produce.

“We take them through a portfolio of assignments, beginning with what is your bias, your general view on religion, violence and peace,” Wellman said. “Then we begin the process of what would be a case study that would be interesting to you, and how can you make it narrow enough to be problematic but broad enough to be interesting and worth doing research on. We take them through seven steps of building that case study to where it’s a 12 to 15 page research paper at the end — which is really their primary assignment.”

Some of the themes chosen so far include the roots of Martin Luther King’s nonviolence, domestic violence in religious households and various Biblical stories.

“I’m very excited at the prospect of seeing about 150 case studies on very different themes,” Wellman said.

In fact, the two are planning to put the 10 or 15 best case studies online for other students to learn from and to show the larger community the kind of research undergraduate students can produce. Religion, Violence and Peace is a permanent class on the books with a permanent Web site, and probably will be taught again in the 2007-2008 academic year.

Both instructors say doing a course like this one is more work than doing their own because dialoguing with another professor and dealing with another subject is a constant process. But they’ve enjoyed it.

“One of the great things about co-teaching is that ordinarily, you don’t get a chance to sit in on someone else’s course,” Noegel said. “With this, you get to learn more about a subject that’s of interest to you.”