University classes promote respectful religious debate

The Comombus Dispatch reports on a new project at Ohio University that aims to teach students how to have open, reasonable discussions about difficult questions of faith. The University is one of 27 colleges and universities receiving a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation through the Difficult Dialogues Initiative, a project coordinated by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

The project aims to face up to the difficult topics that are too often glossed over or shied away from:

It’s crucial that young people learn how to talk about one of life’s most important topics, said classics professor Steve Hays, who calls the program “shamelessly idealistic.”

Avoiding tough issues doesn’t solve problems, he said. “It only covers them over and disguises them.”

When it comes to difficult discussions on college campuses, “There is a lot of inhibition and restraint and absence of candor,” said Robert O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center.

“The institutions don’t have any established process by which to engage these issues” of religion, race and sexuality, he said.

“We grow up with very little common ground in our religious thinking and religious experiences,” Hays told his students during a recent class. “There are problems in the world that result from this, like buildings falling down and people getting blown up.”

Students – from a variety of religious and non religious backgrounds – are pushed to say what they think, to challenge one another and to question whether positions can be justified.

Hays’ class exposes them to a range of writers, from atheist thinkers to those who see evidence of God’s existence. His primary goal is to teach them how to debate intelligently, with reason rather than emotion.

“A lot of times when people have bad discussions it’s because they have no idea what they’re talking about,” he said.

To prove his point in a recent class, Hays, a Christian, asked students whether any of them believed that everything in the Bible was true. A small minority said yes. He asked again: “Is everything in the book of Genesis true? What about Leviticus?” A few held firm. Then Hays asked whether everything in the book of Zedekiah was true. Most of the believers said yes.

Too bad there is no book of Zedekiah, he pointed out.

And although common ground is explored the programme has worked to strengthen people’s beliefs.

Andrew Kahn, 18, a Reform Jew from Dayton, said the experience has strengthened his faith. His discussion group includes an atheist and an aspiring Lutheran minister. One day, the atheist asked for proof that God exists. Kahn and other believers replied that just having the idea of God gives them purpose.

“At the end of this discussion, there wasn’t a clear winner or loser because we all benefited from it,” he said. “I know I walked away feeling even more like there was a God.”

The programme also works by exposes students to the people that hold those different beliefs and 75 agreed to live in the same dorm.

Hays wants students from campus ministries such as Campus Crusade for Christ to room with atheists. When people with drastically different worldviews live in the same dorm, they really get to know one another and break down the stereotypes, he said.

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