Tensions between religion and science are not new. Today, many people assume that scientists are athiests, but little is actually known about their religious and spiritual views. To learn more, Elaine Howard Ecklund conducted a study of religion among scientists. She explores the results of the study in the 2008 Contexts feature “Religion and Spirituality Among Scientists.” Below are a few questions to accompany the article.
1) Does the finding that scientists often hold religious views surprise you? Would you assume it varies by discipline? Why or why not?
2) Why do you think a greater proportion of scientists are atheists than the general population?
3) Considering that 69% of social scientists surveyed identified as spiritual, how might you explain a reluctance to discuss religion in an academic setting?
Jen’nan Ghazal Read explores views of Muslims in her article Muslims in America in the Fall 2008 issue of Contexts. You can read the full text here! This is great article to assign in any class on race, culture or politics. Use the discussion questions and activity below to incorporate this article into your class.
Also, listen to Jen’nan Ghazal Read talk about these issues on the Contexts Podcast Office Hours.
1) How do the political views of Muslim Americans compare to the rest of the American religious public?
2) Why might Muslims, who ideologically align with most of mainstream America, still be considered “outsiders”?
3) Can you think of other groups that are similarly considered “outsiders” in American society today?
ACTIVITY: The author provides demographic information on Muslim Americans. Download the Pew Center Report used in the article and write a summary of any information you learned that surprised you or that
you think should be more widely known.
The following case study could accompany any readings or discussion on religion, culture or rights. For example, it could be used with Jen’nan Ghazal’s “Muslims in America,” which is available through Contexts online.
Lisa is a new professor at a large public university. Her class just finished a unit on gender, and her students are taking an essay test. Lisa sits near the front of the room and keeps a watchful eye over her students. The classroom is completely silent except for their pencils scribbling furiously.
Suddenly, one of her students stands up and faces a corner. He starts to bow, and Lisa realizes that he is praying. Many of the students look up and start watching him instead of continuing their exam. Lisa can tell they are distracted, but she also believes that the student has religious freedom. Thus, she decides to pretend that nothing is happening.
After class, a few students approach Lisa and complain about the student who was praying. They say that they were seriously distracted during the exam and would like 10 more minutes to work on it.
- What should Lisa do?
- Did Lisa make the right choice to ignore the student instead of asking him to stop?
- Should a student be allowed to observe her or his religious rituals during class? Should this differ around the world? By the type of school?
This is a case study that could accompany any discussion on rights and cultural relativism. For example, it could be paired with any article in Contexts that deals with religion, culture, etc. Another option would be to use it with “Keyword: Culture” by Joseph R. Gusfield in Contexts, Winter 2006. Click here for a pdf version of the case study.
Kelly is discussing women’s rights with a group of her friends before their International Law class starts. As an avid feminist, she prides herself in her belief that women and men are equal. She says to her friends, “I feel sorry for the women that feel like they have to submit themselves to men. I mean, look at Muslim women. Why should they have to cover their heads or faces? They are beautiful. It’s a violation of their human rights to be treated as inferior to men. Why should they have to wear one if men don’t have to?”
Several of Kelly’s friends look uncomfortable and motion with their eyes to the right of Kelly. She glances over and realizes that Salma, who is originally from Kenya, is sitting next to them wearing her hijab. Thankfully for Kelly, their professor enters the room and begins the day’s lecture.
After class, Salma approaches Kelly as she putting her things away in her backpack. Salma explains that she heard Kelly’s conversation and that she wears a hijab because in her culture it is empowering. To her, a hijab is a sign of her submission to Allah. It also makes it so that men judge her by her personality rather than by her appearance. Surprised, Kelly apologizes. Yet, she is confused. She thought hijabs were degrading and a violation of women’s fundamental rights. How could two people view women’s right so differently?
- Do you agree with Kelly that hijabs violate women’s rights?
- If human rights are universal, how do we account for cultural differences?
- Are human rights and cultural relativism fundamentally incompatible? Which one is more important?
- Who has the power to decide how human rights are interpreted?