January 21 2018

Marriage and Moral Traditions of Others: Teaching Religious Ethics and World Religions

by Irene Oh, The George Washington University



On a Tuesday morning, about two-thirds of the way into the semester of our Ethics and World Religions undergraduate course, I begin our class discussion on the topic of marriage by asking, “Does your family have certain expectations about whom you may marry?” Students laugh. They often share their parents and grandparents’ desires for them to marry a person who meets very stringent, seemingly impossible criteria.

One woman states: “My grandmother wants me to marry not just someone Jewish, but a Russian Ashkenazi Jew who speaks Russian fluently and belongs to a Conservative congregation. And, of course, English, because my parents don’t speak Russian. My parents want me to marry someone with a graduate degree. And, oh yeah, it should be a guy.”

I inquire further: “What would happen if you brought home someone who was not of your religious background?” 

One student responds:  “My parents told me that it was fine for me to date someone who was different, but that I had to marry someone who was also Catholic, preferably Italian Catholic. I did date a Hindu girl in high school, and my parents were OK with that since it was just dating, but I have to actually marry someone Catholic.”

In this particular segment on marriage, we look at interfaith marriage as a means of literally bringing together multiple religious traditions and examining traditions as ethical practices. We begin to approach the topic by reading a variety of materials, many of which are found online. I ask my students to find policies from different religious institutions about the performance of interfaith marriage, read newspaper op-eds and blogs about the interfaith marriages, analyze passages from scriptures about endogamy and exogamy, and review statistical surveys about interfaith marriages in the United States. The students then come to class, write a five-minute, ungraded reflection piece about the readings, and watch short video clips of interfaith marriage ceremonies. Through these materials, they tend to examine self-reflexively their own religious traditions, but also begin see how these traditions affect others and how the religious traditions of others may affect them. While a number of topics that we cover in the course do not apply directly to most students’ lives (e.g., stem cell research), the topic of marriage feels personally relevant for many. At a time in their lives when they are becoming independent adults and forging powerful emotional connections with others, students often find the topics of dating and marriage inherently fascinating and topical.

Upon encountering the texts and films and then discussing interfaith marriages in a culturally diverse classroom, students begin to realize both the complexity and the nearness of religious ethics. They sense religious traditions as text, experience, and community. They also note how so-called religious values are often closely intertwined with the expectations of ethnic groups and linguistic communities, and how the social and economic expectations of their families may both reinforce and conflict with religious values. Students observe how people interpret, follow, or ignore religious teachings about marriage. They ask—and are sometimes afraid to answer—difficult questions about personal limits of religious and racial tolerance. Most significantly, they see first-hand through the institution of marriage how they themselves, as individuals and members of communities, interpret and construct religious practices.

One goal of teaching religious ethics in an academic setting is for students to analyze religions as human institutions—changing through time and space, socially dynamic, and ethically relevant. The topic of marriage brings to the fore all of these aspects of religious traditions. The complexity of interfaith marriages adds to the mix the reality of diversity. All too often, religious traditions are discussed in silos—we’ll spend a few weeks on Judaism, then move onto Christianity for a few weeks, then move onto Islam. But throwing a discussion of interfaith marriages into the mix pushes students to think seriously not only about each others’ religious beliefs, but also about how people with differing religious beliefs in the same communities value each other. There are other topics that will accomplish this, as well—in particular, comparisons of just war theory, which we also cover in Ethics and the World Religions—but the discussions of marriage are, simply put, more fun.

Structuring the Syllabus: Practical Considerations

Ethics and the World Religions is a discussion-based undergraduate class offered through the religion department at The George Washington University. The twenty-five or so undergraduate students range from first years to seniors and major in a number of different fields. They take the class sometimes out of interest, often to fulfill a curricular requirement, and always because it fits into already packed schedules. There are no prerequisites.

In Ethics and the World Religions, I assign students a combination of texts, online sources, and film clips to teach undergraduate students about ethical aspects within communities that practice Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and (briefly) Sikhism. Following the assignments, we meet twice a week and begin each session with a short, nongraded writing exercise. I will sometimes provide a prompt, but often allow the students to write about any aspect of the assigned topic. I occasionally ask students to share what they have written as a springboard to the day’s discussion. Having taught some variation of this course for over a decade, I have found that class discussion benefits greatly from a few minutes (no more than five) of written reflection. Students recall what they have already read more easily, and substantive discussion begins more quickly.

Although I try to limit lectures, I have found that because the large majority of my students come to this class not having taken any courses in religious studies, lectures help to assure that students have some baseline knowledge of the religious traditions covered in the course. In fact, after several years of teaching the course by topic, I rearranged the course syllabus by religion. Approximately ten of fifteen weeks are arranged by religion, beginning with Hinduism and ending with Sikhism. The last third of the course is spent examining religious traditions in relationship to each other. During this portion of the semester, we delve into the topics of marriage, just war, and economics. Although I was initially hesitant to teach an ethics course by “silos” of religious traditions, I found that by dividing my syllabus in this way I was able to bring my students’ knowledge of religions up to a satisfactory level for engaged classroom discussions. One unexpected benefit of arranging the syllabus this way is that students are able to see diversity of views within each religious tradition. Even within relatively small religious communities, like Sikhism, we are able to discuss through a case study on the wearing of kirpans (ceremonial daggers) in public schools that Sikhs are not homogenous in their views of the topic.

Institutional Context: Who is the Other?

Teaching about religious and moral diversity at an institution like The George Washington University has inherent advantages. The student body is remarkably diverse in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and nationality. Also, students often come to study in Washington, DC, because they are interested in politics and are engaged with many of the ethical issues covered in the course syllabus. I try to use this diversity and passion for politics during class discussions and encourage—if students are comfortable—reflecting upon and sharing observations about religious practices in their home communities.

Adapting the class to other institutional settings would require taking note of who constitutes the student body. While a more religiously homogenous institution would seem initially a disadvantage, such a setting presents opportunities for reflecting upon religious diversity within traditions. Indeed, one concern about the diverse classroom is the danger of tokenism—that the lone Hindu or Pentecostal or Baha’i student becomes the voice for all belonging to that respective tradition. As noted above, one difficulty of teaching a world religions course is emphasizing the diversity within a religion, but with a large number of students belonging to a particular tradition, intrareligious diversity is almost guaranteed.

Many students report that the conversations that they have with other students constitute the most memorable aspect of “Ethics and the World Religions.” In other words, although the assigned work and lectures may lay the foundation for learning about the moral traditions of others, the face-to-face encounters with others in a structured classroom setting is intellectually, and perhaps even morally, transformative.


Pew Research Center. May 12, 2015. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” Pew Research Center. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

photo of Irene OhIrene Oh is associate professor of religion and director of the peace studies program at The George Washington University. She is the author of The Rights of God: Islam, Human Rights, and Comparative Ethics (Georgetown University Press, 2007) and articles in journals including the Journal of Religious Ethics and the Journal for the Society of Christian Ethics. Oh is currently working on a book about the ethics of motherhood. In 2009, she joined the religion department at GWU after having taught at the University of Miami in Coral Gables for five years. She currently teaches courses in peace studies and ethics. She has been elected to the board of the Society of Christian Ethics, is a founding member of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics, and serves on the steering committee for the Comparative Religious Ethics Group of the American Academy of Religion. She holds a BA in religion from Swarthmore College, an MA in divinity from the University of Chicago, and a PhD in religious studies from the University of Virginia.


Image: Guanyin, pictured in this statue in Dali, China, is a key heavenly bodhisattva who embodies the virtues of compassion and mercy important in Mahayana Buddhism. Picture by Fred Glennon.