June 13 2024

The Personal is Pedagogical: Embracing Moral Debate in the Religious Studies Classroom

by Elizabeth Barre, Rice University



Classic Challenges

In some ways, the questions we are asking in this issue of Spotlight on Teaching are not new. Anyone who has taught an introductory course in religion, or even read about the teaching of such courses, is already well aware that the task of teaching a “tradition” is fraught with difficulties. It’s never quite clear what we’re supposed to be teaching when we’re assigned this task, and if we do manage to settle on a responsible answer to that question, it’s not long before the time constraints of a semester-long course make us wonder whether responsibility is simply a luxury we can’t afford.

Further challenges arise when we discover that our students come into these courses with their own goals, and that these goals often have little to do with what we hope to achieve. In Barbara Walvoord’s classic study, we learn that more than 66% of students take our introductory courses to help develop their own beliefs. But less than 33% of faculty thinks fostering this development is a primary, or even important, goal of their teaching. Not surprisingly, most (86%) prefer to focus on “critical analysis.” But many wonder whether it is possible to foster an appropriately critical stance among students who enter their classrooms expecting spiritual growth.

And perhaps no pedagogical issue has captured the attention of our discipline more than the question of whether it is possible to teach the traditions of “others.” Can an instructor who does not herself identify with a tradition teach that tradition as well as those who do? And what about the students? How do we ensure that students are not exoticizing, romanticizing, and/or demonizing traditions with which they are unfamiliar?

These pedagogical challenges have been with us for decades, and the discipline has reached no consensus on how to manage them. Nevertheless, in my experience, the most popular approach appears to be some combination of the following pedagogical strategies:

  1. Help students resist the impulse to essentialize by reading critical theoretical texts or introducing them to significant degrees of pluralism within each of the traditions studied.
  2. Encourage a critical distance in students by presenting a picture of the religious studies classroom as a space where everyone (instructor and students alike) “brackets” their personal experience, commitments, and questions so that they can come to understand that which is being studied “on its own terms.”
  3. Ensure that the emphasis on critical distance doesn’t overshoot its goal (which is usually something like “critical understanding”) by urging students to “empathize” with, or perhaps even “respect,” traditions that are not their own.

When implemented with care, these strategies can do a great deal of good work for our students. But they are not without danger. If we overemphasize the porous and amorphous nature of traditions, students can lose site of the threads that tie beliefs and practices together. Too much bracketing can lead students to see other traditions as historical or sociological artifacts better suited for the shelves of a dusty museum than for organizing a modern life. And if we aren’t careful, asking students to respect or empathize with all the traditions they study can turn our courses into platforms for promoting a naïve and uncritical understanding of religious pluralism.

As I noted at the start, none of these debates are new. Yet they are worth recounting here to help us understand the extent to which these issues become amplified or entirely transformed when the unfamiliar traditions we teach are not simply religious, but moral.

Morality as Amplifier

The impulse to essentialize, personalize, and exoticize difference seems to be built into the DNA of our students. But my experience suggests that this impulse is most intense when the difference they encounter is a moral world that pushes up against their own. And if we think William Perry’s stages of moral development are more or less accurate, the unique intensity of these encounters makes sense. According to Perry, most of the students in our introductory courses will be operating with a singular conception of moral truth, having never considered the possibility that the moral authorities in their lives could be wrong. As such, encountering moral views that challenge their own is an experience that is equal parts personal, unsettling, and alienating. It is perfectly natural (if not ideal) that they try to make sense of these views with oversimplified mental models, that they frame the alternatives as entirely alien, and that they have a hard time resisting the urge to fixate on their own views (and their possible justification).

This also helps explain why students have so much trouble bracketing their personal views when they encounter moral diversity. In most cases, bracketing in the religious studies classroom is challenging but not threatening. It may be hard to think about the practices of Muslims in a mosque without referencing one’s own experience as a Christian in a church, but because the former can exist alongside the latter, one’s experiences as a Christian are not challenged by the Muslim experience (at least not in any straightforward and immediate sense). But if students come into our classroom as moral dualists, any and all moral difference will be encountered as a form of conflict, making the task of bracketing especially threatening.

And even if a student is not a moral dualist, she may still find it difficult to bracket her personal judgments in the face of moral practices and beliefs she considers deeply unjust. It is one thing to refrain from making judgments about the possibility of miracles or the plausibility of inerrant scripture; it is quite another to remain a neutral observer when reading arguments that sanction gender inequality or condone the use of indiscriminate violence. Unlike other truth claims, moral claims reach out to us for a response. When we learn that someone believes “men who lie with men should be put to death” or that “women should be free to hold leadership positions in the church,” we are encountering claims that are also claims upon us. And to ask our students to encounter these beliefs in any other way is to strip the claims of that which makes them moral.

Finally, it is hard to imagine a pedagogical context in which the dangers of encouraging “empathy” and “respect” are more pronounced. We might want our students to understand Thomistic arguments “on their own terms,” but asking them to respect or empathize with his position about the proper punishment for heretics (i.e., death) is a recipe for swift and severe student pushback. We can and should make the case for certain narrow forms of empathetic understanding and respect (more on this later), but we must also recognize that our students have a history with these words and that they are likely to interpret them as synonyms for “endorsement” in the context of moral disagreement. In fact, if the moral distance between the students and the source is great enough, they are likely to push back against almost any form of engagement (empathetic or otherwise).

I first learned of this dynamic when I asked students to read Osama bin Laden’s Letter to America in an introductory religious ethics course in 2006. Well aware of the controversial nature of the text, I made a point to emphasize that we were simply working to understand his arguments, rather than endorse them. But much to my surprise, students could not wrap their heads around this distinction. For these students, even the seemingly benign work of “understanding” offered Bin Laden more validation they were ready to give. Likewise, a colleague who studies the Ku Klux Klan has shared stories of numerous academics responding to her work in similar ways. She’s been asked pointed questions about whether the Klan “deserves” to be studied, and many more have worried that her work might work to “legitimate” that which should never be legitimated.

None of this bodes well for those who hope to teach the moral traditions of others using the pedagogical strategies employed in the traditional religious studies classroom. The moral dimension of the course will make it more difficult for students to avoid essentializing, personalizing, and exoticizing, but it will also make the traditional antidotes to these problems (“bracketing” and “empathy”) almost entirely ineffective.

In what follows, I outline two alternative strategies, drawn largely from the pedagogical toolbox of our colleagues in philosophy, which have proven most useful for teaching the moral traditions of others. The core insight of both strategies is that deeply personal disagreement and debate can, and indeed must, be a central component of our classrooms when teaching the moral traditions of others.

Leave the Brackets at the Door

When we ask our students to leave their personal judgments and commitments at the door of our classrooms, we often have good intentions. And I admit that, for some purposes, this bracketing can be pedagogically useful. But if we want our students to understand the moral traditions of others, it is ultimately this practice that should be left at the door.

The primary reason we should welcome personal engagement has already been noted: when introducing moral issues, we’d be fighting an uphill battle if we expected students to keep their judgments at home. But there are other reasons this move makes good, pedagogical sense.

In the first place, the scholarship on teaching and learning has long made clear that students will only learn material in a lasting way if they are able to make sense of that material in terms of what they already know. In the must read How Learning Works, Susan Ambrose and her coauthors remind us that deep, transformational learning is only possible when we engage students’ prior knowledge and work to shape their already existing mental models. If we ask our students to leave their current beliefs at the door, they might be able to memorize and recall what we’ve taught them about various moral traditions, but that “learning” will vanish within a few months. But if they come to understand those moral traditions in terms of their own (via similarities or differences), they will be building new mental models that remain with them for a long time to come.

Another (rather obvious) insight from the scholarship on teaching and learning is that lack of motivation is a primary determinant of student learning, and that students are most motivated when something personal is at stake. There will always be students who are motivated to learn in the “neutral” space of the traditional religious studies classroom. But those students are not the norm, and if you scratch the surface of their motivation, you often discover other—equally personal—motivations for their effort (grades, the validation of professors or parents, etc.). By inviting students to relate their own moral frameworks to the traditions we are studying, we help them to see the material as something other than a mass of information to be memorized for a test. And as a bonus, it allows them to understand the moral traditions of others as actual moral traditions (i.e., traditions that make claims about how everyone—our students included—should live), rather than curious artifacts of a distant time or place.

Lest anyone fear this move is a recipe for uncritical discourse in our classroom, it should be noted that our colleagues in philosophy have been teaching ethics in this way for quite some time. And, at least in my experience, there are few places more hostile to uncritical discourse than the philosophy classroom! As is often the case with the pedagogical decisions we make, how we implement the practice is just as important as the practice itself. And in this case, to avoid classroom discourse that is a cross between group therapy and cable news shouting matches, we must help students to see there is a clear and important difference between the justification of their beliefs and their mere expression.

But before we can get to that place, or really any place that requires students to activate their own prior beliefs, we have to make sure they are actually aware of those beliefs. This may seem rather strange, as we would like to think that one of the primary features of beliefs is that those who hold them actually know that they do. Yet, at least with respect to morality, implicitly held beliefs are the rule, rather than the exception. So in every ethics course I teach, I make it a point to begin each semester by asking students to fill out Lawrence Hinman’s “ethical inventory.” With questions like “No one has the right to intervene when he or she thinks someone else has done something morally wrong” and “The right thing to do is whatever is best for everyone,” it covers standard terrain of an introductory ethics course. But you could certainly create your own questions, tailored to the specific ethical issues you will teach in your course. In each case, the goal of this activity is the same: to help the students prepare for activities later in the semester, when they will be asked to express and justify their personal reactions to the moral arguments of those with whom they disagree.

In the past, I’ve had students fill out the inventory for homework after the first day of class, leading to a lively discussion on the second day. I now put the questions into an audience response system (I’ve used Poll Everywhere, Socrative, and TopHat) and ask the students to respond to the questions via their phones on the very first day. By using this technology, I’m able to show the responses of the entire class in real time, and guide a lively conversation on the very first day of class.

One danger of the ethical inventory activity is that discussions about the results can easily devolve into the uncritical expression of dueling intuitions. As this is always a danger in classes where students are invited to express their personal judgments, it is important to figure out how you will guide your students in another direction. If you want to help students understand that their personal judgments are welcome, but that they will always be required to justify those judgments, you must continually solicit both judgments and justifications for those judgments in class. And, in my experience, there is no better pedagogical tool for this task than the Socratic Method.

To help set expectations for the rest of the semester, I employ this method—in somewhat artificial and amplified form—during our discussion of the ethical inventory on the very first day of the semester. More specifically, I invite students to share their personal intuitions, but then immediately follow up on their response (and all future responses) with a variant of the question “why?” To ensure that students get the message about what I’m doing without feeling threatened on the first day, I keep things light-hearted by overdramatizing the questioning (e.g., saying literally nothing but “why” over and over again) and laugh along with students as they slowly catch on to what is happening.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I work hard to create writing assignments that invite personal engagement with the texts we’re reading, while also making specific justificatory demands on my students. And after a semester of having to justify their claims in class via the Socratic Method, students are generally (though not always!) aware of the difference between assertion and argument. So while they are free to disagree with what they’ve read in the moral traditions of others, they learn to justify their critiques with reasons and evidence that reflect a serious and fair engagement with that tradition.

The Performance of Perspectives and Civil Disagreement

But as I noted earlier, one of the biggest worries about inviting personal judgments into the comparative ethics classroom is that these judgments will make it difficult (if not impossible) for students to engage with other traditions in serious and fair-minded ways. One way to mitigate this is to work with students to develop their “empathetic imagination.” Yet, as I also noted above, this practice (at least as students interpret it) is a recipe for disaster when you’re asking students to work with moral arguments they find objectionable. So what can we do to ensure that personal engagement with these texts doesn’t get in the way of authentic understanding?

The first step is to push back against the oversimplified assumption lurking beneath the surface of these concerns. It is important for you, and your students, to recognize that active, public, and personal disagreement is not necessarily incompatible with genuine understanding. While it may be true that the former makes the latter more difficult, these conversations too often assume that it is impossible to take another seriously while simultaneously disagreeing with them—that we can’t “think with” if we are “thinking against.” But if this were true, we’d have to give up any and all of hope of getting students to understand moral arguments they (or we!) are unwilling to accept. Moreover, I think there are a number of pedagogical moves we can make to ensure that students can see the Other through their deep disagreement. And none of these call on our students to “empathize” in any traditional sense of that term.

The first strategy is to require that students “perform” the perspective of the Other throughout the semester. So, for example, while employing the Socratic Method, I often ask my students to take on the role of others, presenting and defending those views (instead of their own) in response to the questions I typically ask. I also assign writing prompts that ask students to make the best possible argument for a given claim from within one of the traditions we are studying. And in assignments where they are asked to present and defend their own critiques, I still require them to include a section where they anticipate, present, and respond to the counterarguments most likely to be offered by those they are critiquing. Finally, recent research on the role-playing pedagogy of Reacting to the Past suggests that it could be used profitably for this purpose. In this case, students would be assigned to different traditions or thinkers at the beginning of the term and then asked to act out those roles in dramatic performances throughout the semester. In each of these assignments and activities, students are invited to engage in the “perspective taking” that is often associated with the “empathetic imagination.” But because it is always framed as a performance, students can work to understand the view without feelin­­­g they are being subtly coerced to endorse or support that view themselves.

The second strategy I employ is arguably the most important pedagogical move anyone can make in a classroom that welcomes and encourages debate. And that is to make clear to students that the purposes of the classroom are such that certain limits must be placed on the form of their discourse, if not its content. These limits are not always needed (and sometimes morally suspect) outside the classroom, but in a context where discovery and transformation are the primary goals, civility protects the conditions for their possibility. For in an environment of incivility, students will adopt a defensive posture, close themselves off to the other, and lose sight of any goal beyond securing points against their opponents. If we want to encourage students to understand the Other, we must help protect the space that makes that possible.

But it is important to emphasize that civility in my classroom does not preclude vigorous and spirited debate. I do not, like many others, believe that “civil disagreement” is an oxymoron. And I work hard to model this mode of discourse for my students in my own behavior in front of the classroom. If they can see that it is possible to work at understanding a position without giving up the right to oppose what one learns, they are more likely to appreciate the value of studying the moral traditions of others.


Although I hope my students will learn a great deal in my courses, as a comparative ethicist, there is no learning outcome more important to me than helping my students get to a place where they are comfortable with moral disagreement. Like most fundamental learning goals, this aspiration is inescapably political. Others may have different, equally reasonable, goals. But insofar as we think higher education is in the business of preparing students for civic life, it seems to me there is no better preparation than extended practice expressing civil disagreement with moral traditions that are not their own. Yet this is only possible if we stop asking students to “bracket” their own views and “empathize” with others. To prepare them for the worlds they will actually live, we must teach them to understand in the midst of personal conflict, and this is only possible if we embrace and encourage moral debate in the religious studies classroom.


Ambrose, Susan A. 2010. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bean, John C., and Maryellen Weimer. 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2 edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Carnes, Mark C. 2014. Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Elder, Linda, and Richard Paul. 2007. The Thinker’s Guide to The Art of Socratic Questioning. Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Hinman, Lawrence. 2012. Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. (An online version of his inventory can be found here: http://history.hyde.wikispaces.net/file/view/1314+HIS12+CM4+Handout+Ethical+Inventory+by+Lawrence+Hinman.pdf)

Perry, William Graves, and Harvard University Bureau of Study Counsel. 1970. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

A photo of Elizabeth BarreElizabeth “Betsy” Barre is the assistant director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University, where she also holds a courtesy appointment in the Department of Religion. Prior to her arrival at Rice in 2012, she spent two years as assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies at Marymount Manhattan College, and one year as a visiting professor of Islamic studies at Lake Forest College. Trained as a comparative ethicist at Florida State University, her research and teaching lie at the intersection of moral philosophy and the history of religion, with a specific focus on Muslim, Christian, and secular political ethics. Her disciplinary scholarship uses contemporary western political philosophy to engage Catholic and Muslim arguments about the nature of legal tolerance within the context of moral and religious pluralism. And her scholarship on teaching and learning has employed this work to raise related questions about the nature of tolerance within the context of a morally and religiously diverse classroom.