As a committed atheist, I am irritated by the intrusion of religious belief into politics, the classroom or my personal life. To remedy that, I focus much of my teaching on ways that prejudice and discrimination against others because of their religious, ethnic, racial or sexual identities has prevented inclusion and has oppressed diversity throughout history. It’s my hope that the more students know about the realities of human intolerance, the more conscious they will be of their own responsibilities to prevent it.
A few weeks ago, a student asked if she could pray for me to make my migraines go away. I’d normally do anything to escape the pain, but I politely told her that while I appreciated her concern, I preferred that she leave me out of her prayers, because I did not share her faith or, indeed, any faith.
I find that such interactions occur with increasing frequency in higher education today; my husband’s students regularly ask him if he will pray for them before an exam or during a personal crisis. As a scientist, he interprets this as a lack of respect for the principles of his field, which include the lessons he teaches about the importance of evidence and verification. He feels no qualms about asking his students to halt such discussions with him. To me, this student’s request to pray for me similarly seemed to demonstrate that she had completely missed a central component of my courses.
But this time, the way I handled the situation bothered me, and I soon realized why: Despite my efforts to teach tolerance in my history courses, I had been intolerant.
As an educator, it’s not my job to tell anyone how to practice their faith. My polite refusal within the context of my commitment to teaching about religious diversity told this student that I was a hypocrite, on the one hand preaching (pun definitely intended) tolerance and co-existence, and on the other hand trying to limit the way one of my students wanted to live her beliefs.
I emailed her later that day and explained that I regretted my response, because no one, not even a teacher she respects, has the right to tell her how, when and for whom she can pray. The fact that she can exercise prayer is the result of a society based on the principles of religious freedom espoused by another migraine sufferer named Thomas Jefferson. My automatic, personal response invalidated my professional goal to teach about the value of diversity, inclusion and mutual respect. I told her that she should feel free to pray for me whenever she wants, as long as she understands that I do not share her faith. Why? Because teaching tolerance also means practicing it every day, especially with our students who learn from our example both inside and outside of the classroom.
Silos-Rooney is assistant professor of history at MassBay Community College in Massachusetts. She writes a blog about higher education policy, student and educator concerns and new education technology.