USC maintains a strong commitment to religious life, declaring in its mission statement that it is “pluralistic, welcoming outstanding men and women of every race, creed and background.” It also claims that it strives to teach students “moral discernment, understanding of self, and respect and appreciation for others.”
However, this summer’s events paint a far more complex picture. In July, a Muslim professor sued the University alleging religious harassment. In the wake of calls for the impeachment of former Undergraduate Student Government Vice President Rose Ritch, many Jewish organizations felt under attack.
In striving for religious inclusion and justice, USC must teach students to respect and appreciate world religions. To this end, the University should mandate a religious diversity course requirement for graduation.
Most American adults know little to nothing about world religions. A 2019 Pew Research Center questionnaire found that the average respondent answered less than half of the questions about world religions correctly. Had Pew included more questions about non-Christian world religions, this already-failing score would have likely been even worse; the average respondent correctly answered only a third of the questions for that category.
Underlying these abysmal results are gaping holes in the learning process. Religious education in the United States, both informal and formal, has routinely failed to present a fair and balanced narrative of world religions.
Most people learn about religion through their community or religious institution, which often projects their own values and worldview. Too often, they succumb to religious chauvinism, convinced of the superiority of their own worldview and incapable of critiquing their own.
For example, many young evangelical Christians end up internalizing misconceptions, such as “morality only exists within the Bible.” Of course, this problem isn’t localized to one specific faith tradition; many religious communities tend to espouse similar assertions.
People also learn about religion through the news media, which almost exclusively presents the most extreme examples of religion. As a result, the public imaginary often views religion through blanket statements that are often problematic and fail to encompass the vast majority of religious adherents.
USC and other American higher education institutions have failed to correct these misconceptions. An Interfaith Youth Core survey of college students across 122 campuses found that only 32% of respondents believed that they had developed skills for interacting with people of diverse beliefs. Researcher Alyssa Rockenbach added that only 26% took a religious diversity course and only 9% underwent religious diversity training.
As a result, the average American’s knowledge of religion is not only limited but also skewed. Harvard Divinity professor Diane Moore claims that religious miseducation leads Americans to represent religious traditions inaccurately, ascribe undue expertise to clergy, conflate the study and practice of religion, view religion as static as opposed to evolving and interpret religion as a private affair separate from public life. The resulting misconceptions have serious implications on responsible citizenship in a pluralistic society.
Religious ignorance has serious business consequences. A 2013 Tannenbaum survey of American workers found that employees of companies that failed to offer flexible hours for religious observance were twice as likely to be uneager to go to work. And in 2015, 200 Muslim meatpacking workers staged a walkout after their plant failed to offer them a designated prayer room.
More concerningly, religious ignorance reduces the political power available to religious minorities. Throughout American history, public opinion has informally imposed its own religious tests on the presidency. Almost all U.S. presidents have been Protestant Christians, and the religion of non-Protestant candidates have almost always been a source of controversy.
Religious disempowerment also manifests in religiously-motivated hate crimes. The most salient example is the post-9/11 spike in Islamophobia; 481 hate crimes against Muslims happened in 2001 alone because people chose to blame the many for the actions of a few. Anti-Muslim hatred has continued beyond 2001; in 2016, a Muslim transit worker in New York City was pushed down the stairs and called a “terrorist” for wearing a hijab.
The solution to religious ignorance is religious literacy and the University must be part of that solution. It is no longer enough to preach religious diversity and leave students to their own devices. Rather, USC must ensure that students learn to recognize how religion has influenced society and to question blanket assumptions.
A religious diversity requirement may not end religious bigotry at the University, but it is a positive first step toward welcoming outstanding Trojans of every creed.