Religious diversity flourishes on secular campus in Bible Belt
As a predominantly Christian state — 86 percent Christian as reported by StateGuidesUSA.com — Arkansans’ knowledge of other religions is often derived from secondary sources, rather than first-hand exposure.
“Exposure to religions other than one’s own helps broaden one’s perspective on the world, helps avoid misunderstanding of other people and their practices and beliefs, and can also help one better understand one’s own tradition by way of comparison. I think these are all positive goals,” Michael Norton, assistant professor in the department of philosophy, said.
Norton, new to UALR faculty this year, said that the student demographics on campus reflected the regional population in terms of religious diversity. “If anything, it might be more diverse,” he said.
Although many religions have common themes, Norton said that it is better to embrace diversity, in order to gain a more accurate understanding of a religion.
“I think that there are perhaps very broad themes that many religions seem to have in common, such as the imperfection of the world and thus the need to hope and work for justice and salvation. Many religions also stress the limitations of human knowledge or the error of placing too much value in material goods. It’s important to recognize also that, in practice, many religions have historically been associated with violent actions and intolerant attitudes. I don’t think this has to be a part of religion, but it certainly has often been,” he said.
“I think we should also be cautious about looking for common elements among different religions though, because this can too easily lead to us uncritically imposing an image of religion based on our own traditions onto other traditions that don’t really reflect that image.”
Registered Student Organizations can expose people to religions outside the Christian majority. One such organization is the Islam and Sufism Club (ISC).
According to the BBC, Muslims, followers of Islam, believe the Prophet Muhammad revealed the religion to humanity. Islam is monotheistic, and believes in a single God, which is called “Allah,” in Arabic.
UALR is a secular campus in a Christian state, and the ISC is one of only two Islamic RSOs on campus. Because of this distinction, some conflicts would seem to be expected. The ISC has suffered no such altercation, however, Demirkan said.
“We have not faced any bad attitude or disrespectful behavior from individuals at UALR so far,” he said.
In fact, the university had made minor accommodations for religious RSOs.
“Rooms and related facilities can be used by student organizations for free, so UALR is very kind to allow us to use this opportunity,” Demirkan said.
This is one problem with being a religious club on a secular campus, he said. The club has no official location to worship – mosque or otherwise. “There should be at least one ‘non-dominant’ chapel or similar place where anybody from any religion can make prayer,” Demirkan said.
“[Having a pluralistic house of worship] in principle, I think, is a good idea,” Norton said. “I can imagine a problem arising from it, but I don’t foresee it happening.” Some administration might express a pluralistic attitude toward the idea, he said. “On the other hand, I’m not sure how even opening up a non-faith-specific space on campus would be perceived by some who wouldn’t even want that [on a secular campus],” he said.
Despite having no place to worship, the ISC maintains an active presence on campus by holding regular biweekly lectures. “We are planning to do a last big event in the semester on April 30th,” Demirkan said. “We plan to bring speakers to talk about three major prophets: Muhammad, Jesus and Moses; Peace Be Upon Them.”