Writing as a Means of Becoming: “Religion, Secularism, and the Pursuit of Justice”

Thinking and Writing begins in the idea that writing matters. Robert Daniel Rubin, a professor of American Studies, believes that the practice of writing brings order to a young person’s life—helping them to understand the world in all its diversity and to construct a supple, open belief system. Writing propels students through a series of cognitive and emotional changes that enable the student to see and speak in new ways. This concept of writing as a means of becoming drives Rubin’s ITW course, “Religion, Secularism, and the Pursuit of Justice.”

During the present historical moment, questions about religion’s place in society and government have ascended in the popular imagination and in academic discourse. Students in “Religion, Secularism, and the Pursuit of Justice” consider whether separation of church and state fosters or hinders fairness within society; whether a government needs to rely on religion in any form when it chooses to inculcate its young citizens with civic virtues; whether, in a constitutional republic such as the United States, a majority should be able to impose its preferred moral vision, or whether protecting the rights of religious dissenters takes precedent; whether a religious political movement inevitably occupies the right wing, and whether certain circumstances give rise to religious political groups that lead the vanguard of progressive politics.

In Dr. Rubin’s course, students typically investigate some aspect of religion’s relationship to issues such as abortion, homosexuality, stem-cell research, euthanasia, music and art, advertising, war, poverty and wealth, public education, and the election of public officials. Where do students end up? The essay titles and brief abstracts produced in Dr. Rubin’s class suggests how one group of first-year students are finding in writing a means of becoming:

  • “Science, Ethics, and the Religious Obligation”: The scientific method is an appropriate and reliable method for knowing; therefore, it, and not religious doctrine, should be taught to schoolchildren as a method for understanding the physical and social worlds.
  • “Music and Its Effects on Society and the Church”: Christian churches’ use of music from popular genres signals a cultural shift over recent decades—one toward a less formal liturgy that younger Christians experience as a more authentic way of worshipping God.
  • “Abstaining from Sex and the Religious Influence”: By continuing to encourage abstinence from premarital sexual intercourse, the Catholic Church continues trying to controlling its members rather than trying to serve their practical needs.
  • “Ideological Diversity”: The primary virtue of U.S. politics is its ideological diversity.  This diversity is grounded in regional cultural differences.  In particular, the South provides a necessary counterbalance to our generally liberal electorate.
  • “Domestic Violence and Religion”: Although the world’s major religions generally discourage or forbid domestic violence against women, many adherents draw the contrary conclusion.  Schools everywhere should use religious scripture in counseling against the domestic abuse of women.
  • “The Public and Private Uses of Religion”: American religious leaders should emphasize the those aspects of religion centered on ethics and justice. Those same leaders should stop using religion as a cover for fighting battles over personal (sexual) issues.
  • “A Few for the Many: America’s Democratic Dichotomy”: Society’s need to survive outweighs the individual’s need to survive.  The U.S. should thus determine church-state policy more democratically than it now does—it should minimize the Supreme Court’s authority on such matters.
  • “Religion in the Stadium”: Americans fill sporting events—particularly, high-school and college football—with religious significance.  Ultimately, this is the product of a nationalism that relies on demonstrating God’s favor toward “team” America.
  • “Christian Denominations against or Supportive of Homosexuality”: Although churches have traditionally helped repress homosexuals, America’s churches are increasingly helping many individuals live dignified lives as openly gay men and women.
  • “The Exploitation of Women in the International Egg Trade”: Governments worldwide have a moral imperative to protect the interests of women tempted to sell their ovaries for stem-cell research.
  • “Destructive Religious Cult Leaders’ Power Takes Over”: Charismatic leaders of destructive cults attract vulnerable individuals seeking guidance.  Rather than guidance, such leaders frequently draw out their victims most self-destructive impulses.
  • “Ethics and Morality in Stem Cell Research”: “Pro-life” opposition to stem-cell research is hypocritical and counter-productive.  Strong support for stem-cell research is much more compatible with a genuine concern for protecting life than is an oppositional stance.
  • “Homosexual Parenting: The Debate within Catholicism”: By opposing the rights of gays and lesbians to marry and adopt children, the Catholic Church helps prevent these human beings from exercising their inalienable, God-given rights.
  • “An Unjust War”: The Iraq War failed to meet the requirements specified in the Just War Doctrine.  Because the roots of that doctrine are Catholic, Americans committed to their Catholicism who nonetheless support the war engage in hypocrisy.
  • “The Beginning of an End”: The means that Catholics have historically chosen for coping with fear of death, a belief in heaven, only distorts and dampens one’s life experience.
  • “Religious Conservatives’ Opposition to the Natural Rights of Minorities: Gay Rights, Women’s Rights, and the Civil Rights Movement”: Throughout U.S. history, religious conservatives have operated mostly to suppress or stop movements for social equality.  A common theme running through the prejudices of religious conservatives has been the supremacy of men, maleness, and heterosexuality.
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