February 22, 2013

Student panel examines peace among religions

Student panel examines peace among religions for series


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Religion, one of the topics avoided in polite society, was first up in a new series entitled “The Dead Talks” at SUNY Plattsburgh.

The event was organized by Cerise Oberman, distinguished librarian at the college. Dr. Rebecca Kasper moderated three of her world-religions students — Alan Siergiej, Charles Lack and Juli Burnett — who weighed in on “Is Peace Dead Among Religions?” Tuesday evening in Feinberg Library’s third-floor reading room.  


After a brief introduction, Kasper launched right in with her first question: “Is there any hope for the world religions to engage in peaceful cooperation?”

“I have to say, absolutely,” said Siergiej, a sophomore biology major. “You have to always have some kind of hope for religious peace. 

”It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s obviously very difficult ... We mainly focus on all the negatives and how we all have differences with each other and among all the other religions, when we, in fact, really should be focusing on the similarities, which comes down to the core of every single religion of compassion and suffering. 

”We all want peace among each other, but we tend to focus more on the negatives and the differences between all of us,” Siergiej said.

“Based on the current state of affairs in our country in terms of Islamophobia and just that as a whole ... I can see from a rational standpoint you can’t label every person of the Islamic faith to be a terrorist or radical,” said Lack, a senior political science major. “But somehow or another, ... the media and just some politicians out there will paint the religion negatively. 

”I guess there’s still a lot of anger and resentment from 9/11, and people need to move on and realize that — not necessarily move on, but try to … — you can’t just pigeonhole one religion and say that this is the way they are, and they’re crazy. It’s just counterproductive.”

“I’m somewhere in between Alan and Charles in terms of my thinking about this,” said Burnett, a senior history major. “I don’t believe that as a society or as a world today that you’re not necessarily working in the right ways always toward religious cooperation, but I do believe that religious cooperation can be realized. 

”And the foundation of that, I feel, comes from education and understanding of different religions. I don’t feel that many countries that have a particular religion as their standpoint, I don’t feel that they take the proper steps to educate the members of their society in order to do that. So I think eventually, who knows when, we can get there.” 


For the next 45 minutes, students, faculty and community members shared their insights at the inaugural event.

“Cerise wanted something controversial, and what is more controversial than religion?” said Kasper, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. “Nothing.”

Tracking down former students, she asked them to participate.

“Given the continual coverage of religion and its role in noncooperation, extremism, violence and positions that various religious groups hold that are exclusive and dogmatic, we wanted to talk about, in the future, was it possible for there to be peace among religions,” Kasper said. “Or even if religions themselves could be an instrument for bringing greater peace and understanding to people in the world.”

In her world-religions course, students are grounded in the five major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Kasper came up with 10 questions to ask her students, and it was more of an engaged conversation than a formal date with students taking pessimistic, hopeful and middle-of-the-road stances.

“We’re going to talk frankly about Islam, Christianity and Judaism and whether people have the capacity to look beyond religious provincialism and really think global in terms of humanity as a whole,” she said.

She teaches the course every fall.

“We had to open up another section last semester. It’s the core course for the religious-study minor. So, if you’re a religious-study minor, you have to take it,” Kasper said.

The minor was developed three years ago.

“There are a number of courses. It’s interdisciplinary. You can take a history course on religion. You can take a psychology course. We don’t have a religious-study department, obviously,” she said.

In the three-credit course, Kasper doesn’t have time to teach beyond the major faith traditions.

“The reason why students sign up for the course, they know it’s the world and they want to understand. It’s our place as a college to help them find an understanding, and I think that’s the way for religious peace,” she said.

For each class, each student’s views are examined at the beginning and completion of the course.

“I ask what they think now, and they say, ‘I didn’t know,’” Kasper said.

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IF YOU GO WHAT: "The Dead Talks." WHEN: 11 a.m. Tuesday, March 26, "Is Feminism Dead?" by Dr. Simona Sharoni and gender and women's studies students; 5 p.m. April 16, "Is the Public Good Dead?" by Dr. Tom Moran and Dr. Richard Schaffer. WHERE: Feinberg Library, third-floor reading room, SUNY Plattsburgh. ADMISSION: Free. CONTACT: Cerise Oberman at 565-5184.