Science on Religion

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Education may increase religious tolerance

Arabian studentWith so much news covering religious terrorism, it seems that religion, and Islam in particular, tends towards intolerance. While many recognize that media portrayals of other peoples are not always accurate, it still leaves open the question as to why certain Muslims in certain parts of the world behave as they do. Shedding much light on this issue, Fatma H. Al Sadi (Rustaq College of Applied Sciences, Oman) and Tehmina N. Basit (Staffordshire University, UK) studied the Islamic culture in Oman and found that education may address religious prejudice.

The researchers opted for a quasi-experimental approach., meaning that they would not control for all extraneous variables. Due to the personal nature of the topic (religious tolerance), they felt a thoroughly qualitative approach would be best because such quasi-experimental and qualitative designs have worked well in the area of confirming educational progress. In brief, all participants would take a pre-test, then they would be split into the control and experimental groups, and finally they all would take a post-test in order to track their results.

Due to the cultural norms of Oman, since the Omani researcher was female, she could only survey school girls, not boys. The researchers randomly selectws four girls’ schools and then two grade 10 classes within those schools (thus eight all-girl 10th grade classes total). Of these classes, girls volunteered to be interviewed but first had to write an essay on democracy. The researchers assigned this essay so they they could weed out inarticulate participants. This may seem harsh, but they justified this decision, arguing that “Because of the nature of the data sought in qualitative studies, talking to quiet or inarticulate participants would not have generated the data required to address the research questions.”

The research aimed to expose the Muslim girls to other faiths and see whether this exposure led to a change of heart regarding their perspective on other faiths. For instance, in one task, they would list the similarities and differences between their religion and Christianity. After that, they would complete a questionnaire based on the Cultural Tolerance Scale. Finally, the students who volunteered and passed the essay writing test would be interviewed.

Surprisingly, both the control and experimental group scored higher on religious tolerance, but not to the same degree. In the pre-education interview, most participants affimed that (1) they respected other religions, (2) Christianity was the nearest religion to Islam, (3) freedom of religion is anathema, and (4) conversion (from Islam) is sin. After exposure to literature about other religions and participating in activities that forced the students to think about themselves in relation to peoples of other religions, the experimental group made a rapid about-face. In contrast to the pre-education interview, in the post-education interview of experimental group participants now (1) all affirmed that they respected other religions, (2) some included Judaism alongside Christianity as near to Islam, (3) all participants agreed that those of another faith should be allowed to worship freely in their country (in contrast to two from the control group), and (4) the majority accepted the notion of religious conversion (in contrast to only one from the control group). Interestingly enough, many of the students justified their new positions with the teachings of Islam. For instance, others should be allowed to worship freely because one should treat others the way one wants to be treated.

The researchers conclude that “these results are an indication of the effectiveness of the intervention on the participants’ religious tolerance.” Compared to the control group, the educated experimental group displayed much greater increased tolerance towards other religions. The researchers speculate that simply the interview questions themselves, by getting students to think about other religions, may have had some effect, since a few students in the control group also showed greater tolerance. If so, this may help confirm their hypothesis, since much of education is said to be about forcing students to think critically. In any case, education seemed to have helped Muslims better tolerate non-Muslims. Hopefully the reverse is also true.

For more, see “Religious tolerance in Oman: addressing religious prejudice through educational intervention” in the British Education Research Journal.


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