Nearly every semester I teach a course at the University of San Francisco on religion and ethics. I designed an investigative field project to serve as the centerpiece of that course.
Students must select one religious tradition, barring the one in which they were raised. Next, they select a single ethical issue as their lens. To illustrate, last semester a student raised in Buddhism elected to study the morality of euthanasia within Roman Catholicism. A Catholic student pursued the taboo on alcohol within Islam.
Students find the assignment intriguing. When it comes to religion, they value authenticity. Frankly, the students assume hypocrisy until proven otherwise. Their attitude arises not so much from intellectual cynicism as it does road weariness. Perhaps I can sum up their spiritual sensibility best in the form of a motto: Don’t make me a promise unless you plan to live up to it.
I place additional structure around the field investigation to ensure that students dig deep. They have to research how their selected religion has treated the ethical issue historically. Once they have a good handle on the past, they must visit at least one community ritual (for example, a worship service) and interview several members of the community. Then they compare how their field observations align with the religion’s tradition. Does the community follow its mainstream tradition or deviate from it in some way? Finally, I ask students to bring into the experience their own approach to the ethical issue.
The final class presentations are highly entertaining. And I am fascinated by the threads I detect woven through their conclusions: