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Teaching College Kids About Religious Diversity

Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

An associate professor at Simpson College is spreading the word about the many types of religious beliefs found in Iowa. She's trying to defuse tensions among faiths that occasionally lead to violence and, during the last session of the Iowa Legislature, resulted in lawmakers boycotting a prayer from a Wiccan priestess.  

MaeveCallan is first-generation Irish-American, and raised Catholic until she was around 15. That’s when she started reading European history and learning about the Holocaust, which left her struggling with a difficult question.

“How can humans do this to each other if there is an omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving God?” she asks.

She rejected a higher being for a bit. But atheism didn’t take with her. She says she believes deeply in the Divine. As she grew older, she found religion opened doors.

“Religion offers you a means of exploring so many facets of our world and our society and different cultures," she says. "And I just feel you can never exhaust religion.”

Callan is an associate professor of religion at Simpson College in Indianola, where she teaches a class on religious diversity. At first glance, it’s an odd setting for such a class, a small school affiliated with the United Methodist Church and a mostly white student body.

“Many of my students have never met a Muslim," she says. "And they’ve had their understanding of Islam totally dictated by the media.”

It’s not just Muslims. Many of Callan’s students have never met a Sikh or a Hindu or a pagan.  So she brings to her classroom people from the temples and mosques and gurdwaras and synagogues that dot Central Iowa to put faces on the worshipers of these unfamiliar religions.

“Getting to know the people who practice these alternative faiths, that’s a dimension that no text book, no video, nothing apart from personal interaction with someone can convey the significance of a faith and the meaning of a faith,” she says.

Callan says she understands religious differences can be divisive. A self-proclaimed anti-Semite is on trial in suburban Kansas City for killing three people near a Jewish Community Center. In 2012, a member of a white supremacist group killed six at a Sikh Temple outside Milwaukee. What Callan is trying to accomplish, she says, is to build a common community of spiritual appreciation by encouraging conversation.

“Part of what I really want to do is to help people address their misunderstandings," she says. "Especially when those misunderstandings result in mistreatment of other people.”

Callan also believes a better comprehension of the differences within Iowa’s faith systems would have prevented the hullabaloo that broke out in the Legislature last session when a Wiccan priestess was invited to deliver the morning benediction.

“Her religion is extremely peaceful, nature-oriented," she says. "It’s very much an egalitarian, inclusive, empowering religion, but other people see it as demonic.”

Callan makes one final point about religious affiliations in Iowa. She points to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center that shows 21 percent of the state’s citizens identify with no religious group. And yet most of them say they’re spiritual. It’s the fastest growing segment of the religious population. Callan is taking her case for religious diversity to the public square Tuesday, Sept. 1,  with an appearance at the International Center’s Dialogue series at noon in Des Moines’ Central Library.