Knowledge about religious minorities is key to global citizenship
Religious minorities can challenge societal consensus on how people should lead their lives. How much difference are societies and states willing to allow for? A brand-new online master’s program aims to improve our knowledge about religious minorities around the world.
"Knowledge about religious minorities is important if you aim to be a global citizen", says
Michael Stausberg. He is professor of Religious Studies and one of the people behind the new online Religious Minorities master’s at the University of Bergen. The course aims to give the students an in-depth understanding of the significance of religious minority’s issues in different cultural and political contexts around the world.
Challenging societal consensus
Due to globalization, we have become more aware of the presence of minorities in almost all countries of the world. Religious minorities are just one type of minorities, like ethnic, linguistic or gender minorities. Stausberg describes religions as packages of practices, ideas, norms, values, institutions.
"Like gender minorities, religious minorities can often challenge the societal consensus on how people should lead their lives. How much difference are societies and states willing to allow for"?
Even religions adhered to by majorities in some countries, are considered minorities elsewhere. Therefore, if we want to become global citizens, knowledge about religious minorities is important to understand our present state of affairs, Stausberg says.
Lack of knowledge and arising conflicts
"Studying how religious minorities are being included or perceived in different countries can also be an interesting test of government systems", says Alexander van der Haven. He is responsible for the master's program together with Stousberg, and also professor of Religious Studies at the University of Bergen.
"A test will for instance reveal how governments operate in practice, compared to their principles", Van der Haven, says.
He thinks that more knowledge about various religious minorities can help us understand how to deal with conflicts that inevitably arise between minorities and majorities, or between minorities and other minorities.
"What is the responsibility of the state here, for example – should it represent the interests of the majority, or protect the minority"? asks Van der Haven. He thinks it is easy to be ambivalent about this.
"We often think we are siding with the minority we need to protect, but in fact, we end up acting toward the minorities, because we look at the situation from our majority perspective".
Do we know our own backyards?
Minority groups have been suffering from lack of understanding and acceptance at all times – and all over the globe. It is therefore important to look at the backyards of our own societies before pointing at others, Stausberg says.
"Take Norway for example. Even though we consider our society as modern, progressive, and tolerant for other views, if you look at this from certain minority perspectives, the reality looks very different. For example, which reactions do I face when I insist to wear certain forms of dress, to slaughter animals in a certain way, to consume certain substances, or not to attend certain public celebrations"?
Comparative studies from a global angle
Both colonialism and globalization have, van der Haven argues, at the same time led to the situation that many smaller religions have disappeared, or find themselves threatened to become extinct. In addition, many religious traditions are homogenizing, which means that minorities within large religious traditions are disappearing. In our new MA programme we combine courses on general issues regarding religious minorities, including religious discrimination and freedom of religion, with case studies covering specific religions and countries around the world