The psychology of religion is one of those subjects that attracts a wide range of students. Some are simply curious about religion and its role in people's lives. They are the easy ones to teach. Others appear to have made up their minds already. They may be believers in the views that they were raised with, either religious or not, or they may have taken a different path and are convinced of its truthfulness in their lives. In either case, those are some of the more challenging students.
Why? Because in order to learn, we must be willing to admit that we don't already have all of the answers. It sounds simple, and it might even be obvious, but it often represents the biggest challenge in teaching the course.
Eleven years ago, when Heaven's Gate dominated the headlines, I made a mirror of their website so that it wouldn't vanish. The site has proven useful for my students, allowing them to learn about the group first-hand. I also happened upon a few videos of the group. In my class last week I showed a segment from one of those videos, an interview with a of the Heavens Gate group member describing his beliefs. From the interview you get a sense of his sincerity and the comfort he finds from his beliefs.
The video led to a good discussion of people who join new religious movements. Seeing the video made it much easier for students to understand that people who join a NRM are typically sincere people who are finding in the group something of value. In some classes this is a challenge because a few vocal students, either religious or anti-religious, make education difficult for everyone. I was reminded of that as I discussed with my class the Heavens Gate group member. If education involves learning new things, it has to start with being open to differences, and perhaps none of those differences are as challenging as those that deal with our own answers to existential questions. Still, if we do find a way to remain open to someone else's view, and at least try to understand how other people might reach answers quite different from our own, education can really happen.
Of course, I'm endorsing neither the Heaven's Gate beliefs, nor their actions. But if we wish to understand people and their religions, we must realize that our own concepts of existence, life and meaning are not shared by others. We gain insight on the human condition when we exchange those ideas, and we listen to what others value.