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Cultural Awareness:

Philosophy professor urges students to learn more about religions of the world

By Heather Fultz
On December 8, 2011

Douglas Duckworth, an assistant professor in the department of philosophy and humanities, works within the interdisciplinary program of religious studies at ETSU in an effort to communicate and educate students on the significant role that religion plays in the world today.

Duckworth believes that those who just see religion as something foreign and medieval or who have difficulty understanding why people are so driven by religion may be at somewhat of a disadvantage.

He said that in whatever profession a student chooses, if they are not aware of or ignore the religious customs of a particular culture that they are likely to encounter in their day-to-day lives, then they are ultimately doing themselves a disservice.

No matter how you look at it, religion is a pervasive vehicle that is a noticeable propellant in politics, world affairs, news and current events.

"You never know who you might interact with," Duckworth said.

"It's not just something that might be nice when you travel or to appreciate literature. Now that the world is shrinking, your neighbor might be from another religious tradition.

"Not only that, you can learn from other religions or more about your own religion. Or if you're not religious, it's important because it is important to so many other people."

Duckworth, who as an undergraduate was originally interested in psychology, says that it was a class on world religion and existentialism that opened his mind to a broader world.

It was this breakdown of boundaries that first attracted him to the discipline.

In fact, he said that his favorite aspect of philosophy and religion is the creativity that it allows.

"Like art, it's not about just appropriating facts and regurgitating them. It's not about just simply vocation. You're encouraged to be creative with the engagement of ideas."

Duckworth saw teaching as an opportunity to continue to pursue his interests, which include questioning and studying various topics and ideas, but also conveying those concepts to his students.

"Teaching is a way I've been able to continue to educate myself and share my passion for education for others. So it's a win-win situation."

As a writer and researcher, Duckworth says that some of his most interesting experiences came from his travels and the chance to meet and interact with the unique people of various regions, namely Tibet, which is his area of specialization.

In terms of writing, Duckworth defines it as a learning process and as a tool to carry out extended conversations that enable him to connect with a broader audience in a more meaningful way.

"Religion is as an identity marker," he said. "It is something that brings people together.

"On the positive side, religion is something that builds communities, but it can also create inclusive communities that are exclusive to others.

"So when you get an "us vs. them" identity, that is exclusive, there is a danger that goes with that where it leads to violence. There's a strong connection between identity and violence."

Duckworth said that people tend to treat religious identity as exclusive and one-dimensional, as though it were the only identity someone has, despite the fact that we all embody multiple identities that cannot be so easily categorized.

Duckworth said the students of this region have a very grounded connection to community, land, people and spirit that he believes helps students to better relate to religious ideas and ideologies.

He encourages students to hone their critical thinking skills, continue to develop their understanding and refine their thinking about religion and its role in the contemporary world.

He emphasizes the importance of looking at religion with both an insider's and an outsider's perspective so as to be informed of a full spectrum of views.

In the future, Duckworth hopes to see the administration make ETSU a university for the students. He hopes that they play into the strengths of what makes ETSU unique, such as its natural beauty and resources along with the distinctive background of the students native to this region so that it is not just another cookie cutter university.

He wants ETSU to embrace and celebrate the fact that it is a regional university and showcase the qualities that make it so.

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