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Interfaith Studies in Health Courses

In partnership with the Teagle Foundation, IFYC awarded fourteen grants to colleges and universities developing curricular programs that used concepts, methods, and frameworks from Interfaith and Interreligious Studies to bridge liberal arts education with pre-professional preparation. One significant theme that arose was the importance of educating future healthcare providers to be capable and confident when navigating the many ways that religious beliefs and commitments influence healthcare decisions.

Across the country, more and more colleges and universities are considering how to incorporate interfaith leadership training into courses in global health, medical ethics, nursing, and physical therapy. This resource is a collection of course descriptions, learning outcomes, classroom activities, and case studies from courses developed in these programs.

Based on real courses created by faculty around the country, these examples have been revised for clarity and length.



Global Health (Shenandoah University)

Professor Audra L. Gollenberg

Course description: Global health is the study of the biological, social, and environmental factors that contribute to the creation and maintenance of health and disease in populations around the world. These factors include infectious disease, nutrition, economic factors, clean water, pollution, and globalization, among others. This course introduces students to the study of global health by exploring these topics in detail. This course is designed to give an overview of health problems from an international perspective. Students will learn to analyze risk factors for global health problems and explain the complex interactions between behavior, context, and disease.

Learning outcomes for this course include:

  • Explain the health needs of special population groups (like women and children, prisoners, refugees, etc.)
  • Identify major organizations that are involved in global health and illustrate the importance of individual involvement in global health affairs
  • Demonstrate how religion intersects with public health practice

Case study activity:

Students read “Religion and Ebola: Learning from Experience” by Katherine Marshall and Sally Smith (The Lancet, 2015) and examine recommendations from the World Health Organization reflecting on how religion and religious practices played an integral role in the 2014-2015 western African Ebola epidemic and its containment. Students also watch an assigned video on safe and dignified burials of those with Ebola in Sierra Leone. They then discuss ways to integrate religious leaders and religious practices into the control of infectious disease outbreaks, working through the following questions:

  1. In what ways did religion play a role in the Ebola outbreak in west Africa (2014-2015)?
  2. Imagine you are one of the global health outreach workers whose primary objective is to work with villages in west Africa to halt the spread of Ebola during the 2014-2015 epidemic. In what ways should you incorporate religion, religious leaders, and religious practices in your outreach methods? Explain in detail.
  3. Why is it important to consider religion when working in diverse communities to improve health? Give examples in your answer.
  4. Imagine you are asked to give advice to a young student who wishes to work in global health as a career. The student asks how he/she should prepare to consider religion in his/her future work. What is your response?


Personal and Community Health (Bridgewater College)

Professor Jill Lassiter

Course description: This course examines the multiple determinants of health and wellness from a personal and community perspective. Students will work toward obtaining knowledge and skills to critically analyze individual, social, and environmental factors that influence health, while focusing on their application to individual and community health improvement.

Learning outcomes for this course include:

  • Demonstrate knowledge of the many factors that influence personal health choices (including religious and worldview considerations)
  • Critically analyze social, religious, and political factors that impact personal and community health
  • Develop strategies to initiate community change that are culturally sensitive and support healthy lifestyles

Sample course assignment: Perspectives paper

Over the course of the semester students reflect on their own role within the complex healthcare system. The outcome of this exploration and writing assignment is a clearer vision of themselves as healthcare consumers, providers, and community members.

Students are required to conduct a series of interviews with a specific set of questions. They must interview a healthcare provider, someone from their service learning site, and someone who has had a significant experience as a patient. All interviews must be oral, so that the conversation involves interaction and further questioning beyond the listed set of questions. In addition to notes on each interview, students must write a final synthesis paper, including self-reflection from the beginning and end of the semester in which students answer the questions: What is my role as a healthcare consumer, responsible citizen, and (eventual) healthcare provider? And how does my identity (social, family, demographic, etc.) impact my views about health? These final papers must comment on intersectionality and determinants of individual and community health.

Interview questions:

  1. How do you feel about the current state of healthcare in the United States?
  2. What do you think is the impact of the community on the health of your patients/your health?
  3. How do your patients/you take personal responsibility for their/your health? What are some ways that they/you do not take personal responsibility for their/your health?
  4. How does faith play a role in health?
  5. How does provider personality, communication style, personal views, etc. impact patients?


Health, Healing, and Religion (Barton College)

Professor Jane Webster

Course description: In this course, Students develop their ability to interact with people of other religious and cultural traditions. They do this by reading about, participating in, and observing various healing methods, through a wide range of cultures. They identify religious features such as meaning-making, ritual, pilgrimage, and sacrifice, as well as ways that healers build confidence in those they heal. These religious features appear overtly in some religious contexts, and covertly in “non-religious” modern medical and psychological contexts. Students are asked to compare and contrast these features across cultures and to reflect upon their implications for health care in America today. They are also asked to reflect on their own response to interfaith understanding, its value, and its implications for their future career.

Learning outcomes for this course include:

  • Identify, analyze, and compare worldviews/ideologies of different people groups, including your own
  • Identify, describe, interpret, and compare healing philosophies, values, assumptions, and rituals of several different cultures
  • Identify the potential challenges, features, and implications of interfaith understanding
  • Discuss the interrelationship between religion and healing and its implications

Sample class activity: BáFá Simulation Game

The following sequence of exercises is used to invite students to examine their own cultural and religious attitudes or assumptions, to understand the urgency and relevance of empathetic understanding, and to work effectively and collaboratively in the midst of cultural difference. These exercises prepare students to examine healing modalities from multiple cultures with empathy and curiosity.

The game requires two groups—the Alphas and the Betas—to communicate. Both groups have markedly different values, taboos, agenda, etc. (All materials are developed from “BaFá BaFá: A Cross-Cultural Simulation” by Jennifer Robertson, Valencia College).

Session 1: Students are assigned to Alphas or Betas and receive a description of their role. They are assigned to read their role description and be ready to enter the next class as their Alpha or Beta persona.

Session 2: Alphas and Betas are separated so they can discuss, clarify, and practice their cultural markers. One member of each group is invited to visit the other group to learn as much as they can; after a few minutes, they must return to their own group and report what they have learned. The two groups are then brought together to mingle. Students learn that due to an environmental crisis, the two groups must build a bridge together in order to survive, forcing them to engage the other group for the common social good.

At the end of this class, students are invited to share some observations, or what they felt during the exercise. They are assigned to write a response paper describing their experience of the game and to identify any “big ideas” they have learned.

Session 3: Students complete a norm-setting exercise on active listening. The class then moves into a discussion of the “big ideas” named after the previous class, putting the skills of active listening to use. Over the course of discussion, students are asked to extract principles and techniques of intercultural communication or interfaith leadership. The class generates a list of these practices, including examples like doing research, asking questions, seeking the common good, being open to learn, sharing experiences, speaking for one’s self (rather than representing a group), refraining from judgment, and avoiding generalizations.

Students are assigned to write a description of a conversation (real, borrowed, or imagined) with someone of another religion and to connect the big ideas from the BáFá simulation exercise.

Session 4: Students share their homework conversations with a classmate to exchange feedback. As a large group, students share what they have learned about effective interfaith dialogue from this exercise, from the BáFá simulation, their homework assignments, and class discussions thus far.

For homework, students write a response to the prompt: What is your (religious) worldview? With a very brief reference to your larger tradition (e.g. that of your family or ethnic group), describe what you personally believe about the world, including some of these questions: How did the world come into existence? How is the world sustained? Is the world basically good or bad? How can we know? What is the role of humans in the world? What is the purpose of community? How should we live? What happens when people are born and die? This paper should connect these questions to the “big ideas” from the BáFá simulation exercise.

Throughout the remainder of the course, students return to this experience again and again to remind themselves why interfaith understanding is both urgent and relevant. At the midterm and the final, students write a summary of what they have been learning about various healing modalities, framed by this prompt: Given your experience in BáFá game and in the course more generally, why is interfaith understanding urgent and relevant in your chosen profession?


Introduction to Medical Ethics (Shenandoah University)

Professor Barry Penn Hollar

Course description: This course introduces students to five moral principles and their basis in the Western philosophical tradition. We consider how those principles are relevant to work in various health professions. Topics to be considered include: professional codes of ethics and ethics committees in various institutional settings; the nature of the professional-patient relationship; truth-telling and informed consent; confidentiality; end of life decisions; euthanasia; and justice as it relates to access to health care. An emphasis of the course is case analysis involving the identification of moral dilemmas and the reasoning that supports their resolution.

Learning outcome for this course:

Students will be able to demonstrate awareness of how diverse religious perspectives affect moral judgements related to withholding, withdrawing, or refusing life-sustaining treatment and active euthanasia.

Learning activity to achieve this outcome: 

Students write a 250-500 word reflection on how they think or would expect religious perspectives to affect moral judgments and decisions about end-of-life care. This exercise invites students to assess what perceptions they already have about the ways in which religious beliefs and practices could impact decisions about end-of-life care. These reflections will also “prime” students’ minds for engaging the ideas presented in the lecture presentation and readings on these topics.

Following an in-class lecture on moral judgments and end-of-life care, students read several articles related to religion, spirituality, and end-of-life care. Sample readings include:

  • “Placing Religion and Spirituality in End-of-Life Care” by Daleeman and VandeCreek (Journal of the American Medical Association, 2010)
  • “Religion, Spirituality, and Health Care: Social, Ethical, and Practical Considerations” by Astrow, et al (American Journal of Medicine, 2001)
  • “Families, Patients, and Physicians in Medical Decision Making: A Pakistani Perspective” by Moazam F. (Hastings Cent. Rep, 2000)
  • Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo, Chp. 1 “I Thought I Had Cancer”, by Jason Miceli (Fortress Press, 2016)

Students use these readings to design a series of interview questions, which they then use to interview three persons with diverse perspectives (from at least two different religious traditions) about their moral judgments related to end-of-life care. Finally, students will prepare a report on those interviews analyzing the attitudes they encountered and comparing them with the readings, and what they had expected as reflected in their original essay.