Harvard Launches a Free Online Course to Promote Religious Tolerance & Understanding

It is difficult to have discussions in our current public square without becoming forced into false choices. Following Marshall McLuhan, we might think that the nature of the digital medium makes this happen, as much as the content of the messages. But some messages are more polarizing than others—with arguments over religion seemingly primed for binary oppositions.

That many nuanced positions exist between denying the validity of every religion and proclaiming a specific version as the only one true path shows how durable and flexible religious thought can be. The widespread diversity among religions cannot mask the significant degree of commonality between them, in all human societies, leading scholars like anthropologist Pascal Boyer to conclude, as he writes in Religion Explained, that “the explanation for religious beliefs and behaviors is to be found in the way all human minds work…."

I really mean all human minds not the just the minds of religious people or some of them. I am talking about human minds, because what matters here are properties of minds that are found in all members of our species with normal brains.

Famed Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky, who happens to be an atheist, claims that somewhere around 95% of the human population believes in some sort of supernatural agency or religious set of explanations, and that such faith has “undeniable health benefits,” and is thus biologically motivated.




The real question, he reluctantly admits, is not why so many people believe, but “what’s up with the 5% of atheists who don’t do that?" The question needn’t imply there’s anything abnormal, inferior, or superior, about atheists. Variations don’t come with inherent values, though they may eventually become the norm.

But if we accept the well-supported thesis that religion is a phenomenon rooted in and naturally expressed by the human mind, like art, language, and literature, we would be negligent in remaining willfully ignorant of its expressions. And yet, Diane Moore, director of Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project, tells the Huffington Post, “widespread illiteracy about religion… spans the globe” and “fuels bigotry and prejudice and hinders capacities for cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.”

Harvard aims to help change attitudes with their Religious Literacy Project, which offers free online courses on the world’s five major religions—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism—through their edX platform. The first course of the series, taught by Moore, launches on March 5th. “Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures” surveys the methodology of the project as a whole, exploring “case studies about how religions are internally diverse, how they evolve and change through time, and how religions are embedded in all dimensions of human experience.” (See a promo video at the top and a teaser for the project as a whole above.)

Understanding religion as both a universal phenomenon and a set of culturally and historically specific events resolves misunderstandings that result from oversimplified, static stereotypes. Studying the historical, theological, and geographical varieties of Islam, for example, makes it impossible to say anything definitive about one singular, monolithic “Islam,” and therefore about Muslims in general. The same goes for Christians, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, etc. The fact that religion is embedded in nearly every facet of human experience, writes Moore in an introductory essay for the project, means that we can credit it with the “full range of agency from the heinous to the heroic," rather than flipping between these extremes to score chauvinist points or invalidate entire realms of social life.

We’ve previously featured one of the courses from the big five series of classes, “Buddhism through its Scriptures.” The method there applies to each course, which all engage rigorously with primary sources and scholarly commentary to get students as close as possible to understanding religious practice from both the inside and the outside. Granted this canonical approach ignores the practices of millions of people outside the big five categories, but one could ostensibly apply a similar academic rubric to the study of syncretisms and indigenous religions all over the world.

Professor Moore’s “Religious Literacy” class—which you can audit free of charge or take for a certificate for $50—promises to give students the tools they need to understand how to survey religions critically, yet sympathetically, and to “interpret the roles religions play in contemporary and historic contexts.” Like it or not, religions of every kind remain pervasive and seemingly intractable. Rather than fighting over this fact of life, we would all do better to try and understand it. Begin to enlarge your own understanding by signing up for "Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures" for free.

Related Content:

Take Harvard’s Introductory Course on Buddhism, One of Five World Religions Classes Offered Free Online

Atheist Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky Explains How Religious Beliefs Reduce Stress

Free Online Religion Courses 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Tattoos Can Now Start Monitoring Your Medical Conditions: Harvard and MIT Researchers Innovate at the Intersection of Art & Medicine

Once reserved for rebels and outliers, tattoos have gone mainstream in the United States. According to recent surveys, 21% of all Americans now have at least one tattoo. And, among the 18-29 demographic, the number rises to 40%. If that number sounds high, just wait until tattoos go from being aesthetic statements to biomedical devices.

At Harvard and MIT, researchers have developed "smart tattoo ink" that can monitor changes in biological and health conditions, measuring, for example, when the blood sugar of a diabetic rises too high, or the hydration of an athlete falls too low. Pairing biosensitive inks with traditional tattoo designs, these smart tattoos could conceivably provide real-time feedback on a range of medical conditions. And also raise a number of ethical questions: what happens when your health information gets essentially worn on your sleeve, available for all to see?

To learn more about smart tattoos, watch the Harvard video above, and read the corresponding article in the Harvard Gazette.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

Meet America & Britain’s First Female Tattoo Artists: Maud Wagner (1877-1961) & Jessie Knight (1904–1994)

Browse a Gallery of Kurt Vonnegut Tattoos, and See Why He’s the Big Gorilla of Literary Tattoos

A Dazzling Gallery of Clockwork Orange Tattoos

Free Online Biology Courses 

Advanced Algorithms: A Free Course from Harvard University

From Harvard professor Jelani Nelson comes "Advanced Algorithms," a course intended for graduate students and advanced undergraduate students. All 25 lectures you can find on Youtube here.

Here's a quick course description:

"An algorithm is a well-defined procedure for carrying out some computational task. Typically the task is given, and the job of the algorithmist is to find such a procedure which is efficient, for example in terms of processing time and/or memory consumption. CS 224 is an advanced course in algorithm design, and topics we will cover include the word RAM model, data structures, amortization, online algorithms, linear programming, semidefinite programming, approximation algorithms, hashing, randomized algorithms, fast exponential time algorithms, graph algorithms, and computational geometry"

"Advanced Algorithms" will be added to our collection of Free Computer Science Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Related Content:

Learn Digital Photography with Harvard University’s Free Online Course

Harvard Course on Positive Psychology: Watch 30 Lectures from the University’s Extremely Popular Course

Learn to Code with Harvard’s Popular Intro to Computer Science Course: The 2016 Edition

Algorithms for Big Data: A Free Course from Harvard

Algorithms for Big Data: A Free Course from Harvard

From Harvard professor Jelani Nelson comes "Algorithms for Big Data," a course intended for graduate students and advanced undergraduate students. All 25 lectures you can find on Youtube here.

Here's a quick course description:

"Big data is data so large that it does not fit in the main memory of a single machine, and the need to process big data by efficient algorithms arises in Internet search, network traffic monitoring, machine learning, scientific computing, signal processing, and several other areas. This course will cover mathematically rigorous models for developing such algorithms, as well as some provable limitations of algorithms operating in those models. Some topics we will cover include":

  • Sketching and Streaming. Extremely small-space data structures that can be updated on the fly in a fast-moving stream of input.
  • Dimensionality reduction. General techniques and impossibility results for reducing data dimension while still preserving geometric structure.
  • Numerical linear algebra. Algorithms for big matrices (e.g. a user/product rating matrix for Netflix or Amazon). Regression, low rank approximation, matrix completion, ...
  • Compressed sensing. Recovery of (approximately) sparse signals based on few linear measurements.
  • External memory and cache-obliviousness. Algorithms and data structures minimizing I/Os for data not fitting on memory but fitting on disk. B-trees, buffer trees, multiway mergesort.

"Algorithms for Big Data" will be added to our collection of Free Computer Science Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Related Content:

Learn Digital Photography with Harvard University’s Free Online Course

Harvard Course on Positive Psychology: Watch 30 Lectures from the University’s Extremely Popular Course

Learn to Code with Harvard’s Popular Intro to Computer Science Course: The 2016 Edition

Harvard Course on Positive Psychology: Watch 30 Lectures from the University’s Extremely Popular Course

Several years back Tal Ben-Shahar taught a course on Positive Psychology at Harvard, which became, at least for a while, the most popular course at the university. About the course NPR wrote: "Twice a week, some 900 students attend Tal Ben-Shahar's class on what he calls 'how to get happy.' ... His class offers research from the relatively new field of positive psychology, which focuses on what makes people happy, rather than just their pathologies."

Available in an admittedly grainy format, you can watch the 30 lectures from that course above, or over on YouTube. According to the original syllabus, topics discussed include "happiness, self-esteem, empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, music, spirituality, and humor."

If you're interested in delving deeper into Positive Psychology, we'd recommend reading the works of Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania professor who effectively invented the field. Or better yet, you can sign up for a Coursera course that Seligman helped create--Positive Psychology: Well-Being for Life. The next round of that course starts on August 21st.

For related subjects visit our collection of Free Psychology Courses, a subset of our meta collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

Introduction to Psychology: A Free Course from Yale University

A Crash Course on Psychology: A 30-Part Video Series from Hank Green

All You Need is Love: The Keys to Happiness Revealed by a 75-Year Harvard Study

Explore Harvard’s Iconic Spaces with 360° Interactive Videos

For me, nothing captures those occasional feelings of post-graduate yearning like "I Wish I Could Go Back to College," a N-quite-SFW track from the Broadway musical, Avenue Q.

With all due respect, it feels like the five members of Harvard University’s just-graduated Class of 2016 sharing their recollections in the interactive 360° video project, Harvard Students Say Farewell, left a few crucial details out. (Note: Youtube 360 videos only work in Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Opera browsers.)

It’s completely safe for prospective parents, not a keg or condom wrapper in sight. (The project is hosted on Harvard’s official Youtube channel.)

Unsurprisingly, Harvard appears to have been the participants’ universal first choice of college. Hasty Pudding performer, Joshuah Campbell, above, a self-described “Black kid from the country,” confides that it was the only place he applied to.

He may have arrived wondering how he would fit in, but four years later, his grubby dorm room is one of the “iconic” Harvard locations viewers can explore digitally as he briefly reflects upon his experience.

That’s about as down and dirty as this series gets. The human subjects seem to have been selected with an eye toward diversity and humility, rather than the clenched Boston Brahmin jaw that once defined the institution.

Meanwhile, the libraries, quads, and theaters through which this new breed of Harvard men and women wander attest to the place's ongoing exclusivity.

Sreeja Kalapurakkel, above, a member of the Harvard South Asian Dance Company, knew what she was getting into, as a student at a respected Boston secondary school. Shortly after graduation, she sung Harvard's praises somewhat more frankly on her Facebook page:

Each day of my time at Harvard was filled with everything that makes life beautiful: darkness, struggle, despair, loneliness, friendship, hope, perseverance, light. Every experience, every lesson, every friend transformed me into someone more human and gave me something new to fight for.

Harvard, like every other college in the land, has relaxed its policy on ending a sentence in a preposition.

Ana-Maria Constantin arrived sight unseen from her native Romania to pull us out onto the deck of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

On to the locker room! Hockey captain Kyle Criscuolo joins the Detroit Red Wings, reflecting that Harvard student athletes enjoy no special treatment. In future, the university may want to require them to listen to Will Stephen’s lecture, "How to Sound Smart in a TED Talk." Criscuolo sounds sincere, but also stiff, as if reading from a sheet of paper, or the digital equivalent thereof.

(Thereof is an adverb, by the way. Not a preposition. I checked.)

Harvard Art Museums Student Board member Rachel Thompson paints herself so meekly, I’m tempted to check with her freshman year roommate. Was she really so filled with self doubt? I've always assumed Harvard acceptance letters would puff the recipient up. Good lord, imagine the effect the rejection letters must have!

Use a mouse to explore the immersive environment on your computer, or the YouTube app to navigate on a mobile device. Use a virtual reality headset and the Harvard Crimson staff’s vocabulary list to enhance the experience even more.

The complete playlist is here.

Related Content:

Harvard Presents Free Courses with the Open Learning Initiative

NPR Launches Database of Best Commencement Speeches Ever

The Harvard Classics: Download All 51 Volumes as Free eBooks

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine, and a Northwestern University grad. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Daily Meditation Boosts & Revitalizes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Harvard Study Finds

I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but meditation may have saved my life. During a particularly challenging time of overwork, underpay, and serious family distress, I found myself at dangerous, near-stroke levels of high cholesterol and blood pressure, and the beginnings of near-crippling early-onset arthritis. My doctors were alarmed. Something had to change. Unable to make stressful outer circumstances disappear, I had to find constructive ways to manage my responses to them instead. Yoga and meditation made the difference.




I’m hardly alone in this journey. The leading cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease, followed closely by stroke, diabetes, and depression leading to suicide---all conditions exacerbated by high levels of stress and anxiety. In my own case, a changed diet and daily exercise played a crucial role in my physical recovery, but those disciplines would not even have been possible to adopt were it not for the calming, centering effects of a daily meditation practice.

Anecdotes, however, are not evidence. We are bombarded with claims about the miracle magic of “mindfulness,” a word that comes from Buddhism and describes a kind of meditation that focuses on the breath and body sensations as anchors for present-moment awareness. Some form of “mindfulness based stress reduction” has entered nearly every kind of therapy, rehabilitation, corporate training, and pain management, and the word has been a marketing totem for at least a solid decade now. No one ever needs to mention the B-word in all this meditation talk. As one meditation teacher tells his beginner students, “Buddhism cannot exist without mindfulness, but mindfulness can exist perfectly well without Buddhism.”

So, no need to believe in reincarnation, renunciation, or higher states of consciousness, fine. But does meditation really change your brain? Yes. Academic researchers have conducted dozens of studies on how the practice works, and have nearly all concluded that it does. “There’s more than an article a day on the subject in peer-reviewed journals,” says University of Toronto psychiatrist Steven Selchen, “The research is vast now.” One research team at Harvard, led by Harvard Medical School psychology instructor Sara Lazar, published a study in 2011 that shows how mindfulness meditation results in physical changes to the brain.

The paper details the results of MRI scans from 16 subjects “before and after they took part in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness,” reports the Harvard Gazette. Each of the participants spent “an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises.” After the program, they reported significant stress reduction on a questionnaire, and analysis of their MRIs “found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”

The Harvard Business Review points to a another survey study in which scientists from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology “were able to pool data from more than 20 studies to determine which areas of the brain are consistently affected. They identified at least eight different regions.” Highlighting two areas “of particular concern to business professionals,” the HBR describes changes to the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the frontal lobe associated with self-regulation, learning, and decision-making. The ACC “may be particularly important in the face of uncertain and fast-changing conditions.” Like Lazar’s Harvard study, the researchers also identified “increased amounts of gray matter” in the hippocampus, an area highly subject to damage from chronic stress.

These studies and many others bring mindfulness together with another current psychological buzzword that has proven to be true: neuroplasticity, the idea that we can change our brains for the better—that we are not “hardwired” to repeat patterns of behavior despite our best efforts. In the TEDx Cambridge talk at the top of the post, Lazar explains her results, and connects them with her own experiences with meditation. She is, you’ll see right away, a skeptic, not inclined to accept medical claims proffered by yoga and meditation teachers. But she found that those practices worked in her own life, and also had “scientifically validated benefits” in reducing stress, depression, anxiety, and physical pain. In other words, they work.

None of the research invalidates the Buddhist and Hindu traditions from which yoga and meditation come, but it does show that one needn’t adopt any particular belief system in order to reap the health benefits of the practices. For some secular introductions to meditation, you may wish to try UCLA’s free guided meditation sessions or check out the Meditation 101 animated beginner’s guide above. If you’re not too put off by the occasional Buddhist reference, I would also highly recommend the Insight Meditation Center’s free six-part introduction to mindfulness meditation. Chronic stress is literally killing us. We have it in our power to change the way we respond to circumstances, change the physical structure of our brains, and become happier and healthier as a result.

Related Content:

Free Guided Meditations From UCLA: Boost Your Awareness & Ease Your Stress

Meditation 101: A Short, Animated Beginner’s Guide

David Lynch Explains How Meditation Enhances Our Creativity

Alan Watts Introduces America to Meditation & Eastern Philosophy: Watch the 1960 TV Show, Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Quantcast