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.

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

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

A friend of mine describes her childhood as, in part, resembling a real-world comparative religions course. Her broad-minded mother encouraged her to choose her own religious identity, or none at all. This required her to do independent research, not only in libraries, but in the churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples of an unusually religiously diverse group of friends and acquaintances. It’s an experience that differs from that of most people, and one not without its own pressures—how does one know what to believe without an authority figure to dictate, many may wonder?

She did just fine, acquiring considerable understanding of world religions while herself settling on a Buddhist path, the only one of the big five, it seems, that encourages people to try out spiritual methods for themselves and determine what seems true or not. At least the Buddha supposedly recommended this in one “Sutta” (or “sutra”)—an ancient form of writing practiced by early Indian philosophical schools and a word whose meaning takes on a very modern resonance for 21st century digital readers: “thread.”

In the “Kalama Sutta,” which one translator describes as “The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry,” the religious founder and former prince attempts to settle religious disputes by explaining to some perplexed villagers that one must use one’s own moral and intellectual reasoning to find the truth. It’s a discourse that captures the Socratic style of many Buddhist texts, and a famous one for Westerners for obvious reasons, but to say that it is representative of all kinds of Buddhism would be myopic.

Buddhist scriptures “number in the thousands,” says Professor Charles Hallisey of Harvard Divinity School, making their study a humbling lifelong activity that can never be exhausted. “What you have is a different phenomenon in which no one can ever say, ‘I know it all.’” Professor Hallisey leads a new online course from Harvard’s edX, which you can audit for free, called “Buddhism through its Scriptures." The course looks at distinctive properties of this world religion through several important texts, historical context, and commentary from notable scholars like Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

You can register now for Professor Hallisey’s fascinating survey course on Buddhist scriptures here. “Buddhism through its Scriptures” is one of five such rigorous, yet highly accessible courses offered by edX, under the umbrella program “Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures” (see an introductory video above), which offers students and spiritual seekers a sympathetic yet scholarly overview of each of the largest world religions: ChristianityIslamJudaismHinduism  and Buddhism. These courses are designed and taught by accomplished Harvard professors, and they introduce students to historical, theological, sociological, cultural, and textual issues within each tradition.

The approach of these courses is summed up by Religious Literacy Project Director Diane L. Moore in a document called “Our Method.” Religious scholars, she writes, recognize “the validity of normative theological assertions without equating them with universal truths about the tradition itself.” One can study religions with a critical, yet charitable, eye, allowing them to speak for themselves while remaining skeptical of their claims, and while acknowledging their “full range of agency from the heinous to the heroic.” In his introductory video lectures, Professor Hallisey admits this isn’t always easy.

It almost goes without saying, as he does say, that “conversations about religious matters can be contentious, even painful—sometimes intensely so.” But like the best religious teachers, Hallisey urges his students to think for themselves, and to place the study of religion “firmly in the Humanities,” a discipline in which “we not only… learn about other men and women, but also… learn about ourselves…. When we look back at what has happened to us, we can say that we ‘have grown.’” We can study some or all of the world religions and have this experience, even if we end up adopting none of them.

Sign up to take “Buddhism and its Scriptures” here, either as a free audited course or for a Verified Certificate for $50.

This course will be added to our collection of Free Religion Courses, a subset of our larger collection 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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

1,600 Occult Books Now Digitized & Put Online, Thanks to the Ritman Library and Da Vinci Code Author Dan Brown

Back in December we brought you some exciting news. Thanks to a generous donation from Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, Amsterdam’s Ritman Library—a sizable collection of pre-1900 books on alchemy, astrology, magic, and other occult subjects—has been digitizing thousands of its rare texts under a digital education project cheekily called “Hermetically Open.” We are now pleased to report, less than two months later, that the first 1,617 books from the Ritman project have come available in their online reading room. The site is still in beta, so to speak; in their Facebook announcement, the Ritman admits they are “still improving the whole presentation,” which is a bit clunky at the moment. But for fans and students of this literature, a little inconvenience is a small price to pay for full access to hundreds of rare occult texts.

Visitors should be aware that these books are written in several different European languages. Latin, the scholarly language of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods, predominates, and it’s a peculiar Latin at that, laden with jargon and alchemical terminology. Other books appear in German, Dutch, and French. Readers of some or all of these languages will of course have an easier time than monolingual English speakers, but there is still much to offer those visitors as well.

In addition to the pleasure of paging through an old rare book, even virtually, English speakers can quickly find a collection of readable books by clicking on the “Place of Publication” search filter and selecting Cambridge or London, from which come such notable works as The Man-Mouse Takin in a Trap, and tortur’d to death for gnawing the Margins of Eugenius Philalethes, by Thomas Vaughn, published in 1650.

The language is archaic—full of quirky spellings and uses of the “long s”—and the content is bizarre. Those familiar with this type of writing, whether through historical study or the work of more recent interpreters like Aleister Crowley or Madame Blavatsky, will recognize the many formulas: The tracing of magical correspondences between flora, fauna, and astronomical phenomena; the careful parsing of names; astrology and lengthy linguistic etymologies; numerological discourses and philosophical poetry; early psychology and personality typing; cryptic, coded mythology and medical procedures. Although we’ve grown accustomed through popular media to thinking of magical books as cookbooks, full of recipes and incantations, the reality is far different.

Encountering the vast and strange treasures in the online library, one thinks of the type of the magician represented in Goethe’s Faust, holed up in his study,

Where even the welcome daylight strains
But duskily through the painted panes.
Hemmed in by many a toppling heap
Of books worm-eaten, gray with dust,
Which to the vaulted ceiling creep

The library doesn’t only contain occult books. Like the weary scholar Faust, alchemists of old “studied now Philosophy / And Jurisprudence, Medicine,— / And even, alas! Theology.” Click on Cambridge as the place of publication and you’ll find the work above by Henry More, “one of the celebrated ‘Cambridge Platonists,’” the Linda Hall Library notes, “who flourished in mid-17th-century and did their best to reconcile Plato with Christianity and the mechanical philosophy that was beginning to make inroads into British natural philosophy.” Those who study European intellectual history know well that More’s presence in this collection is no anomaly. For a few hundred years, it was difficult, if not impossible, to separate the pursuits of theology, philosophy, medicine, and science (or “natural philosophy”) from those of alchemy and astrology. (Isaac Newton is a famous example of a mathematician/scientist/alchemist/believer in strange apocalyptic predictions.)

Given the Ritman’s alacrity and eagerness to publish this first batch of texts, even as it works to smooth out its interface, we’ll likely see many hundreds more books become available in the next month or so. For updates, follow the Ritman Library and The Embassy of the Free Mind—Dan Brown’s own Dutch library of rare occult books—on Facebook.

Enter the Ritman's new digital collection of occult texts here.

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

A YouTube Channel Completely Devoted to Medieval Sacred Music: Hear Gregorian Chant, Byzantine Chant & More

The artists of medieval Europe, at least according to the impression we get in history class, gave far less consideration to the world around them than the world above. Historians argue about how much that general attitude hindered the improvement of the human lot during those ten centuries or so, but even we denizens of the 21st century can feel that the imaginations of the Middle Ages did tap into something resonant — and in the domain of music quite literally resonant, since the sacred songs of that time still create a properly otherworldly sonic atmosphere when they echo through cathedrals.

If you don't happen to live near a cathedral, you can experience something of that atmosphere through your headphones anywhere you happen to be with Callixtus, a channel on the not normally sacred space of Youtube. "Perhaps named in honor of either Pope Callistus or Xanothopoulos Callistus, Patriarch of Constantinople," writes Catholic web site Aleteia's Daniel Esparza, it offers "an impressive collection of sacred music, mostly medieval, including choral works belonging to both Western Christianity and the Eastern tradition."

Callixtus' playlist includes such enduring "hits" of these traditions as the Gregorian chant "Invitatorium: Deum Verum," the Byzantine chant "Δεύτε λαοί" ("Come Ye Peoples"), and the multi-part Medieval Chant of the Templars.

How did this still-haunting style of music come about? According to former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who laid out these ideas in a popular TED Talk, it evolved alongside the houses of worship themselves, the architecture shaping the music and the music shaping the architecture: "In a gothic cathedral, this kind of music is perfect," says Byrne. "It doesn't change key, the notes are long, there's almost no rhythm whatsoever, and the room flatters the music. It actually improves it." So familiarize yourself with all this sacred music through Callixtus, but as soon as you get the chance, hie thee to a gothic cathedral: no matter your religious sensibilities, it will certainly enrich your aesthetic ones.

via Aleteia and @dark_shark

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Celebrate the Women’s March with 24 Goddess GIFs Created by Animator Nina Paley: They’re Free to Download and Remix

As millions of women, men, and friends beyond the binary gear up for Women's March events around the world this weekend, we can’t help but draw strength from the Venus of Willendorf in Graphics Interchange Format, above.

Like the pussy hats that became the most visible symbol of last year’s march, there’s a strong element of humor at play here.

Also respect for the female form.

As Dr. Bryan Zygmont notes in his Khan Academy essay on the Venus of Willendorf, her existence is evidence that “nomadic people living almost 25,000 years ago cared about making objects beautiful. And … that these Paleolithic people had an awareness of the importance of the women.”

Animator Nina Paley has taken up our Paleolithic ancestors’ baton by creating two dozen early goddess GIFs, including the Venus.

As further proof that sisterhood is powerful, Paley is sharing her unashamedly bouncy pantheon with the public. Visit her blog to download all 24 individual goddess GIFs. Disseminate them widely. Use them for good! No permission needed.

Paley is no stranger to goddesses, having previously placed the divine heroine of the Ramayana front and center in her semi-autobiographical feature length animation, Sita Sings the Blues.

She’s also incredibly familiar with rights issues, following massive complications with some vintage recordings her Betty Boop-ish Sita lip-synchs in the film. (She had previously believed them to be in the public domain.) Unable to pay the huge sum the copyright holders demanded to license the tunes, Paley ultimately decided to relinquish all legal claims to her own film, placing Sita Sings the Blues in the public domain, to be freely shared, exhibited, or even remixed.

If Paley's the poster child for copyright issues she’s also a shining example of deriving power from unlikely sources.

As she wrote on her website nearly ten years ago:

My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there's a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction. The old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging, and I'm happy to be part of that. But we're still making this up as we go along. You are free to make money with the free content of Sita Sings the Blues, and you are free to share money with me. People have been making money in Free Software for years; it's time for Free Culture to follow. I look forward to your innovations.

As for Paley's own plans for her goddesses, they’ll be a part of her upcoming animated musical, Seder-Masochism, noting that “all early peoples conceived the divine as female.”

Download Nina Paley’s Goddess GIFs here. Watch Sita Sings the Blues here. March ever onward!

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her on February 8 for Necromancers of the Public Domain, when a host of New York City-based performers and musicians will resurrect  a long forgotten work from 1911 as a low budget, variety show. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Brief History of Making Deals with the Devil: Niccolò Paganini, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Page & More

When the term “witch hunt” gets thrown around in cases of powerful men accused of harassment and abuse, historians everywhere bang their heads against their desks. The history of persecuting witches—as every schoolboy and girl knows from the famous Salem Trials—involves accusations moving decidedly in the other direction.

But we’re very familiar with men supposedly selling out to Satan, dealing—or just dueling—with the devil. They weren’t called witches for doing so, or burned at the stake. They were blues pioneers, virtuoso fiddlers, and guitar gods. From the devilishly dashing Niccolò Paganini, to Robert Johnson at the Crossroads, to Jimmy Page's black magic, to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” to the omnipresence of Satan in metal…. The devil “seems to have quite the interest in music,” notes the Polyphonic video above.

Before musicians came to terms with the dark lord, power-hungry scholars used demonology to summon Luciferian emissaries like Mephistopheles. The legend of Faust dates back to the late 16th century and a historical alchemist named Johann Georg Faust, who inspired many dramatic works, like Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Johann Goethe’s Faust, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, Mikhail Bugakov’s The Master and Margarita, and F.W. Murnau’s 1926 silent film.

The Faust legend may be the sturdiest of such stories, but it is not by any means the origin of the idea. Medieval Catholic saints feared the devil's enticements constantly. Medieval occultists often saw things differently. If we can trace the notion of women consorting with the devil to the Biblical Eve in the Garden, we find male analogues in the New Testament—Christ's temptations in the desert, Judas's thirty pieces of silver, the possessed vagrant who sends his demons into a herd of pigs. But we might even say that God made the first deal with the devil, in the opening wager of the book of Job.

In most examples—Charlie Daniels' triumphal folk tale aside—the deal usually goes down badly for the mortal party involved, as it did for Robert Johnson when the devil came for his due, and convened the morbidly fascinating 27 Club. Goethe imposes a redemptive happy ending onto Faust that seems to wildly overcompensate for the typical fate of souls in hell’s pawn shop. Kierkegaard took the idea seriously as a cultural myth, and wrote in Either/Or that “every notable historical era will have its own Faust.”

Modern-day Fausts in the popular genre of the day, the conspiracy theory, are famous entertainers, as you can see in the unintentionally humorous supercut above from a YouTube channel called “EndTimeChristian.” As it happens in these kinds of narratives, the cultural trope gets taken far too literally as a real event. The Faust legend shows us that making deals with the devil has been a literary device for hundreds of years, passing into popular culture, then the blues—a genre haunted by hell hounds and infernal crossroads—and its progeny in rock and roll and hip hop.

Those who talk of selling their souls might really believe it, but they inherited the language from centuries of Western cultural and religious tradition. Selling one’s soul is a common metaphor for living a carnal life, or getting into bed with shady characters for worldly success. But it’s also a playful notion. (A misunderstood aspect of so much metal is its comic Satanic overkill.) Johnson himself turned the story of selling his soul into an iconic boast, in “Crossroads” and “Me and the Devil Blues.” “Hello Satan,” he says in the latter tune, “I believe it’s time to go.”

Chilling in hindsight, the line is the bluesman’s grimly casual acknowledgment of how life on the edge would catch up to him. But it was worth it, he also suggests, to become a legend in his own time. In the short, animated video above from Music Matters, Johnson meets the horned one, a slick operator in a suit: “Suddenly, no one could touch him.” Often when we talk these days about people selling their souls, they might eventually end up singing, but they don’t make beautiful music. In any case, the moral of almost every version of the story is perfectly clear: no matter how good the deal seems, the devil never fails to collect on a debt.

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

Did Santa Claus & His Reindeers Begin with a Mushroom Trip?: Discover the Psychedelic, Shamanistic Side of Christmas

Just when you thought you had Christmas all figured out, Matthew Salton comes along with this new animated short, "Santa Is a Psychedelic Mushroom." It makes the case that maybe, just maybe, "the story of our modern Santa Claus, the omnipotent man who travels the globe in one night, bearing gifts, and who’s camped out in shopping malls across the United States, is linked to a hallucinogenic mushroom-eating shaman from the Arctic." Specifically a historic Shaman from Lapland, in northern Finland, who tripped out on Amanita muscaria, the toxic, red-and-white toadstool mushroom you've seen in fairy tales so many times before. Elaborating, Salton talks with Carl Ruck, a Boston University professor who studies mythology, religion and the sacred role of psychoactive plants. And also Lawrence Millman. Writing at The New York Times, Salton adds:

According to the writer and mycologist Lawrence Millman, the shaman would make use of Amanita muscaria’s psychoactive effects in order to perform healing rituals. The use of Amanita muscaria as an entheogen (that is, a drug used to bring about a spiritual experience) would enable the shamans to act as intermediaries between the spirit and human world, bringing gifts of healing and problem-solving. (Although these mushrooms are poisonous, the Sami reduced their toxicity by drying them..) Various accounts describe the shaman and the rituals performed in ways that are fascinatingly similar to the narrative of Santa. An all-knowing man who defies space and time? Flying reindeer? Reindeer-drawn sleds? Climbing down the chimney? The giving of gifts? The tales of the Sami shamans have it all.

To learn more about the psychedelic origins of Santa, you can read this 2010 article published at NPR, "Did 'Shrooms Send Santa And His Reindeer Flying?"

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