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, is self paced. “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


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  • ROBERTO TULLETT says:

    Este tipo de ideas que son pre­sen­tadas como pos­i­ti­vas ‑en algu­na triste medi­da lo son- en real­i­dad están impul­sadas por teís­tas, mar­ginan­do sutil pero artera­mente a la ALTERNATIVA REAL : EL ATEÍSMO. De cualquier man­era es inevitable que pro­duz­can un resul­ta­do paradóji­co no desea­do por los men­tores de los cur­sos: A may­or edu­cación y conocimien­to menor posi­bil­i­dad del mito, del pen­samien­to mági­co. Las zonas del mun­do en donde prende con may­or enjun­dia la fan­tasía reli­giosa es donde jus­ta­mente hay may­or igno­ran­cia y pobreza y se puede obser­var en los lugares más avan­za­dos, cul­tos y en donde se vive mejor un avance incon­tenible del ateís­mo que después de todo es lo primero y lo nat­ur­al ya que todos ven­i­mos al mun­do sin dios­es ni dog­mas y luego geográ­fi­ca­mente la pre­sión parental enmar­ca­da en los gru­pos reli­giosos y nacionales pre­siona de mil for­mas y has­ta con la muerte, para que el otro­ra “niño nat­ur­al libre y ateo” se con­vier­ta en parte del rebaño aleluyo,

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