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Think you know a lot about religion? Harvard researchers disagree

A new online course, designed by Harvard Divinity School, hopes to help people look at the world's religions in different, more accepting ways.
A new online course, designed by Harvard Divinity School, hopes to help people look at the world's religions in different, more accepting ways.
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Struggling to sort out the difference between the Vedas and Vishnu? Neelima Shukla-Bhatt can help.

She's leading the Hinduism segment of Harvard Divinity School's newest online course, "World Religions Through Their Scriptures," which launches on March 1. Teaching people how to define key Hindu terms will be the easy part, she said.

"Hinduism is one of the longest living traditions in the world. Bringing it together into eight class sessions? That was a challenge. … Even a semester wouldn't be enough time to scratch the surface," said Shukla-Bhatt, an associate professor of South Asia Studies at Wellesley College.

Because of the time constraint, Shukla-Bhatt and her co-instructors will focus on providing helpful ways to approach unfamiliar religions, reminding course participants that religious literacy entails more than being able to name the Five Pillars of Islam or Buddhism's Four Noble Truths.

Instead, religious literacy involves being able to look at a headline about November's ISIS-led attacks in Paris or evangelical Christian support for Donald Trump and know that no single narrative or episode can encapsulate an entire religion. It requires acknowledging that faith communities are internally diverse and always evolving, said Diane Moore, lead organizer of the online course and director of Harvard Divinity School's Religious Literacy Project.

"I'm eager to provide opportunities to complicate people's understanding of religion," she said. "We want to challenge people's assumption that religions are either all good or all bad."

What is religious literacy?

Religious literacy is generally tied to education level and comfort discussing religion with family and friends, according to a 2010 analysis by Pew Research Center.

Atheists and other non-believers actually scored higher than people of faith on the religious knowledge test used in Pew's research, in part because they are more likely, on average, to have advanced degrees than members of faith communities. Atheists and agnostics answered an average of 20.9 questions correctly out of 32, compared to 20.5 for Jews, 20.3 for Mormons, 17.6 for white evangelical Protestants and 15.8 for white mainline Protestants, Pew reported.

Quizzes designed to test religious literacy, such as the one Pew offers, often focus on general trivia, like which faith group celebrates Ramadan (Muslims) or when the Jewish Sabbath begins (Friday night.)

Facts like these do have a place in Harvard's online course, but people who sign-up to earn higher scores on these tests will get a lot more than they bargained for, Moore said.

"We want to give people the tools to think in different ways," she said.

In the case of Hinduism, this means starting with a general overview of the important deities and scriptural texts, and then reviewing the varied forms the religion has taken over time, Shukla-Bhatt said. Participants will read excerpts from devotional songs and learn how rituals evolve depending on the part of the world in which they are practiced.

"We're challenging the idea that religious authority is absolutely vested in a single view," she said.

This approach to religious literacy is meaningful at a time when people are quick to cut corners on the path to better understanding, said Jonathan Brown, who is the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

He offered the example of trying to boost acceptance of Islam by reminding people that Muslims venerate Jesus. That approach aims to increase good will toward Islam, but it's too simplistic and does little to change how people engage with religions that aren't their own, Brown noted.

"The basic point is that you shouldn't go to someone else's religious scripture, pick something out and say, 'This is what this religion means,'" he said. "Even relatively educated people will often engage in that behavior."

It's also not helpful to argue in terms of broad claims, like when people assert that the Crusaders shouldn't count as Christians or that ISIS doesn't represent Islam, Moore said.

A religiously literate person can accept that ISIS fighters believe Islam supports their violent acts without concluding "that all Muslims believe this," she added.

By the end of the online course, which will cover scholarly perspectives on religious literacy, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism, participants won't have all the answers about the world's religions, but they should be able to ask better questions, Moore said.

The benefits

Moore and her team at the Harvard Literacy Project predict that as many as 50,000 people from around the world will enroll in "World Religions through their Scriptures."

The positive response is tied, at least in part, to a growing sense that religious literacy can counter rising incidents of faith-based violence around the world and anti-religion rhetoric in the ongoing U.S. presidential election, Moore said.

"Misunderstanding fuels bigotry and prejudice and leads to tremendously frightening civic consequences," she noted.

More than half of Americans believe "the values of Islam are at odds with American values," according to a 2015 survey from Public Religion Research Institute. Presidential candidate Donald Trump and other politicians have argued that Muslim immigrants should be barred from entering the country.

Even Christianity has suffered in recent years from misunderstandings about the nature of religious practice. A new study from Barna showed that growing numbers of people view America's majority faith as bad for society.

Nearly half (45 percent) of atheists, agnostics and people not affiliated with a religious group believe that Christianity is extremist, with many sharing concern about faith-linked practices like reading the Bible in public or adhering to special dietary restrictions, Barna reported.

Although a brief course composed of videos, scholarly presentations and reading assignments from religious texts may appear outmatched by increasing incidents of faith-based violence and discrimination, even small amounts of exposure to true religiously literate thinking can be valuable, Brown said.

"There is a lot of benefit from even a little bit of learning," he noted.

Moore is hopeful that the course will attract educators, interfaith activists and anyone else who is interested in learning more about the world's religions, who can extend the impact of the online discussion by spreading what they learn to others.

"We're wanting to investigate the diversity of religious expressions" both within and between religious traditions, "rather than simply asking what is right and what is wrong," she said.

Starting on March 1, participants will have an opportunity each week to enjoy two presentations and join a Google-hangout discussion with other people taking the course. Those who pay for each segment — they cost $50 — can earn a certificate of achievement at the end of the six-month program.

The course is free for those who audit the class, and sign-ups are opened at the beginning of each month-long segment.

Here's the video from organizers on the goals of the "World Religions through their Scriptures" course:

Email: Twitter: @kelsey_dallas