clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In our opinion: Proper understanding of religions essential to solving national, international issues

FILE - From left, J.B. Singh, Osman Ahmed, Jim Jardine and Indra Neelameggham participate in a water ceremony, each pouring water into a common bowl to symbolize different faiths coming together in harmony, during the Interfaith Roundtable"™s annual Inter
FILE - From left, J.B. Singh, Osman Ahmed, Jim Jardine and Indra Neelameggham participate in a water ceremony, each pouring water into a common bowl to symbolize different faiths coming together in harmony, during the Interfaith Roundtable"™s annual Interfaith Prayer Breakfast at the Hellenic Cultural Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

At the beginning of this month, Harvard Divinity School launched a new online course called "World Religions Through Their Scriptures” in an effort to increase religious literacy. This is a worthy effort to educate an increasingly religiously illiterate public.

The very concept of “religious literacy” may be new to many. Someone who is religiously literate does not necessarily have to be a believer themselves; they simply have to be knowledgeable about what religion is and the context in which it functions. The phrase was popularized by a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center which ironically found that atheists tend to be more knowledgeable about religion than believers are, even though they reject the existence of deity. The survey was not a measure of devotion or personal faith, but rather an attempt to understand the degree to which the public can identify religious ideas and their influence on the public at large.

This is more than just an academic issue. So many national and international issues are rooted in religious principles, and a proper appreciation of them is essential in order to engage in constructive conversation and a search for workable solutions. Too often, a superficial knowledge can lead to profound misunderstandings.

Jonathan Brown, the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, framed the problem this way. "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,'" Brown said. "Even relatively educated people will often engage in that behavior."

Diane Moore, director of Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project and the head organizer of the new online course, agrees with that assessment. She rightly noted that in today’s environment, misunderstandings can mean much more than just hard feelings. "Misunderstanding fuels bigotry and prejudice," Moore observed, “and leads to tremendously frightening civic consequences.” Moore believes that a greater degree of education about religion will go a long way toward avoiding those consequences.

She’s very likely to be correct on that score. And even if she isn’t, there is inherent value in learning more about the faith principles that inspire and motivate individuals all across the world, even if, or perhaps especially if, their faith is markedly different from your own. We commend Harvard’s efforts to increase religious literacy, and we encourage people of all faiths, and even those with no faith at all, to look for opportunities to increase their own religious literacy. Perhaps “World Religions Through Their Scriptures” would be a good place to start.