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Today, the Divinity School course “World Religions Through Their Scriptures” began its first of various six month modules on edX. The class is a project developed over the past year in a collaborative effort by six professors with the lofty end of combatting religious ignorance, intolerance, and illiteracy by exploring the sacred texts of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Indeed, in a toxic political atmosphere, a remedy for these blights is in high demand: the course is expected to welcome 50 to 100 thousand enrollees in its first module.
Overall, the intention behind this course is laudable. The calculus that drives it is simple yet potent: Ignorance begets callousness, fear, and xenophobia, whereas knowledge facilitates empathy, respect, and understanding. A person who has intimately interacted with the holy text of a religion and explored the culture that accompanies it is not apt to make gross generalizations about its followers and will be able to crack through the veneer of religious misinformation that plagues America today.
Moreover, edX—an online collaboration between Harvard and MIT—furnishes an ideal medium for the multicultural exploration and broad audience on which this religious literacy class hinges. The large expected enrollment goes far beyond the audience that Harvard could reach with any conventional undergraduate course. In addition, the course's creators hope participants themselves will represent the diverse traditions that the course studies; the course website mentions that students “will have the opportunity to interact with peers from around the world representing diverse backgrounds, affiliations, and perspectives.”
Granted, the four week modules that the course offers on each tradition will not make specialists out of participants or even delve considerably into the rich nuances of each tradition. Such an expectation, however, would be unreasonable and would ignore this course’s true intent: It addresses the basic need for well-informed citizens to understand the world’s religions and gain a working knowledge of each, and promotes a spirit of inquiry and deference that will enable its graduates to interact sensibly with different religions. These skills will serve students well even without an encyclopedic knowledge of each faith.
This course is also a reminder of the importance of religious diversity among Harvard undergraduates, a kind of diversity that is not fully addressed in conversations about inclusion at Harvard. Despite this inattention, religious diversity is no less crucial to Harvard’s mission of preparing students to be citizens of the world than diversity of any other kind. The College would do well to promote more discourse about religion during such formative times as freshman orientation and Community Conversations. Harvard students are not immune to prejudices or misconceptions about religion, and these prejudices about such a central and particularly sensitive aspect of people’s lives can be insidious and divisive to a community.
In sum, the Divinity School’s initiative accentuates the indispensability of a basic appreciation of the world’s religious traditions for any well-educated person. It is a responsibility and a privilege for humans to be able to contemplate and explore rich traditions accumulated over millennia; it would be a crisis for us not to do so.
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