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A ‘Public Enlightenment’: Harvard Divinity School Begins New Program in Religion and Public Life

The Harvard Divinity School launched its first new degree program in 50 years this month.
The Harvard Divinity School launched its first new degree program in 50 years this month. By Joshua A. Ng
By Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard Divinity School launched a new program in Religion and Public Life this month, its first new degree program in 50 years.

The program is aimed at studying the ways religion and civic life interact, said Jacob K. Olupona, a professor of African Religions jointly appointed at the Divinity School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences who will teach courses as part of the RPL program. It includes both degree-granting and certificate-granting components, as well as a series of public speaker events, panels, and webinars.

By making more explicit the connections between the studies of religious and civic life at the Divinity School, Olupona said he hopes the RPL program will “enable outsiders to know what we do.”

“This is not just a seminary, where we train priests, but we are constantly thinking about the problems and issues of the society,” he said.

Unlike the Divinity School’s program in Ministry Studies, the RPL program is geared towards students interested in pursuing secular fields, such as government or non-profit work, according to RPL program founder and director Diane L. Moore. The program aims to teach an understanding of how religions function in society, rather than a deep scriptural knowledge of particular religions.

“A lack of understanding about religion actually fuels bigotry and prejudice and hinders capacity for cooperative endeavors across a whole range of possible publics,” Moore said.

“The emphasis is working from a non-sectarian understanding of religion to help work with others who are wanting to think about religion in capacious ways,” she added.

For example, Moore said, in the lead-up to the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, she and other scholars knew that “the complexities of the civic and religious structures of the Iraqi society were incredibly fragile, and the implications of an invasion would be potentially devastating.” But, she said, no one in the administration itself had that understanding.

More recently, in the past decade’s Ebola outbreaks in West Africa, Moore said, foreign health workers’ lack of understanding of the importance of local mourning and burial rites made epidemics more difficult to contain.

Ultimately, Olupona said he thought the RPL program, which includes a public speaker series that will feature journalists, historians, economists, and other scholars, might lead to “public enlightenment” about the centrality of religion to a broad range of civic issues.

“If it is properly handled, and properly pursued, I can see it becoming a major center of learning here at Harvard,” he said.

—Staff writer Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @OLRiskinKutz.

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