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Harvard launches free online course on world religions

By Tali Folkins on June, 28 2016
Diane Moore, director of Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project and the lead scholar of its free online course series. Photo: Kristie Welsh/Harvard Divinity School

Anyone interested in world religions can now learn about them for free, from Harvard professors, after the launch of an online course series earlier this year.

Since February, Harvard has been offering “World Religions Through Their Scriptures,” a set of six mini-courses or “modules” on major religions delivered over the Internet by five religion specialists from Harvard and one from Wellesley College. The series can be taken free of charge, although students who want to receive certificates of completion must pay  US$50 per module.

There are six modules, on religious literacy; Christianity; Buddhism; Islam; Hinduism and Judaism. Each religion is studied primarily through its scriptures.

The series is being offered through the Religious Literacy Project, an initiative of Harvard Divinity School that provides religious educational resources to teachers, journalists and others. As of Wednesday, June 22, 106,000 people, from 181 countries, had registered, according to project head Zachary Davis.

“We’ve been really thrilled with the enthusiasm the course has generated,” says Diane Moore, director of the Religious Literacy Project and lead scholar for the course series. “I didn’t have any notion we’d get those kinds of numbers.”

Moore says she’s also delighted by the diversity of those who have enrolled.

“We have a lot of people who self-identify as atheist, or agnostic, or humanist, or from other religious traditions that are not represented in the modules, and people from diverse geographic regions from around the world,” she says.

The impetus for the course series, Moore says, comes partly from the conviction that misconceptions about religion affect us us all.

“The misunderstanding and misrepresentation of religion, in my view, have tremendous civic consequences in that they fuel bigotry and prejudice and hinder cooperative opportunities in both local, national and international arenas,” she says. “A better understanding of religion, the ways religions function, won’t completely eradicate the terrible challenges we’re facing globally, but I do believe they would be minimized—especially those related to religious representation...if people had a more sophisticated understanding of how religions function.”

While religion is misrepresented in different ways around the world, she says, one misconception in particular seems especially common: that religion is a private, isolated practice with no impact on a society’s political or cultural life. Many people also falsely imagine, she says, that religions are uniform, rather than internally diverse and highly complicated—a way of thinking that can lead to oversimplification.

For example, she says, some people might say that all Muslims are terrorists—a harmful stereotype. On the other hand, to say that terrorist groups like Al Qaida aren’t really Muslim is also untrue, she says.

“Both of those are equally problematic, because members of those communities are Muslim, and so a more complicated understanding of religion will recognize the internal diversity of religion and the fact that religion isn’t a positive or a negative force in social and cultural life; it’s both—it can be both, it always has been both, it continues to be both in all religious expressions.”

A key goal of the course series, she says, is to “complicate” how we see religion.

While most of those taking the courses are from the U.S., it has attracted students from an “incredible” range of education levels, ages and geographical regions, Moore says.

The series allows students to talk about what they’re learning in online forums, and Moore says she’s delighted at the way students have opened up to the course material and to each other—especially given its potentially touchy subject matter.

“I really wanted to provide a platform for people to constructively interact with the literature, the course, constructively interact with each other around issues that are often divisive, and that has proven to be just incredibly exciting,” she says.

“It’s very heartening to me that people are this interested in hearing and listening deeply to each other, and that I think, if nothing else happens in the course, that’s happening and I’m very, very happy,” Moore says.

“This is the kind of thing that just gives me shivers of excitement—the quality and the respectful kinds of interactions that people are engaged with around very important, very meaningful topics.”

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By Tali Folkins| June, 28 2016

About the Author

Tali Folkins

Tali Folkins

Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.  His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer

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