You Don’t Have to Be Religious to Value Religious Literacy
You don’t have to be religious to value religious literacy. And just because you are religious does not automatically make you literate about world religions.
Harvard recently announced that they are launching a new free online course to promote religious literacy. This is a badly needed initiative, considering the state of affairs when it comes to people’s understanding of faiths other than their own.
The events of 9/11 and the rise of radical religious terrorism around the globe has only exacerbated people’s fears and increased prejudice towards Islam, for example. According to an Economist YouGov online poll from February 2015, a majority of Americans – 52% – said Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.
The problem is much broader than just ignorance and fear of Islam however. According to a recent Huffington Post interview, Diane Moore, director of Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project says, “Widespread illiteracy about religion spans the globe”. According to Moore, religious illiteracy “fuels bigotry and prejudice and hinders capacities for cooperative endeavors in local, national and global arenas.”
That is why Moore and five other religion professors from Harvard University and Wellesley College were motivated to launch the online series on world religions, which begins March 1. I applaud these efforts and plan on checking out the first course myself – which is called Traditions and Scriptures. Yet as timely and important as this initiative is, it is my view that education about world religions – and their relationships to philosophy and science – should begin in elementary school and should be a regular part of the curriculum from there forward.
At Oneness-Family Montessori School, which I founded in 1988, preschoolers and their families are encouraged to share their cultural and religious traditions with their classmates. Beginning in grades 1-3, we teach the history, belief systems and practices of the world’s major spiritual paths in age appropriate ways, exploring what these paths have in common with each other, and comparing them with other non-religious philosophies such as humanism as well as with science. The lesson is not that you should have a religion, but rather that by learning more we can better understand and communicate with people who do.
Older elementary students learn creation stories from around the world – as well as the scientific story of creation. They may learn about other lesser-known religious paths or delve into one they want to learn more about. By middle school, students are doing a “heroic journey”, thinking about their own spiritual beliefs and developing their personal ethical code. They are also exploring the impact of religious movements – both good and bad – on human civilization.
At all levels of the school, students begin each day with a short period of silent reflection – which is a non-religious opportunity to engage in the reflective practice of one’s choice, or simply sit quietly and relax. In grades 1 and higher this may be followed by the reading of an inspiring poem or aphorism – and a lesson on some aspect of our Self-Discovery curriculum, which includes lessons on virtues, gratitude and acknowledgements, communication, conflict resolution and community.
An Alumnus of my school named Ryan once called me during his first month at the University of Chicago. He said, “Andrew you cannot believe how ignorant my roommates are of the basic things regarding world religions. I just had to call and thank you for teaching me about the different beliefs and traditions from around the world. I’m so glad I went to the school I did and learned when I was young.”
Some day Ryan’s experience won’t be the exception but the norm, and we will have moved forward globally toward true human understanding and progress.
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