By: Antonia Blumberg
Sales of the Quran skyrocketed in the United States following 9/11. Perhaps it was a search for answers, or a desire to parse out certain stereotypes, that made some people turn to the Muslim holy text.
But the increased circulation of the Quran due to the recent Paris attacks and rise of the Islamic State has not always helped people to better understand and respect the faith. If anything, fear and prejudice toward Islam has risen.
This is one example of the “widespread illiteracy about religion that spans the globe,” said Diane Moore, director of Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project to The Huffington Post.
To combat this illiteracy, Moore and five other religion professors from Harvard University, Harvard Divinity School and Wellesley College are kicking off a free, online series on world religions open to the masses. The courses are being offered via an online learning platform called edX, which Harvard University launched with Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012.
The timing is ripe for such a course, Moore said. Religious illiteracy “fuels bigotry and prejudice and hinders capacities for cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas,” Moore told HuffPost.
The edX series will include six classes on different subjects that will each run for four weeks. Moore is teaching the first course in the series on “Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures,” which begins on March 1. The next five will dive into specific faiths, covering Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.
Religious literacy entails more than just knowing the Five Pillars of Islam or Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, Moore said. Such an approach “reinforces the problematic assumption that religions are internally uniform and ahistorical,” she added.
Instead, Moore suggested that religious literacy should include an understanding that religious traditions are “internally diverse,” ever-evolving, and play complex roles in people’s lives.
To that end, the course aims to offer participants an understanding of the history and interpretations of religious texts and why some were designated as “sacred.” Students will also dive into contemporary and historical interpretations of the texts to get a feel for just how “internally diverse” the traditions are.
Moore said she and the other facilitators anticipate up to 50,000 people will enroll for the series, given that it is online and free for students who audit the courses. For those interested in earning a certificate of achievement at the end of the series, edX offers a non-audit track for $50.
The course is especially aimed at educators, Moore said, as well as members of faith communities interested in multi-faith engagement and dialogue.
She added, “I’m excited to provide a platform for more informed discourse about religion.”
Check out the animation about the series above.