edX Course Promotes Religious Literacy Through MOOC

(Photo: Amy Gizienski, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Amy Gizienski, Creative Commons)

Six prominent religion professors from Harvard University, Harvard Divinity School and Wellesley College have launched a free MOOC course about world religions that debuted March 1. The goal of the class is to parse out certain stereotypes in the society, to dispel myths, and to promote the idea that religious customs are diverse, complicated, and always evolving.

The course is offered via the online learning platform edX established by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012.

The edX course includes six classes on different topics that will run for a month each. The first one is on "Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures" and is taught by Diane Moore, director of Harvard Divinity School's Religious Literacy Project. The following five classes will cover religions including Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.

The facilitators expect about 50,000 to join the course series, Moore told Antonia Blumberg of the Huffington Post. So far, more than 21,000 people have subscribed.

Students will also participate in weekly discussions through Google Hangouts. As a part of the HarvardX for Allston program, there will be an in-person component at the end of March. Along with the weekly Google Hangouts, the participants will have the possibility to take an online tour of a church in Jerusalem built on the site of Christ's crucifixion.

The widespread lack of understanding and religious tolerance feels dangerous to Moore, which is why she believes the course is so important. At the same time, in the interview with Allison Pohle of Boston.com, Moore admitted she did not expect that the better understanding of religion is the key to solving all the world's problems. However, it would open new horizons and would increase our abilities to engage with others, she posits, and would also challenge the popular assumption that religions are either all good or bad.

For those who wish to earn a certificate of achievement at the end of the course, edX offers a paid non-audit track for $50. The participants will increase their religious literacy and will also learn in-depth about the history and contemporary interpretations of religious texts and why some of them are labeled as "sacred."

"Religious literacy involves being able to look at a headline about November's ISIS-led attacks in Paris or evangelical Christian support for Donald Trump and know that no single narrative or episode can encapsulate an entire religion."

According to a 2010 study on religious literacy in the US by Pew Research Institute cited by Julie Brown Patton of The Gospel Herald, religious literacy is related to education level and the ability to talk freely about religion within one's social circle.

The same survey also found out that non-believers and atheists achieved higher results than people of faith on the religious knowledge questionnaire used in Pew study. It is partly because on average they had more advanced education than members of faith communities. Non-believers answered correctly on 20.9 questions out of 32, compared to 20.5 for Jews, 20.3 for Mormons, 17.6 for white evangelical Protestants and 15.8 for white Protestants, Pew confirmed.

The findings of a 2015 survey from Public Religion Research Institute, quoted by Kelsey Dallas of the Deseret News, showed that a great majority of Americans believe "the values of Islam are at odds with American values." The GOP Presidential candidate Donald Trump and other politicians have stated that Muslim immigrants should not be allowed to enter the country.

That is why the course is meaningful, commented Moore, who added that it was challenging the idea that religious authority is vested in a single view.

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