Why Study Religion in the Twenty-first Century?

Greater religious literacy leads to more work for the common good.

By William A. Graham

I was asked to consider the question “Why study religion in the twenty-first century,” and, in a moment of weakness, I agreed to try to tackle it, massive as it is. While I cannot provide a single, simple answer that is satisfactory, it is an important question today for anyone, not only for those who care about Harvard Divinity School’s educational mission.

William A. Graham

William A. Graham. HDS Photograph

I realize that it is now nearly a half-century that I have been studying, teaching, and writing about the history of religion. Having myself stumbled out of European history and literature into the history of religion at Harvard University in the mid-1960s, I was stymied in trying to do comparative history and fell instead into the comparative history of religion largely because I saw religion then, as I do now, as a central force in world history, both for good and for evil. I am reminded of Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s dictum: “Religion has not been a good thing, but it has been a great thing.” Religion is a key element in every culture and in every phase of history, and I have stayed with its study all these years because I do feel there is reason to study religion today, just as there will be, if anything, even greater reason to do so in the century ahead. Indeed, much of my work as dean at Harvard Divinity School was directed at building a faculty and programs that offer models for how to study religion in the decades, and possibly the century, ahead.

In considering the question as to why religion needs to be studied in the twenty-first century, I have reflected largely upon the broader societal good that such study might offer, and less upon what advances in knowledge and understanding might be achieved within the scholarly community that makes religious and theological studies its professional business. Certainly, the advancement of knowledge and understanding is what my colleagues and I aim at in our work as scholars, and it is not unimportant. But it is the work of generations and centuries, and not work that necessarily bears immediate fruit for current problems and concerns. During the half-century of my academic life, the sophistication and depth of study, analysis, and interpretation of religion—both as a generic dimension of human existence and also in the specificity of the myriad religious communities and traditions around the world—has advanced with almost breathtaking explosiveness. In the United States alone, but also worldwide, the study of religion has achieved a visible and accepted place in higher education that was almost unimaginable as late as the early 1960s. I was recently reminded that my scholarly career corresponds almost exactly to the life of the largest professional association for religious studies in North America, the American Academy of Religion, which was the new name given to the National Association of Biblical Instructors in 1964. The new name signaled the shift from largely Christian, preeminently biblical, studies to a more expansive attempt to deal with religion as a global phenomenon. That shift has gone on apace ever since, and today Harvard Divinity School reflects it perhaps more than any other divinity school anywhere. The study of religion as a field of humanistic and social-scientific endeavor has flourished, and it has now become important not only to liberal arts, but also to divinity studies. Despite that, I cannot see that it has changed the wider world in any overtly discernible way, even if it has made modest contributions to increasing awareness of our shared, highly pluralistic world of religious communities and persons—indeed, contributions which I believe will someday make a difference to society.

More Americans today than ever before have increasing personal experience of colleagues, friends, and even family members who differ from them—often radically so—in their religious faith.

I want to focus here, in any case, not on the contributions of religious studies to learning, but instead on the constantly growing need for such studies to contribute to the public—not just the academic—world of contemporary life and practice around the globe. It is demonstrably the case that, today, social and individual life everywhere is inextricably tied up with religious issues, religious thinking, and religious action, and these thus deserve our attention and analysis beyond whatever academic and hermeneutic interests we may pursue in our scholarship. Even if the famous “clash of civilizations” thesis of my late colleague Samuel Huntington is wrong (as I think it is), the importance of religious and cultural differences in our world is not going to diminish anytime soon. Consequently, my fundamental response to the question, “Why study religion in the twenty-first century?” is this: Because religion, whether as an agent of stability or instability, of progress or retrogression, of peace or conflict, or simply of diverse kinds of change everywhere in the world, will long continue to be a critical factor in individual, social, and political life around the world, and we need to understand it.

We can easily recognize that religion has begun in recent years to receive ever more attention in public media and governmental-policy circles around the globe; the post-Enlightenment certainty that reason would replace religion proved wildly off the mark. Yet still, religion remains one of the least well understood sectors of life for the majority of persons in any and every society. Of course, we all may think we understand religion, or at least our own variety of it, but there is much evidence to suggest rather strongly that this is not actually so.

Take the American case. In the well-publicized Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” of 2010, atheists and agnostics scored highest, with Jews and Mormons a close second and third, among all Americans in their ability to answer basic questions about the core teachings, histories, and leading figures of major world religious traditions—and these results were after controlling for differing levels of education. And, while these three groups averaged only between 20 and 21 correct answers to the 32 questions in the survey, all other groups averaged only between 11.6 and 17.6 correct answers, or on average well less than half the possible correct answers to the survey questions. There are probably a number of conclusions one could plausibly draw from these results, but the overall picture is one of relative ignorance in our society about the faith of other persons. Only 47 percent of Americans know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, only 38 percent can identify Shiva and Vishnu as associated with Hindu traditions, and only about 27 percent know that the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, has a Muslim majority in its population. In fact, when you look at the more specific findings of the survey, societal ignorance about Americans’ own religious traditions looms even larger: 53 percent of American Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the main figure inspiring the Protestant Reformation; 45 percent of Catholics did not know that their Church holds to transubstantiation of the Communion bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ; only 43 percent of Jews recognize that Maimonides, one of the greatest figures of Jewish learning and faith, was Jewish. I could go on, but the gist is clear: If knowledge about religion—our own and others’—is important, we could surely use a better-informed public where religious matters are concerned. Why? Well, that is again asking, “Why study religion in the twenty-first century?”

At the same time, according to a most interesting study, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, written by my Harvard colleague Robert Putnam and David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame, it appears, counterintuitively, that despite their general ignorance about religion, Americans, especially younger Americans, are today becoming much more accepting of persons of other faiths than ever before. If Putnam and Campbell are right, religious tolerance for one’s fellows belonging to multiple faith traditions is increasing, even if knowledge about these traditions is rudimentary or even nonexistent. This is not a case of ignorance is bliss; rather, Putnam and Campbell attribute this to the simple fact that many more Americans today than ever before have increasing personal experience of colleagues, friends, and even family members who differ from them—often radically so—in their religious faith. This aligns with the indications of the continuing growth of a religiously plural American society that Diana Eck’s Pluralism Project has been documenting for years now.

Even if there is increasing tolerance for persons of other faiths, such as Putnam and Campbell argue for, the Pew study and any glance at our national media coverage of anything religious tell us that there is still a very high level of incomprehension and ignorance about religion generally and about religious commitments and practices other than our own in particular, not to mention a frightening sector of our population that harbors an intense conviction that only their own religious tradition is valid or true. So we still desperately need instruction, at all levels of our educational system, that teaches future citizens about religion as a global and human, not a sectarian and parochial, reality. By “religion,” I mean the myriad ways in which human beings around the globe and across the centuries have dealt with the meaning of life and the values by which to order one’s personal life, one’s family life, one’s social organization, and one’s dealing with other human beings—both within and outside of one’s own particular religious, national, racial, ethnic, linguistic, or socioeconomic group. Why do we need more instruction? The answers are fairly simple but very crucial. Four come at once to mind:

  1. We need policymakers and politicians who have some grasp of the actual religious dimensions of life in other nations and cultures, so that they do not proceed ignorantly to assume (and act on) popular and mistaken generalizations about what “all Hindus,” “every Jew,” or “most Muslims” believe or do.
  2. We need persons in the professions, in trades, in homes, in every walk of life who have some grasp of the fact that their own value systems are not unique, nor uniquely valid or good, nor uniquely applicable to everyone else in the world.
  3. We need Americans of good intention in all walks of life to know enough about the varied religious communities around the corner and around the world to understand the poverty and danger of speech that refers simplistically to “jihad” or “polytheism” or “legalism” as things other people live by and for.
  4. Finally, we need Americans of all kinds to know enough to accept, and if possible to understand intelligently and to feel viscerally, that millions of other persons—be they monotheists, polytheists, humanists, atheists, or whatever—millions of others are just as human as they are and are at least as moral, as intelligent, and as faithful to their own traditions and values as they are to theirs.

Even persons of good intentions and expansive tolerance still need to know much more about the religious motivations and values of their neighbors at home and abroad. And militant Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others need to recognize that the energy spent trying to convert others to their religious points of view or confessions—much less killing the others—could be better spent proving by thoughts, words, and actions that their own religious code is authentic, productive, and a blessing rather than a curse on humankind.1 And they should do this while recognizing that persons of different religious allegiance and practice might be capable of the same validation of their particular traditions—because better understanding of others’, and better observance of one’s own, religious practice and faith promotes at a minimum three good outcomes:

  1. Increased acceptance, or at least tolerance, of the “other,” because understanding is itself a good and liberating thing;
  2. Increased ability of the world’s varied national and religious communities to work together to solve the urgent global problems we all face, such as hunger, health care, climate change, and degradation of our earthly habitat; and
  3. Increased awareness of the historical fact that coercion in religious matters has invariably proved futile and worse—it has been the source of untold violence, mayhem, and misery throughout history as we can trace it. The Qur’anic dictum “there is [to be] no compulsion in religion” needs to be heeded far more rigorously on all sides. Religious understanding must be one important path to world peace, if that is ever to be realized.

I am still optimistic enough (some would say naïve enough) to believe that studying religion is important to any liberal education, which in turn should contribute to making our world better by making our citizenry better informed and wiser, more open to a diversity of views, heritages, allegiances, faiths, and religious as well as social and political systems. I firmly believe that religious literacy,2 like other kinds of literacy, is an important part of the knowledge-and-ethics toolbox of the liberally educated woman or man. (I use the word “liberal” here in the sense of broad- or open-minded, and not to designate a political position: arguably there are, or at least used to be, liberal-minded political conservatives as well as liberal-minded political liberals.) Study of religion is not just for divinity schools and religion departments. We need the study of religion globally in every liberal arts or general education curriculum; in fact, we need it in every secondary school in America. I am convinced that we should study religion integrally within every school curriculum and every college curriculum in the twenty-first century, because knowing about and understanding religion are critical elements in dealing with a world in which, with each year, every human society and state is going to be growing more religiously and culturally pluralist in its makeup, more in contact with differing worldviews and religious values systems, and more dependent upon its peoples and those of other societies and states finding ways to live and work together for the survival of our planet, let alone our species. I believe that we model this at Harvard Divinity School, but the model needs to be more widely employed.

Working side by side on common problems, persons of vastly differing faiths and traditions and cultures discover their shared humanity.

Before I conclude, I want to move beyond the “Why?” of my title to “How” one studies religion effectively. My own vision for Harvard Divinity School was frankly not that it should be a site for explicit “interreligious dialogue” as such; my experience of such dialogue efforts has been that they too often involve either the juxtaposition of two monologues as each conversation partner tries to convince the other of his or her tradition’s superiority; or they involve a kind of uncritical refusal to recognize theological differences and historical traditions of conflict entirely, yielding a soft-headed and soft-hearted embrace of the other, claiming that “at base all religions are the same,” which is of course nonsense. Instead, I sought to sustain and to augment this particular school as an intellectual meeting ground where persons of differing religious faiths and traditions do not work on each other or each other’s faith, but instead work together on some tertium quid, some third thing, a problem or issue or topic about which both are passionate and concerned, or by which both are intrigued. In working together, shoulder-to-shoulder rather than face-to-face as it were, I believe the persons involved discover values and ideas that they share with persons otherwise religiously and often culturally very different from themselves. Working side by side on common problems, persons of vastly differing faiths and traditions and cultures discover their shared humanity by recognizing the intelligence, faithfulness, morality, and humanity of their partners, their compatriots, however different they may be. And, ultimately, that is reason enough in itself for us to study religion in our schools and institutions of higher learning. The global village is becoming a reality, and we can move into it either as persons ignorant of those neighbors different from ourselves, or we can move into it ready to work alongside very different kinds of people from every possible background toward the common good of shared local, national, and global communities.

In the end, at times it is understanding and acceptance and at other times it is, at the very least, tolerance or toleration that we are teaching by helping to develop knowledge and critical understanding. This is crucial, because we live in a world where, by and large, you are not going to change the religious demographics except at the margins. One tradition may gain ground for a century, then lose for a century, and so on. But I do not foresee a future when one religious tradition is going to conquer the world. It is simply stupid of any one group to think it is going to do that, for it is contrary to all historical experience for over five thousand years now. The fact is, we need to learn to live with other, different human beings, whatever their religious practices and beliefs are. We cannot afford to focus on persons as part of a religious monolith that we type in a certain way, rather than as human beings who happen to have a religious allegiance that we could understand better if we listened to them. We cannot afford to do that, especially in a shrinking world. I believe, frankly, that the kind of education we are trying to offer in our small way at Harvard Divinity School needs to be propagated more widely in coming days, not only in divinity schools, but also in liberal arts contexts. I certainly hope that it will be.

Perhaps this is a pious, naïve hope, but it is not an unworthy one. It is perhaps the ultimate reason at any time for studying religion, in all its forms, with all its failures, faults, and glories, over all its history, good and bad. Why study religion in the twenty-first century? Because it matters.

In closing, if we were to adapt the first part of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer” to bless our endeavor, I would hope that it might go something like this:

God, grant me the serenity to understand and accept the religious differences of which I may not approve, but which I cannot change;

Courage to try to change the things that may be changed and are worth changing;

And wisdom to know the difference.

It is that kind of serenity and wisdom that I would hope those who study religion will foster more broadly in the century ahead.


  1. Here the famous parable of the three rings from Gottfried Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise provides us with an approach to religious pluralism and human agency in religious life from which we can all profit.
  2. Religious literacy, or the lack of it, has been a topic of concern for some time: see Warren A. Nord, “Religious Literacy, Textbooks, and Religious Neutrality,” Religion and Public Education 16, no. 1 (1989): 111–21; James Bacik, “Religious Literacy: Checking the Basics,” Ministry and Liturgy, May 2001; and, most prominently in recent years, Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (Harper Collins, 2007).

William A. Graham was Dean of Harvard Divinity School from 2002 through June 2012, when he stepped down to return to research and teaching in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where he continues as the Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and now also as a University Distinguished Service Professor. He gave these remarks as the keynote address at the Divinity School’s Leadership Day, March 30, 2012.

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