A Look Back

Why Study Religion?

William A. Graham, 2008. Photo by Justin Knight

By William A. Graham

Even if there is increasing tolerance for persons of other faiths . . . 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. . . . Why do we need more instruction? The answers are fairly simple but very crucial. Four come at once to mind:

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.

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.

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.

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.

Read the full version of “Why Study Religion in the Twenty-first Century?” in the Summer/Autumn 2012 (vol. 40, nos. 3 & 4) issue of the Bulletin.

William A. Graham was Dean of HDS from 2002 to 2012. He has been a member of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences since 1973 and a member of the Faculty of Divinity since 2002. This is excerpted from his keynote address at the Divinity School’s Leadership Day on March 30, 2012.

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