Even as our society becomes increasingly secular, the tragedies of religious conflict seem more prevalent than ever. At a time when Americans are increasingly identifying as atheists, some argue that the secularization of society negates the need to for us to be educated in world religions. However, it is indisputable that religion still plays and will continue to play a fundamental role in global affairs and business, and indeed in our own multicultural society. Even as an atheist, I believe it’s crucial that we as students are educated in global religions in order to promote tolerance, foster leadership skills, and to allow us to flourish in a globalized world. Next time you’re looking for an elective, take world religions.
In the midst of rising anger at Muslims throughout the United States and Western Europe, there is an urgent need for religious tolerance. In Europe, nationalist parties running on platforms of anti-Muslim immigration policies have gained prominence in Germany, Italy, France, and Greece. In the United States, Donald Trump is calling for “Muslim registries” as a national security measure. Much of this anger is the product of ignorance of the intricacies of the world’s second-most practiced religion, rather than well-supported arguments made on the basis of a nuanced knowledge of Islam. For example, it is often claimed that because the Koran contains violent passages, the Muslim religion is inherently violent. However, it is difficult to find a major world religion that has no history of scripturally condoned violence. The Crusades offer the most striking example of such conflict, yet, outside of atheist circles, we don’t often criticize the “inherent violence” of Christianity. Thus, having a better-developed view of religions would help us to make these comparisons and see the religions of others relative to the religions, or lack thereof, of ourselves. This would limit much of the bigotry we are bearing witness to today, and would help to undermine the popularity of public policy designed at odds with religious freedom. In order to have true freedom of religion, we first need an understanding of religion.
Developing a more widespread tolerance for others would have profound effects on the cohesiveness of our own society. The United States is one of the most multicultural societies the world has seen, and as a result, the US is one of the most multi-religious societies in the world. Currently, there are 313 known practiced religions in the United States. We must ask ourselves whether we want 313 separate societies or one united society. Developing a truly integrated nation depends on promoting genuine social exchange between religious groups, and without knowledge of religion, this is impossible. How can we relate to those we don’t understand? Without such understanding, it is impossible to develop the social cohesion and civic culture needed for America to flourish as the United States.
In addition to local implications, there are truly global benefits to better understanding religion. The secularization of our western society has not been mirrored around the world. Throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and our neighboring Central and South America, religion continues to play a fundamental role in most people's lives, in some cases increasingly so. Therefore, it is a mistake to assume that the secularization of America is occurring throughout the world.
Today, we have less regard for arbitrary national borders than ever before. The workplace is now global with employees traveling around the world and coordinating with colleagues from multiple countries and of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. For the devout, religion plays a fundamental role in their lives. Religion is often the guiding principle of billions of peoples’ life decisions and forms their worldview. So, we should have at least an elementary understanding of their religion if we are to work with them respectfully and effectively in our increasingly borderless world. Whether or not you support organized religion, an understanding of the major religions is beneficial from a purely pragmatic perspective.
Top universities should give students the skills they need to be global leaders, and around the world, religion continues to play a major role in geopolitical affairs and events. The current situation in Iraq and Syria is inextricably linked to religion, not to mention countless other examples of religious conflict. It would well be argued that religion has been the primary cause of violent conflict throughout history. Without understanding the theological fundamentals of religion, it is impossible to develop a coherent policy for dealing with religious conflict. This has profound implications for any student hoping to work in government and non-government organizations alike. Whether working for the State Department or the Red Cross, we need to understand the religions driving global conflicts and events.
You might think that a single world religions course will not provide you with the extensive knowledge and understanding required to comprehensively understand complex religious phenomena. You’re correct. However, the difference between no knowledge and some knowledge is enormous and acts as a building block. Also, making a decision doesn’t often require expert knowledge on a subject so much as the ability to “speak the language”, and use even an elementary understanding as the base on which we can build and learn more about a subject. No CEO is an expert on all areas of business, just as no President is an expert on all areas of policy. Rather, they rely on experts. However, to rely on experts, you have to be able to speak their language.
World religion courses equip us with the skills we need to be exemplary citizens, business people, and leaders in our modern, increasingly borderless, and still very religious world. Knowledge of religion promotes social cohesion at home whilst ensuring that we, as students, can operate effectively abroad. While a single course in world religion will not teach us everything we need to know about a religious issue, it will give us the skills necessary, a mental framework, for making sense of the world around us, and that is what a tertiary education is supposed to do.