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Why religious illiteracy is killing us

In my forthcoming new book, I devote the final chapter to suggesting ways to work against religious extremism. I wish now I could have included a link to this Religion News Service column on that subject.

World-religionsIt starts by bemoaning the recent decision of the University of Vermont to disband its religious studies department and then makes the case for why religious literacy is so important to our nation and world.

The author, a Sikh teacher named Simran Jeet Singh, writes this: "The real shock of UVM’s announcement is its timing: devaluing of religion after an election cycle in which the president’s spiritual adviser called for African angels to intervene on election results, when our president-elect ran on restoring the 'soul of our nation,' when the Supreme Court is busy reappraising the establishment clause and the outgoing secretary of state has sought to redefine religious freedom.

"Even more troubling is that this is not an isolated incident; the University of Vermont’s proposal comports with a larger pattern of cutting religion programs in academic institutions."

Understand that religious studies departments at colleges and universities are not in the business of converting students to this or that religion. Rather, their goal is to help students become religiously literate in a religiously pluralistic society. Another way to put it is that they don't teach religion but, rather, teach about religion.

Cover-LLEThis kind of interfaith understanding has grown increasingly vital for Americans, given the changing religious landscape of this country. It's a subject I've been writing about for decades, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in which the son of one of my sisters died as a passenger on the first hijacked plane to crash into the World Trade Center. My new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, tells our family story but also explores how and why people get seduced by extremist ideas that can lead to violence.

As the author of the RNS column to which I linked you above notes, "Teaching about religion is not just about understanding politics. It’s also about creating cultural literacy, ensuring that our young people are familiar with the diverse people they meet on the street."

Exactly. And it goes far beyond knowing that Joan of Arc wasn't Noah's wife. It has to do with learning how to live in peace and harmony with people who have chosen a different spiritual path than yours. (The book to read, by the way, is Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't, by Stephen Prothero.)

I hope you'll look into what colleges and universities near you are doing about having a quality religious studies department and encourage them. As Singh writes, "people knowing who I am and having an appreciation for my religious heritage can mean the difference between life and death."

P.S.: I just learned that the Lilly Endowment has just announced that it is giving grants totaling $43 million to American museums and cultural institutions to tell accurate stories about the role of religion in the U.S. and around the world -- including a grant to the National World War I Museum here in Kansas City. Details are here.

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The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning New York state's rules for religious gatherings in this time of Covid was narrowly drawn, temporary and pretty reasonable. But as this USA Today opinion column correctly argues, it was not surprising that it led almost immediately to a sharp political division about it. As the column notes, "This partisan response to the court ruling was predictable, particularly because the case was about religious freedom. In recent years, religious freedom has been consumed by tribal warfare." This is what Trumpism has done to us. It has increased our divisions and often done away with critical thinking just when we need it most. How sad for us.

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Speaking of religious literacy, as I was above, I want to recommend to you this book: Fethullah Gülen, A Life of Hizmet: Why a Muslim Scholar in Pennsylvania Matters to the World, by Jon Pahl, a Protestant pastor. I recently heard Pahl on a webinar, sponsored by the Dialogue Institute of Kansas City, and asked him to share his book with me so I could tell you about it. I'm glad I did. It has helped me understand the Muslim cleric behind the institute and the broader movement, based in Turkey, named Hizmet, which means service. Gülen, now an elderly man, is in exile in the U.S., having been falsely accused by Turkey's autocratic president of being behind the failed 2016 coup there. (In late 2017 I wrote this Flatland column about how that coup attempt led to tremendous trauma for many Turkish citizens, including some in the Kansas City area.) Pahl's book tells of a man devoted to service to humankind, devoted to interfaith dialogue and devoted to an Islam that wants to live in peace with the rest of the world. As Pahl writes, "Gülen's effort to foster a generation of Muslims committed to their faith and yet willing to dialogue with anyone has been a fascinating drama that is still very much ongoing around the globe." And he adds this: ". . .perhaps the chief significance of Fethullah Gülen's life has been to promote among pious and devout Muslims the embrace of scientific and technical mastery." In short, he has helped Muslims find their way in this high-tech world, contributing to its advances while continuing to be people of faith. Anyone who ever has been to one of the Dialogue Institute's annual friendship dinners in Kansas City or elsewhere would do well to give this book a read to help them understand Gülen's commitment to spiritual and scientific literacy as well as a nonviolent Islam.


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