Reading Humanity's Future with Religious Literacy

By: Colin Steele

September 30, 2014

On September 24, President Obama gave a remarkable address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Elaborating the guiding principles of US strategy against terrorism, the president said that "it is no exaggeration to say that humanity's future depends on us uniting against those who would divide us along the fault lines of tribe or sect, race or religion."

Treading the always-delicate line between laying out a plan to eliminate "fanatic" terrorists acting in the name of Islam and emphasizing that "the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam," President Obama continued: "It is one of the tasks of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world. [...] It is time for the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source, and that is the corruption of young minds by violent ideology."

Religion is a powerful force in human affairs; perhaps uniquely so. After decades of being written off as irrelevant in the great powers confrontation of the Cold War, religion blindsided the world in 2001. Unfortunately, the ensuing decade offered many hard-won lessons in the difficulties of responding to unconventional religious challenges with the tools of conventional statecraft. President Obama's UN speech offers the most important admission yet that religion is not only a salient and staying factor in international affairs, but that religion—and especially its discontents—can threaten the very fabric of the global civil society that has been painstakingly stitched together since 1945.

Of course, religion is not simply the scourge of modernity. Today's newspapers offer numerous examples of religious leaders and faith-based actors working tremendous good in society. And religion is not just some set of ideals "over there;" it has deeply informed debate within the United States about health care, federal budgeting, and jurisprudence, to name just a few topics.

Reading the president's speech, watching Pope Francis in action, and wrestling with the threats posed to civil society by fanatics acting in the name of religion, I am more and more convinced of the importance of building "religious literacy." This was one of the key concepts of my Religion, Ethics, and World Affairs (REWA) certificate class on religious peacebuilding, and it is used to describe the (learned) ability to not only know something about the world's religions, but to be able to use that knowledge to skillfully and constructively engage religiously-motivated actors to work together for peace.

This requires something much more than basic textual literacy and the ability to distinguish on paper between Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis and Shi'a, Hindus and Jains. It is really a question of cultural familiarity and framing: rather than knowing which book my neighbor reads, knowing what it means to him or her and how we might both come to agreement while still acknowledging our differences.

Reflecting on the themes of religion, ethics, and world affairs, I have come to think of ethics as the bridge that links not only the disparate fields of religion and world affairs but also those who choose to study them. As students and scholars, we each bear our own interests and religious commitments, but REWA insists that we make a shared commitment to ethical engagement with each other that affirms but supersedes our individual claims. Most importantly, it emphasizes the need for religiously literate people to commit themselves to the study and practice of world affairs on behalf of global civil society.

Ultimately, REWA provides critical training and practice in analyzing religious claims, tactfully refuting those that seek to divide or degrade civil society, and collaboratively building alternative narratives. Our studies affirm that we can simultaneously hold deep commitments to "devout faith and a modern, multicultural world"—a task upon which, in the president's words, "it is no exaggeration to say that humanity's future depends."

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Reading Humanity's Future with Religious Literacy