An interview with Mellissa Riddle on the importance of religious literacy.
Today one-fifth of all Americans are religiously unaffiliated —higher than at any time in recent U.S. history. According to Pew Research, 46 million people answered “none” to their religious affiliation (2012). NPR’s David Greene reveals that a third of young Americans, under 30, say they don’t belong to any religion. In a Washington, D.C. round-table, Greene discussed religious affiliation with six people struggling with the role of religion in their lives. The consensus among these people is that they find the context of organized religion to be contradictory, which does not live up to scrutiny. For example, Melissa Adelman, a 30 year old raised Catholic could not reconcile many of the core beliefs such as the rejection of homosexuality, or the hypocrisy of the Catholic priests. Miriam Nissly, 29, was raised Jewish and although she has an “agnostic bent,” she enjoys synagogue for its cultural aspect and spirituality. What Nissly identifies within her faith tradition, is an overarching element of religion that pervades society regardless of ones proclaimed affiliation. At Harvard University’s Divinity School, professor Diane Moore directs the Religious Literacy Project (RLP), a program dedicated to promoting and understanding religion and its complex roles in contemporary contexts.
Mellissa Riddle, a student of International Relations at Harvard University, speaks with us regarding the cultural significance of religion and why religious literacy is essential to us all. Religions have functioned throughout human history to inspire and justify the full range of agency from the heinous to the heroic (2017). Understanding the complexity of religious influence throughout history, in turn, helps us to understand human endeavors. The consequences of religious illiteracy stimulate conflicts while hindering cooperation.
Mellissa Riddle asks us to consider the feeling of solidarity when seated in a football stadium, sporting our team jersey, enveloped in the camaraderie of our like-minded neighbors. Across the arena the opposing team chanting their victory rants. It is this division between teams, between us and ‘the other’ that dissolves shortly after a match as all citizens of the same society pile out of the stadiums. How is this relative to religious identity? Well, they are both polarizing. The difference is that while the football match may be a brief departure from our fellow human — the context of ‘the other’ due to religious illiteracy is a division that runs deepest of human disparities.
It is no surprise that without much effort we can relate to a person of our own community, and ever more to the neighbor rooting for our same team. However, upon the topic of religion, we may without reverence establish opinions and disregard religion or groups of people. Religious illiteracy is what allows those bent on heinous acts to leverage our ignorance in scheme to validate their deeds. But it is this same illiteracy that blinds us from also perceiving the positive attributes of religious faith traditions.
Indeed, there is a broad history of religious propaganda from “heinous to heroic,” but just as we do not judge the personal character of our football rivals, we ought not to judge a person based on their presumed religious affiliation. It comes with religious literacy, that we learn the complexities of humanity that lie within our faith traditions, for better or for worse.
Mellissa Riddle is an advocate of the Religious Literacy Project. To learn more about RLP and concentrations of study on the traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, visit https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/harvardx-course.