Ground Rules for Religions of the World (640:024)


Kenneth Atkinson

This course introduces you to the major religions of the world in order to help you understand the richness and diversity of contemporary religious practices. Despite your major, it is essential for you to gain a basic appreciation of world religion. If anyone doubts the importance of this class, one should consider that our past century has been filled with violence. Much of this conflict has involved religion. From war-torn Bosnia to our current problems in the Middle East, religion continues to dominate contemporary headlines. Because our world is becoming increasingly smaller, you will find yourself exposed to people who practice religions that are foreign to you. It is, therefore, important that you become familiar with how other people live and what they consider important. By studying world religions, you will learn to appreciate the richness and diversity of religious life throughout the world today and, by so doing, be in a better position to avoid religious and cultural misunderstandings.

Religion is something which every society and culture practices. By studying a society's religion, we can learn what that particular society considers important. Most religions we will explore in this class are practiced by ethnic groups and cultures different from those in which you have been raised. In this course, we will ask questions about how each religion originally interpreted their sacred texts, and how each religion has been forced to change their interpretations and practices to relate their faith to new cultural and historical circumstances. In other words, this class will begin with a historical examination of how each religious text came to be, and how it shaped the development of a particular religious tradition. After reading these primary texts, we will explore how contemporary societies and cultures which practice that particular religion interpret the sacred texts they hold in common.

The only way to understand other religions and cultures is to immerse oneself in their history and literature. A textbook cannot accomplish this goal, for a textbook represents one opinion about each of the world's religions. Most textbooks, including the one assigned for this course, are written by western writers, who frequently impose their cultural biases upon non western religions. In this class we will not learn simply what other people have to say about the world's religions, but we will actively read together the classic religious texts of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The textbook will provide a basic knowledge about the historical development of each religion. The religious texts will allow us to experience in depth the sacred dimensions of myth, ritual, and symbolism. Spend most of your time reading the primary texts, for this is the only way that you will truly learn about world religions.

The advantage of the academic study of religion is that it permits us to dialogue with one another, despite our different religious and cultural backgrounds. When you read these religious works, many will appear foreign and will be difficult to understand. This is the intent of the class, for by reading these primary texts you will experience other religions first-hand. The eastern religions we will examine, for example, think in ways often foreign to western society. Once you study eastern religions, you will gain a sense of how difficult it is to for eastern and western cultures to understand one another today. This knowledge will prove helpful because you will inevitably encounter people from other cultures throughout your life. 

This class is intended to open a dialogue between different religions. True dialogue, however, cannot occur unless you are prepared to learn from others. This cannot be accomplished unless you are willing to risk the possibility that another person's, or religion's, position on some matter may prove so persuasive that, if you were to act with integrity, you would have to change your mind. Use this class to explore new ways of thinking so that you may make unexpected connections between what you already know, and what you do not know.

Because this class focuses upon dialogue as a means to understood world religion, feel free to express your thoughts about the texts we will read. You must, however, also be prepared to listen to the opinions of others in a considerate and thoughtful manner. You may disagree with the instructor, textbook, or other students, but it is important in an academic environment that you provide the reason for both your agreement and your disagreement. As a general guide, remember that ideas and theories can always be criticized, but not the person presenting them. Always be polite and encourage other class members by listening to their ideas and responding in a courteous manner, whether or not you agree with the thoughts presented.