The Honest Way to Teach Comparative Religion

An Open Letter from Billy Rojas to the Harvard Divinity Bulletin


A letter by Leo Shatin which appears in the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of HDB deserves serious comment. It is all well and good to teach about religion, following the template of Comparative Religion or similar programs, and do so starting at the public school level. As a retired teacher of history and Comparative Religion myself I can hardly argue with that premise.

This is crucial in a pluralistic democracy which is home to hundreds of millions of people who identify with a multitude of faith traditions. And it is crucial for anyone who intends to have dealings with people who live in other nations –India, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Japan, Brazil, Russia & etc– which do not share many of the assumptions and values that are foundational to American culture. It is a really good idea to promote the kind of education which allows US citizens to get along with each other and to understand the outlooks of the peoples of the Earth.

Cyrus the Great understood exactly this principle in the 6th century BC, which is what his famous Cylinder advocating religious tolerance throughout the polyglot Persian Empire was all about. And we can find similar sentiments expressed in such diverse sources as Malachi 1: 11 in the Bible, the Lotus Sutra, and Ludlul Bel Nimeqi, “I will praise the Lord of Wisdom,” of ancient Mesopotamia.

All of this said, however, Shatin made a vital point. If we are to teach religion truthfully shouldn’t we , as he put it, “incorporate historical instances and examples of misuses of religion” ? The reasons should be so obvious that further elaboration is not necessary. But there is an implication within this excellent suggestion that must be spelled out so that its importance is not lost.
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