Brown Spirit: Brown Religious Literacy Project

Brown Religious LiteracyWelcome to the conversation about religion and spirituality at Brown! Religion is a key facet of the identity of many students on campus. Supporting a vast array of religious groups and promoting various inter-faith activities, Brown offers plenty of opportunities to both nurture your own faith and to understand the faith of others.  Come join Mitch Akutsu in his column Brown Spirit to be immersed in the soul of Brown.

Hi all! This week I’m going to be talking about the Brown Religious Literacy project. It’s a semester long, not-for-credit course that is meant to deepen understanding of world religions through both academic study and discussion of religious practices. I’m on board for this semester so I would like to tell you a little bit about it.

This is the fourth year the course has been offered. It was started by Ben Marcus, who graduated last year,  in the spring of 2011 to bring together different people of different academic backgrounds to discuss the importance of religion in our society. Since then it has grown to be a self-sufficient course led by undergrad students. It’s even partnered with a sister program at Cambridge University all the way in the UK. Hopefully, we’ll be able to skype them by the end of the semester!

The course meets once a week for 13 weeks, ending in a final project. There are far more religions than can be adequately discussed so the course focuses on five: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. As a final project for the course, each student will present on a religion not covered by the course, like Mormonism, Jainism, or Shintoism. We spend two weeks on each of the five religions. The first week we listen to a dialogue between a practitioner and academic of the faith. The second week we come together to discuss both the dialogue and the weekly assigned readings.

We just started last week. The first meeting was more of an orientation. Janet Copper Nelson, the University Chaplain, in all of her years of studying and practicing religion, was still hesitant to give us an exact definition for religious literacy. She shared a personal experience about how religious misunderstanding can lead to fear and hatred that can be so easily expelled with a little dialogue. Religious literacy in the context of this course means understanding the important terminology and overarching principles of each religion, such as the Five Pillars of Islam and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. However, it also means understanding that each religion is a lived experience consisting of community and practice. Complete understanding of another individual’s religious experience is impossible, but adequately informed individuals can go a long way in bringing about understanding between religions. By the end of the course, participants will have the skills to increase their religious literacy on their own, and will be able to pass on some of what they learned to others.

When I first heard that about the Religious Literacy Project I got super excited. I also wondered who at Brown would be participating in it. The group we have this year is extremely diverse. There are both science and humanities concentrators, upper and lower classmen, and religious and non-religious students. Where else will I find a space to discuss such important and sensitive topics in such a rigorous way? I’m really excited for the course and just as excited to share my experience with it as the semester progresses!

Thanks for reading! Am I not covering something relevant that you want to hear about in my posts? Have any questions at all about religion, spiritual life, or Brown in general? Feel free to shoot me an email at with any of your questions or comments!


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