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LETTER: Rutgers is already making steps to be religiously literate

As a professor of religion, I am, of course, thrilled at the idea of a religious literacy course being required for all Rutgers students. It is a stunningly important topic, and we in the department would love to expand students’ exposure to our field. I think, though, there is a better (and more immediately accessible) way to accomplish the goal of increased understanding across religious difference: a university-wide diversity requirement.

The addition of a diversity requirement to the core curriculum is already under discussion in the School of Arts and Sciences and elsewhere, and the student-run Cultural Competence Coalition is working diligently and effectively to make this a reality. Religion is not a reality that floats free from culture. It is something practiced and dealt with by humans in the human realm. Any decent exploration of cultural difference (in the Cultural Competence Coalition’s phrasing, any course that is “comprehensive and comparative” in its exploration of diversity) will include beliefs, practices, texts, emotions, institutions and artifacts that would be termed “religious,” even if religion is not singled out as a separate category of inquiry.

Indeed, focusing on religion as an entity separate from human culture is not only historically inaccurate and factually misleading, it also replicates polemics against particular religions and religion in general — that religion is the cause of wars, of violence, of ignorance, of inequality. Because religion is just one component of culture, influencing and influenced by politics, discourse and social structures, this can never be true. If we see religion as separate and discrete, it becomes a thing we can blame, excise and fault people for opting into. Seeing religion in this way contributes to the dehumanization of cultural “others” and has, in the very recent past, fueled war and destruction — most notably the war in Iraq.

In the meantime, while we are working towards this diversity requirement, students should be more vocal about what they already learn in humanities and social science classes. Every time we chip away at apparent simplicity, in any context, we lay the groundwork for understanding global diversity. Whenever we complicate any of our own narratives, we introduce principles of critical discernment and reflection that will be necessary to ensure that when we learn about different cultures and practices, we will not oversimplify them. Frequently when we find that something is more complicated than we initially thought, we quiet down, knowing that we do not know the whole story and that we have no soundbite with which to replace the dominant narrative. But complexity is the soundbite. We must speak up!

Diane Fruchtman is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion. 

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