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For those who don't know, something very important is happening within the hallowed halls of J. Walter Wilson on Tuesday nights. After everyone else has finished classes for the day, a group of students congregates to participate in a project dedicated to exploring and pursuing the concept of religious literacy.

Nothing like this has ever happened at the University before, and frankly, the program deserves solid coverage by The Herald. Perhaps a hypothetical Herald article will cover more of the particulars of the project, but I would like to speak about its crucial importance and the principles to which it speaks.

In the interest of coming clean about my own background, I was raised Unitarian Universalist and continue to identify that way. My faith has no set creed or dogma but finds commonality around a set of values and principles — for example, respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person or encouraging a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. As I conceive of it, my religion is about recognizing and affirming those things that are bigger than me in whatever way I see fit.

I know a lot of atheists here, and I have great respect for them. By some definitions, I count as one of them. I have heard as many arguments about the empirical nonsense of God as I have heard about the continued conflict that religion has caused. For many people, religion — religious institutions, religious people, religious dogma — has no tangible benefit. In fact, it has a negative effect. Perhaps we should just wash our hands of it completely and be done.

Well, no. Let's back up. The conflict and devastation produced in the world as a result of religious institutions and beliefs is too complicated to simply blame on this abstract and complex phenomenon of "religion." Christianity in its essence is a faith based on love, and Islam in many ways on devotion and mercy. These are truly beautiful basic values.

The evils that emerge from Christianity and Islam — to name only two — stem from the drives for power, for wealth and for domination — drives that, unfortunately, I think are inherent in human nature rather than in religion. Religion gets appropriated as the bearer of these evils because it is so personally powerful — what better way to command a group of people than to convince them based on the closest, most dear part of their hearts?

Our own beliefs as human beings sometimes seem like the only things we really own when everything else is lost. As such, people can be easily coerced or manipulated based on belief. Humans are subject to unfortunate, even devastating, tendencies. I hope that rather than blaming the vehicle of these tendencies, we might actually work to control them.

One of the important opportunities in the Religious Literacy Project is that of an unencumbered glimpse into the deeply religious. Sessions about a particular faith include both a person of that faith — most often a Chaplain or other affiliate endorsed by the Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life — and an academic specializing in the study of that faith. I am often most struck by the practitioner. I am struck, more specifically, at the beauty and wisdom that exude from their explanations of their religious traditions.

Our world's religions all hold truth. They all have wisdom to offer. It may be that you think some of the specifics of their theologies are, frankly, ridiculous. That's fine. But the lessons, big questions and challenges that come from those theologies can be valuable to us all.

That's mostly the Unitarian in me speaking. Nevertheless, the literacy project helps us to see the commonalities between people of faith while also celebrating their differences. It helps us to see how religious people tackle the same questions, insecurities and fears as nonreligious people — they just have a framework, a particular lens in which they view those issues.

I'll end on a purely practical note. We tend to have this conception, as students in pursuit of intellectuality and academia, that religions might be lined up on some fold-up tables at the Activities Fair, ready for us to choose or reject at our own discretion. Frankly, while choice can play an important role in asserting our agency as human beings, for many people, religion is less a choice than a simple fact of life. As such, it is a part of our world that we must challenge ourselves to understand if we are to make any progress towards tolerance.

Even if you've disagreed or found issue with everything I've said in this article thus far, the fact remains that billions of people in this world are deeply religious in one form or another. These people stand by their faiths and deserve respect. Most of all, I want to see more people at Brown and beyond approach religion and religious people with an open mind and a readiness to listen and learn. And the abundant presence of those qualities is what is remarkable about what happens in J. Walter Wilson on Tuesday nights.

Chelsea Waite '11 likes hearing about your beliefs.



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