Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know

Course No. 6891
Professor Mark Berkson, Ph.D.
Hamline University
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Course No. 6891
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Course Overview

When does the Jewish Sabbath begin? Who are Vishnu and Shiva? What are Buddhism's Four Noble Truths? What are the Five Pillars of Islam? These questions are more than an academic exercise. Religious belief has been innate to humans everywhere and in every age, from the time of the Neanderthals to the 21st century. It's also one of the strongest motivators of human behavior and has a profound impact on all aspects of our culture—our spiritual beliefs, our rituals, our politics, and the very foundations of our democracy.

Unfortunately, the majority of Americans fail basic tests about religion, including their own faith, according to polls conducted by Gallup and the Pew Research Forum. This is troublesome, because religious literacy is about so much more than naming deities or knowing the stories of ancient history. A basic understanding of religion is crucial for today's educated citizen for several reasons:

  • For many of us, religion is important for examining and understanding ourselves.
  • Religion and the interactions between different faiths play a critical role
    in many of today's current events.
  • The world is increasingly diverse and interconnected, and most of us have close friends, relatives, and neighbors of different faiths.

For many of us, religion is a powerful cultural identifier and impacts our everyday expression of ourselves. Religious literacy—the knowledge of basic teachings, symbols, practices, founders, institutions, and values of the world's religious traditions—can shed new light on the world around us and knock down the boundaries between us, making us better neighbors and better citizens.

Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know is your chance to experience the breadth and depth of the world's religions from all angles—historical, theological, and cultural. Over the course of 24 engaging lectures, award-winning Professor Mark Berkson of Hamline University takes you on a tour of our world and its religious cultures. From India to East Asia to the Middle East to the United States, your journey will introduce you to the beliefs, symbols, and practices of other traditions, and it will provide you with new insights into your own.

Whereas many courses are a survey of the world's major religions, this course goes a step further to ground you in the cultures surrounding both larger and smaller traditions, giving you a new understanding of how religion informs our everyday lives, from art and music to laws and civic engagement. Furthermore, by studying these cultures and traditions, you'll find new ways to attain greater self-understanding. The examined life is uniquely human, and studying other traditions will offer you new approaches to questions such as, Where do we come from? What is God? What happens when we die?

Experience the Breadth and Depth of the World's Religions

Many stories in the news today, whether set in the Middle East or your own home town, have a religious dimension. This course will provide the context for current events by examining the breadth of the world's religions. You'll start by asking some basic questions: What is religion? And why does it matter? Then you'll tour the world, exploring each religion systematically and comparatively.

You'll learn about such fascinating topics as

  • the Hindu pantheon of deities, including Vishnu and his avatars;
  • Siddhartha Gautama's journey to spiritual enlightenment;
  • the Five Pillars of Islam;
  • the ideal society according to Confucius;
  • the basic distinctions between different denominations of Christianity;
  • the variety of Jewish holidays; and
  • smaller, but influential, religious traditions, including Jainism, Sikhism, and the Baha'i faith.

By studying the breadth of religion, you'll come to discover certain features that are common to many religions—concepts of divinity, scripture, rituals, and explanations of good and evil. You'll learn that not every religion shares every characteristic, but you'll be intrigued to discover the sometimes surprising commonalities that exist among these traditions.

You'll enjoy learning about very real differences among religions—and how these differences are connected to the larger cultural landscape. For instance, you'll explore the fascinating interplay between the Confucian focus on cooperation and capitalism's focus on competition. You'll also learn about the ancient roots of various faiths (such as the Vedic account of the world's creation and the origins of the Hindu social hierarchy) and new developments in certain traditions (such as hybrid religious identities like Zen-Christians and Buddhist-Jews).

Finally, your journey will explore religion in the world today. You'll examine the relationship between religion and law in the United States, specifically the establishment and free exercise clauses in the Constitution. And since religion is a moving target, always in flux, Professor Berkson takes time to consider current demographic trends, such as the tendency for Americans to identify as "spiritual" but not "religious," along with the rise of non-denominational Christians. The course concludes by considering the relationship between religion and violence—and how religion can be both the cause and the cure.

The Ideal Cultural Guide

Professor Berkson approaches each religion from an "imaginative insider's perspective." What does the world look like from the perspective of someone within each tradition? What does this person value and care about? What are the everyday scriptures, rituals, traditions, and holidays like?

Through this voyage, Professor Berkson is the ideal cultural guide. He has traveled widely, lived in China, and has participated in the rituals of many religious traditions. He says up front that he wants the course to be a catalyst for further study, and his firsthand experience takes you deeply inside each religion so you can experience it like one of its members. You'll learn, for instance, what to expect if you visit a Buddhist temple or are invited into the home of a Muslim.

Additionally, he quotes liberally from the world's sacred texts, offering you a true flavor of what each religion has to offer. You'll appreciate the beautiful poetry of the Muslim call to prayer or the chant of the Hare Krishnas. His approach is one of humility, one that values "beginner's mind,"which allows you to experience each religion with openness and provides you with an appreciative look at other traditions and a fresh look at your own.

When you complete your journey, you'll have received a wonderful gift: a new appreciation for the world you live in. Religion is a vibrant, living part of your world today, and with this course, you'll take the first steps toward greater cultural understanding—and greater self-understanding.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Religion—Its Meaning and Importance
    Start by reexamining basic questions: Why does religion matter? What makes a religion? As you explore the answers, you’ll embark on a journey toward a better understanding of the world, its histories, and its cultures, as well as a better understanding of yourself and what it means to be a good citizen in a diverse global community. x
  • 2
    Facets of Religion—Divinity and Devotion
    God. Divinity. Ultimate Reality. Start your journey by looking at how different religious traditions approach the concept of “God.” In addition to exploring the concepts of divinity, you’ll also look at key components of religious devotion: scripture, ritual, ideas about good and evil, and doctrines of salvation. x
  • 3
    Hinduism—Foundational Texts and Teachings
    Explore the history of what some scholars consider the oldest living religion. You’ll begin with the Indus River Valley civilization, and then you’ll learn key elements of the Aryan and Vedic traditions, including scriptures, the pantheon of deities, and the social caste system. Then turn to the soul—Atman—and the concept of rebirth. x
  • 4
    Hindu Gods and Devotional Practices
    In this lecture, uncover new insights into the nature of divinity by studying the variety of fascinating Hindu deities, including Vishnu and his avatars, the many forms of Shiva, and forms of the goddess Devi. You’ll also look at ways Hindus worship, from chanting in temples to festivals such as Diwali. x
  • 5
    Gita to Gandhi—Yogas and Modern Hinduism
    Examine Hinduism’s many paths to spiritual liberation, from the teachings in the Bhagavad Gita to the many types of yoga. Your study of Hinduism concludes with a survey of its role in the world today: Hindu nationalism, modern democracy of India, and the influx of Hindus to the United States. x
  • 6
    Waking Up—The Buddha and His Teachings
    The life of Siddhartha Gautama—the Buddha himself—is a fascinating journey from a wealthy and sheltered upbringing to an understanding of Samsara, the cycle of rebirth and perpetual discontent. After meditating beneath the bodhi tree, he woke up with Buddhism’s key to liberation: the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. x
  • 7
    Vehicles to Nirvana—The Schools of Buddhism
    Take a look at the three major schools of the Buddhist world: Theravada Buddhism, with its five precepts of ethical behavior; Mahayana Buddhism, the “great vehicle” that created new paths to Nirvana for its practitioners; and Vajrayana—including Tibetan—Buddhism. Also, explore the history of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. x
  • 8
    Chinese Religion and Cosmology
    Travel east to China to survey the elements of Chinese cosmology that have shaped Chinese thought for millennia: the forces of yin and yang, and the metaphysical notions of qi and feng shui. You’ll see that the goal of Chinese cosmology is to restore harmony to the world, and the focus is on family, nature, and the home. x
  • 9
    Confucianism—Rituals and Relationships
    Professor Berkson charts the life of Confucius, whose impact on East Asian thought is impossible to overstate. Born in the 6th century B.C.E. during a time of chaos in China, Confucius’s religious tenets emphasized learning, self-cultivation, and human relationships in this world—rather than the supernatural, revelation, or life after death. x
  • 10
    Daoism—Harmony, Nature, and the Way
    Learn about China’s second major religion through the Dao De Jing, a collection of sayings that advocate a life of simplicity and contentment. Consider how Daoism’s process of unlearning complements Confucianism’s emphasis on learning, and see how to practice effortless action—or wu wei. x
  • 11
    Kami and Spirits—Shinto and Shamanism
    Professor Berkson takes you to Japan and the tradition of Shinto. Here you’ll see how the Kami (gods/spirits) relate to everyday life in Japan, including agriculture and the role of the emperor. You’ll then explore Shamanism, especially the characteristics of the Korean and Hmong traditions. x
  • 12
    East Asian Buddhism—Zen and Pure Land
    Conclude your journey through the Asian traditions with a study of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism. Chinese Buddhism gave rise to the “laughing Buddha,” which affirms the joys of the world. Japanese Zen, with its emphasis on “just sitting” and its famous koans, has drawn practitioners from other traditions and given rise to Zen-Christians. x
  • 13
    Judaism—God, Torah, and Covenant
    Your voyage through the Western traditions begins with the world’s oldest monotheistic religion: Judaism. Explore the nature of the Jewish people, who have both a religious and an ethnic identity. At the heart of Judaism is the Torah, and you’ll examine its stories, its laws, and the major figures who shaped the religion. x
  • 14
    Varieties of Jewish Thought and Practice
    Witness the history of the Jewish people, from the first destruction of the temple 3,000 years ago to the aftermath of the Holocaust. You’ll study the varieties of Jewish culture in diaspora, from the tenets of Orthodox Judaism and Hasidism to the views of Conservative and Reform Jews. x
  • 15
    Living a Jewish Life
    This lecture explores the rhythms that shape Jewish life: the weekly Sabbath and annual Jewish holy days, including Yom Kippur, Passover, Chanukah, and Purim. You’ll also learn about specific customs and rituals of Judaism, such as kosher food, what happens at a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, and the wedding ceremony. x
  • 16
    The Life and Commemoration of Jesus
    Return to the ancient world and uncover the life of Jesus. The writings of the New Testament show a man who preached love, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek. You’ll witness the major events of his life, from his birth and baptism to the story of the Passion, and see how these events are linked to major Christian holidays. x
  • 17
    Catholic and Orthodox Christianity
    How did Christianity flourish in its early years? Discover the process that led from Paul’s letters in the 1st century to Constantine’s conversion in the 4th century and the eventual formation of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Then look at the theology and sacraments of Catholicism. x
  • 18
    Protestantism and Christianity Today
    Encounter the Protestant Reformation and its central tenets—justification through faith, a priesthood of all believers, and a focus on the Bible. You’ll also look at the major denominations that developed, such as Lutheranism and Methodism. Then consider various nondenominational movements in today’s world: evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and liberal Christianity. x
  • 19
    Muhammad, Qur’an, and Islamic Civilization
    Islam was founded in the 7th century by Muhammad, who received the revelation of the Qur’an. In this lecture, discover the depth and diversity of this major world religion. Along the way, hear the poetic qualities of the scripture, learn about the customs of Islam, and explore its connection to Judaism and Christianity. x
  • 20
    Unity in Islam—The Five Pillars
    Despite its diversity, Islam is unified by the Five Pillars. Examine each in detail and witness the beliefs and rituals of Muslims: the nature of God, the ritual of prayer, the importance of giving alms, the fast during Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Then uncover the truth about jihad and Islamic law. x
  • 21
    Forms of Islam—Diversity among Muslims
    Learn the history of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, which began with the question of who would succeed Muhammad after his death. Follow the historical narrative through the 18th and 19th centuries, when Muslims were forced to grapple with Western values, then finish with an analysis of Islam in the world today, from the Middle East to America. x
  • 22
    Jains, Sikhs, and Baha’is
    This lecture takes you beyond the most widely practiced religions and shows you the self-discipline and renunciation of the Jains, who are committed to non-harming; the highly influential Sikhs, who make up only 2% of India’s population; and the Baha’i faith, a growing, pluralistic religion with roots in Shi’a Islam. x
  • 23
    Religion and Law in America
    Return to America, where an important piece of cultural literacy involves understanding the Constitution and the relationship between church and state. You’ll learn how the establishment and free exercise clauses have influenced both education and the freedom of religious practice by taking a closer look at several fascinating (and controversial) Supreme Court cases. x
  • 24
    Religion Today—Trends, Challenges, and Hope
    Religion is a moving target, constantly changing in our modern world. This lecture examines four demographic trends and how they impact the health of both religious traditions and society at large. The lecture concludes with a consideration of the relationship between religion and violence—how violence emerges and how it can be reduced. x

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Your professor

Mark Berkson

About Your Professor

Mark Berkson, Ph.D.
Hamline University
Dr. Mark Berkson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University. He earned a B.A. from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, an M.A. from Stanford University in East Asian Studies, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has twice received Faculty Member of the Year awards and has received multiple fellowships for his work in Asian religions. A...
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Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 78.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent overviews; unsuitable for the areligious I bought and listened to this course thinking it might make a good gift for someone I know who grew up in mainland China and therefore has absolutely no concept of God or religion. However, the professor assumes that his listener already understands what one means by "God." This concept is never explained in a way that someone who grew up in a society where any religion was considered backward and superstitious could get it. That's a strange blind spot for a course purporting to explain world religions. With that said, his summaries of the history, practices and beliefs of the main world religions seemed informative and interesting. The narration of the life of the Buddha was especially compelling, as was his discussion of Zen. In the lecture on Chinese traditional religion, though, he gave a very misleading portrait of the extent to which those ideas remain prevalent in mainland China. The Maoist period was very successful in stamping out many traditional ideas. For example, Feng Shui is much more well-known now outside China than inside. But mainlanders remain skittish about the number 4 (which is a homophone for "death") and still consider the number 8 lucky. The lectures on Judaism contained one significant mistake. Traditionally, being Jewish passes down only through the mother, not the parents, as the professor said. This matters a lot because someone who has a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother will have trouble finding a rabbi who will marry him/her in a Jewish wedding ceremony, whereas someone with a Jewish mother but non-Jewish father will have no such trouble. I was surprised to hear him classify Mormons as Protestants. The Mormons I know say they are Christians but not Protestants. I found the last two lectures irrelevant to his main themes and verging on inappropriate. Why? The lecture on religion and American law was too parochial (Great Courses have many non-American listeners), and the discussion of religious violence seemed to be trying to tame the concept of radical Islam without specifically focusing on it. The professor is very well-spoken, but he speaks so slowly that I put my audio player on its fast speed to listen to him, and that pace was just right for me. That is the first time I've had to do that for any Great Course, and I've listened to well over 40 of them by now.
Date published: 2020-08-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and well organized I should be taking notes as I am learning so much! Great course.
Date published: 2020-04-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Yet The instructor, Mark Berkson, was knowledgeable, articulate, well organized, thorough and personable. My wife and I benefited greatly from the course.
Date published: 2020-04-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good overview When a person speaks of teaching religion in public school (middle school to high school) this is the type program that I think is needed in the US today. Clearly, this is a survey course meant to cover the 'bare bones' of the world's major religions. Many people today just don't know much about religious dogma...including their own...sometimes. These lectures are about religions while not being religious...but the lectures are only a start. Misunderstanding another's religious views and practices could lead to trouble. When all a person know about a religion is the bad stuff, they naturally are biased against it and all who practice. Admittedly, Dr Berkson stresses only the 'good' news in his clear and well-organized lectures hitting only the high points and ignoring the sometimes ugly history. I just realized that I'm being a bit redundant, but, what the heck, we all need to be a bit more open minded and accepting of other's beliefs. These lectures are just the first step.
Date published: 2019-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Religion treated as a scholarly discipline My wife and I thought this course was a real winner. This is the first religion course we’ve taken that treats it objectively as a scholarly subject rather than simply presenting a particular religion’s history and content. It contains insightful discussions of religion and politics and stresses cultural contexts. A main message is the greater diversity within each religious tradition than between the different religious traditions. Berkson is (in my assessment) truly objective in presenting the material, approaching the subject of the world’s religions as an academic discipline--as opposed to a cleric presenting his or her particular religion’s history, tenets, and practice in an academic manner, as seemed more the case in 5 other Teaching Company religion-focused courses we've taken. We had several discussions (and disagreed) about what we thought his own personal religious background might be; it is never revealed, which I think is an especially strong feature of this course. (Course taken, and review originally written, in 2015)
Date published: 2018-12-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great stuff! Comprehensive, hugely interesting and brilliantly presented. (Professor has clear and friendly voice) It certainly awakened an interest in me in various religions of which I had previously only a sketchy knowledge!
Date published: 2018-12-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative Course Mark Berkson is an excellent lecturer. I don't subscribe to any religion myself but I personally think everyone should be exposed to a study of comparative religions in order to put their own religion in perspective and understand the different cultures of the people of the world. Berkson was impartial and showed a nice informal style that included not only facts but how the different religions dictated the lives of people. The course is highly recommended.
Date published: 2018-09-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointed I was expecting something more. The content is a very general overview, and I was expecting something more detailed and insightful. I ordered the video version expecting pictures of significant locations and activities, instead it is video of the instructor giving the lectures. If I had known this I would have ordered the audio version. This is the first course I have been disappointed with from The Great Courses.
Date published: 2018-06-09
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