Knowledge Is Power

Leadership Day speakers say tackling religious illiteracy is crucial to peace, progress worldwide.

HDS Professor Dudley Rose, MDiv '83, who received the Katzenstein Award on March 30, is pictured here with Ruth Purtilo, MTS '75, PhD '79. Photo: Tony Rinaldo

With every human society growing more religiously and culturally pluralistic, the study of world religions has never been more crucial to stability, progress, and peace. This was the theme of presentations given at the annual Leadership Day celebration at Harvard Divinity School, held on March 30, 2012.

Leadership Day is an annual celebration for Harvard Divinity School's leadership-level supporters and volunteers, including members of the Dean's, Leadership, and Alumni/Alumnae Councils. While it is a day to reconnect, to engage in intellectual topics related to the School's mission, and to look to the future, this year it was also a time to look back and to express gratitude to Dean William A. Graham for his long and distinguished service to the School.

Graham, who has led the School since 2002 and who will step down at the end of this academic year, gave the keynote address, "Why Study Religion in the 21st Century?"   

Despite increased attention to religion in public media and governmental-policy circles, Graham, who has been studying, teaching, and writing about religion for more than half a century, called religion one of the least-understood sectors of life for the majority of people worldwide. Using the United States as an example, he cited the Pew Religious Knowledge Survey of 2010, in which atheists and agnostics scored highest among all Americans in their ability to answer basic questions about major world religious traditions. Other groups responded correctly to less than half of the answers on the survey questions.

"We desperately need instruction at all levels of our educational system that teaches future citizens about religion as a global and human, not a sectarian and parochial, reality," Graham said. He also called for policymakers to have some grasp on the religious dimensions of life in other nations and for cultures and people to understand that their value systems are not uniquely valid or good or applicable to everyone in the world.

"Knowing about and understanding religion are critical elements in dealing with a world in which with every year every human society or state is going to be growing more religiously and culturally pluralist in its makeup," he said, underscoring that a lack of understanding threatens the very "survival of our planet."

Graham's vision for HDS was not for the School to be focused on interreligious dialogue, which he finds can often turn into "the juxtaposition of two monologues." Rather, he views HDS as an intellectual meeting ground where persons of differing religious traditions can work together "on some tertium quid, some third thing," such as hunger, health care, or climate change. He believes that HDS is a model for how religion should be taught and for how varied national and religious communities can begin to work together, but the model needs to be more widely employed.

During the day's afternoon luncheon, which drew a crowd of nearly 100 to the Braun Room, representatives from HDS's three councils made remarks about the Dean. Susan Swartz, member of the Dean's Council, lauded Graham for being someone who was able to "lead a divergent group of people, while at the same time retaining a human touch to relate to mere mortals like me." Others recalled his strengths in teaching, in advising, in being hospitable to students, and in navigating the vast University system.

The luncheon also featured two award presentations, one to a friend of the School and another to an alumnus. Denie Sandison Weil, AB '53, member of both the Dean's and Leadership Councils, was honored with the Dean's Distinguished Service Award. Dudley C. Rose, MDiv '83, associate dean for ministry studies and Lecturer on Ministry, received the Rabbi Martin Katzenstein Award.

Earlier in the day, programming included a faculty-led roundtable on social activism and religion with Dan McKanan, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity, and a roundtable on immigration and religious experience with Davíd Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America. Additional highlights were the Fourth Annual Stendahl Conference: Conversations across Religious Boundaries, which featured student presenters; a student-led interfaith service in Andover Chapel; and a state of the school address by HDS Executive Dean Pat Byrne.

During a closing reception, David N. Hempton, Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies, was introduced by Harvard President Drew Faust as the new HDS Dean. In his remarks, Hempton said that HDS should strive to strengthen its role as a leader in promoting positive social change through religious literacy.

Remembering his undergraduate years in his native Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s—a deadly and intense time of religious and political turmoil for the region—he said he should have known more about why those conflicts were happening. It was a call to action for him.

"I vowed I would find out, and in a way that's why I'm standing here today," he said. "Religious illiteracy matters. We ignore it at our peril. Let's take it on and make a difference." Hempton will assume the role of Dean of the Divinity School on July 1.