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Religion is...

Published January 01, 2017 by Austin Tiffany

Interfaith, Religion, E-learning, Faith Literacy

Coexistence, Education, Courses

Austin Tiffany explores the issues behind the new Woolf Institute e-learning course Religion is...

Religion is… complex. It is often perceived as a force of evil, but more often it is a force for good. Religion is the basis of life for people all over the world; it is the foundation for cultures spanning centuries.

Yet when we do not understand religion, religion is…strange. The uniqueness of religious clothing and architecture and the adherence to prescribed laws and culture can reinforce the boundary between us and the "other". All too often, feelings of strangeness can turn into fear, and fear finds harbor in places that we choose not to understand. It goes without saying that today there is a pressing need to understand the myriad of religious traditions that surround us.

For the past few months, I have been conducting research in New York City, looking at ways seminaries teach about the religious other and what motivates clergy to engage with those from another religion. My research took a bit of a turn on November 8th, when the city went to bed shocked at the election of Donald Trump, a candidate who, at times, has stoked fears of discrimination and hatred against religious minorities.

After that day, securing interviews with clergy around New York City became very easy. Clergy reiterated the need to join hands with their peers across religious boundaries, lending a hand of support but also opening themselves up to better understand the lived realities – the fears – of their neighbours who worshiped the Divine differently. These relationships are not new but often not visible, occurring during the week while congregants are busy at work. This year, holiday commercials sought to shed light on the bonds of understanding and friendship among clergy. Amazon released a Christmas commercial (2016), now well known showing the friendship between a priest and an imam.

As political climates and public discourse become more targeted towards our shared diversity, the need to understand the differing religious communities has become more important. In my research, clergy stressed the importance of understanding thy neighbour. Yet the conversation and understanding across religious boundaries cannot stop with clergy – it must spread to society more widely.

Religion is… invites everybody – whether religious or not – to better understand the Abrahamic traditions. However, the course goes beyond pure academic knowledge about the beliefs and traditions of these faiths. We also examine and engage with religious life today. This course will look at the role of women in religious leadership, how media influences religion and how religion can be either a force of good or ill in our increasingly complex and interconnected world. We will challenge you to engage with religious traditions critically and empathetically, drawing on the world’s experts and your own experiences.

We invite you to join on us on this ten-week journey accredited by the scholarship and prestige of the Woolf Institute. Whether you consider yourself religiously literate or just beginning to learn about the beauty and complexity of religious life around the world, we guarantee this course will be an eye opening adventure that leads to greater understanding about what religion really is.


Austin Tiffany is a Woolf Institute Scholar and is currently undertaking his PhD studies at the University of Cambridge. His research examines contemporary interfaith training of priests and rabbis in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Further details of the online course Religion is... can be found here.

**The application deadline for the 2018 course has been extended to Sunday 28 January 2018. The course will commence on Monday 5 February 2018.**

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