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Fostering understanding: JSIS offers new cross-cultural religious literacy program

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The UW's Jackson School of International Studies (JSIS) will be offering a new Cross-Cultural Religious Literacy (CCRL) graduate certificate for any student enrolled in the UW graduate school program. Helping to bridge gaps between interdisciplinary scholars and global practitioners, the CCRL Initiative teaches skill sets where religion and realpolitik overlap.

“[Eighty-four] percent of the world believes in something greater than themselves,” Chris Seiple, senior research fellow and president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, said. “You can’t ignore that, you have to deal with that, and you can’t just say we’ll put [religion] in a box over here.”

The program is meant to be both international and transcultural. Students of the program are able to major in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, biblical and ancient near-Eastern religion, and religion and culture. The program also offers minors in the same areas, as well as Greco-Roman religions, East Asian indigenous religions, African religious traditions, and Native American traditions, according to the certificate website.

The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life estimates that there are 5.8 billion religiously affiliated adults and children around the globe.

“Whatever your vocation is, whatever your location, you're going to be at some point engaging [with] somebody who self-identifies with a belief system that’s bigger than them, [so] how do you show that respect?” Seiple said.

Courses within the program aim to teach “historical, textual, anthropological, philosophical, psychological, and sociological approaches to the study of religions,” according to James Wellman, professor and chair of the JSIS comparative religion program. Some of the degree requirements include three years in a language that is appropriate for the major concentration, as well as an elementary reading knowledge of a secondary language.

The program is based on a cultural and political understanding of how religion is an essential component in public policymaking and will not teach religion. Rather, it will teach about it, according to Wellman.

“Each one of us has a point of view on culture and religion, and so before we go in to study other religions, we should be aware of our own faith, whatever that faith might be, whatever that position might be; each one of us has one,” Wellman said.  

The Comparative Religion Program (CRP) is an interdisciplinary program that will be 10 months long and is best for students who will be attending full-time. It was designed to complement professional training and can be done concurrently with other professional degree programs at the UW, including business administration (MBA), forest resources (MFR/MS), law (JD), marine affairs (MMA), public affairs (MPA), and public health (MPH). However, it is not necessary to complete the CRP simultaneously.

“We recognize that we have multiple religious points of view in our own culture and in our state, including those people who have either no faith, religious faith per se, but certainly secular people have a point of view as well,” Wellman said. “So I think [cross-cultural religious literacy] simply widens the lens so that we either don’t become prejudiced or full of misunderstandings about others and really enable ourselves to ... understand the other as we understand ourselves.”

Update: An earlier version of this article falsely mentioned that the CCRL program will be a full Master of Arts degree. The program is only a graduate certificate option within the graduate department of the Jackson School of International Studies. The article has been corrected to clarify that the CCRL is only a certificate program. 

Reach reporter Midori Blanchard at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @MidoriNileah

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