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The AVD Initiative aims to Promote Religious Literacy

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Religions impose constraints on human lives that shape them in various ways. They provide means to attain goals which may be proximate (a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful way of living) or ultimate (the final condition of this or any other human person and the cosmos itself). They give people a map of time and space so that they know what sort of future lies ahead of them, and they enable people to deal with, and even accept, many of the limitations which stand across their project of life.

They are also sources of inspiration and ideation. They offer a context within which the sanctions and rewards, approval and disapproval, of ideas and inspiration are held in common: and in the process they create, as it were, an interior world which protects human lives from a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty. This, however, does not prevent religions from doing damage. There are, for example, religious terrorists and the religious exploitation of money, an issue which has plagued religions throughout history.

Many people today take the view that religion is a social genus, that there are certain features which characterize it. They may define these functionally, as the beliefs and practices which generate social cohesion or that provide orientation in life, but they may also use substantive definitions. The resulting category is said to be universal, though it is often treated as a Western concept. It may be possible that such a concept is a useful one, but there are two problems with it.

The first is that the phenomenon is much older than any concept which might be used to label it. The emergence of social kinds did not wait on the development of language, and the concept of religion, as such, is at least two thousand years old, though the actual social reality so labeled would be much older.

There are, moreover, serious issues with the way that the concept of religion has been used. Among these are the fact that it is sometimes used to describe practices which are not religious, and that it has been used as an abstract concept which sort cultural types into neat categories. There are also the questions about what a concept of religion can tell us and about the meaning of that which it can reveal.

In this respect, the AVD initiative is an important effort to promote religious literacy. Ideally, every college student in the United States would be required to take at least one course which introduces them to a variety of religious traditions. This is, of course, not currently feasible, but it is important that the academic study of religion is approached using the same critical skills that are applied to the study of other subjects. The American Academy of Religion has produced a series of guidelines to this end which will be published shortly. They have been developed over a three-year period with wide consultation both inside and outside the Academy.

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