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

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

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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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4.7 out of 5
63 Reviews
95% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 6891
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features nearly 600 animations, photographs, maps, and video clips. There are maps that highlight the spread of various faiths throughout the world; video clips and photographs that depict specific religious practices and events, like Muslim daily prayers and Jewish holy days; and illustrations of various deities, sages, and prophets, including Jesus, Shiva, and Confucius.
Streaming Included Free

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
 |  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 4.7 out of 5 by 63.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An invaluable survey I don't know where else you will find such a broad survey of worldwide religions in such a well organized, well presented and detailed way. The course content is excellent. It is, however, very much a march of facts. As such I did not find myself hungering for the next lecture. I found it very informative and feel rewarded that I experienced it but I found it a bit of a struggle at times to move forward. I felt an urge to skip over some sections. The reward for paying attention is the last two lectures in which the professor departs from details and discusses civil law as it relates to religion and religiously oriented violence. Those chapters were a wonderful way to close the lectures. Overall the course is well worth the effort and can serve as a reference resource.
Date published: 2016-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Let's get to know each other This course made me see how all the religions covered can co-exist. I am a Roman Catholic but I saw parts of my religion in so many of the others. I wish we could "all just get along." I think Pope Francis is a great example of how we don't have to be so hostile to everyone who is not exactly like us.
Date published: 2016-03-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved this course I loved listening to this course. The professor's qualifications are part of what impressed me the most, as someone who had lived and worked in communities with languages he was teaching about. His story about explaining the Christian worship of Jesus to a group of Muslim imams was wonderful. The other reason I was impressed was because hearing my faith (Christian) compared and contrasted with other religions made me appreciate it more. There was absolutely no proselytizing - far from it. It simply gave me a greater understanding of my own religion as it compared to and differed from others. The instructor manages to cover a broad scope of the world's religions, and he does it in such a way that touches on highlights of all the major faiths and many less well-known ones, without dragging the course out longer than it needed to be. I finished it feeling as if I wouldn't disgrace myself if I found myself talking to a Sikh, and I would have a good baseline knowledge if I wanted to explore a religion more on my own. I highly recommend this course. I did it on audio, and didn't think I was missing anything not having bought it on video.
Date published: 2016-03-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Even-handed, informative, worthwhile This course gave me what I hoped it would: An overview of a broad sampling of the world's religions. The professor was knowledgeable, balanced in his presentation, and lucid in his thinking. Most people would find this course beneficial. Good job.
Date published: 2016-02-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Very intensive I would highly recommend this course for someone studying world religions. That is, someone with enough time to write down and review material. However, I do not recommend it for the casual listener. it often was much like reading an encyclopedia. There is so much information here that the professor goes quickly from one religion to another, from one tradition in the religion to another, from one thought in a tradition of a religion to . . ., well, you get the picture. I listen to the great courses in my car on the way to work and back. Some courses I find very easy to follow. This professor used a lot less analogies, day-to-day experience, connections to real world experiences or even prior learning within the course than I need to make it meaningful.
Date published: 2016-01-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great introduction to the Worlds' Religions Professor Berkson does a wonderful job of respectfully outlining the beliefs of a broad collection of the world's religions - including the main ones that are observed in the USA. I appreciated the coverage of the various Christian sects in addition to an in-depth discussion on Judaism and Islam. This type of course should probably be strongly recommended at the college level - if not high school. A solid enough curriculum could be developed to cover one quarter or semester. Understanding of others' religious beliefs is critical to building a more equitable society.
Date published: 2015-11-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great introduction to diverse range of religions Cultural Literacy should be a standard on education curricula. It provides an accessible and concise introduction to major world religions, and is taught with a view to promoting understanding and awareness. While it is worth the purchase just for the deeper insight into the more well known religions, it is equally worthwhile for its exploration of lesser known such as Baha'i. I also appreciated the breakdown of the different elements of religions such as Buddhism. A useful introduction and stepping stone to further study.
Date published: 2015-11-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Every literate person needs this Wow. Even though I thought I knew the basic principles behind most of the great religions, I was amazed at how little I actually did know. I was so intrigued and so delighted by the material that I repeated each lecture at least twice before moving on. The material and style of presentation was captivating and easily held my interest even though the subject's complexities. There is value here for everyone. Prejudice and misunderstanding about many religions (the many forms of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity alone) cause so much strife in our modern world. How fantastic it is to find a course that sorts through these and helps us understand and appreciate religious thinking outside our personal experience.
Date published: 2015-06-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well Worth the Time and $$$!!! This is a "Great Course" :) Packed with info useful for casual and in dept knowledge of the major religions.
Date published: 2015-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best purchases I ever made! This should be one of the first courses people start with when they make their first purchases with The Teaching Company. Religion is a fascinating topic, for a variety of reasons. In today's world, it is more important than ever to have an elementary understanding of another person's faith. Professor Berkson is a great teacher. He tries to explain what the various religions of the world believe and teach without being patronizing. After finishing the course, I felt that I had enough understanding of the topic that were I to encounter a practicing Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh I could have a polite and lively discussion about their religious beliefs. Cultural Literacy is a guide to religion aimed at the lay person who wishes to know the basic tenants of the world's religions. I have listened and watched to many of the religion and theology courses, this is the most approachable course the Teaching Company has made. If you only ever watch one course on religion, make it this one.
Date published: 2015-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exactly What I wanted For many years, I've wanted to take an objective course on world religions, and finally I found this one. It is presented without bias or criticism and shows how the older ones influence the newer ones. For me, this was not an easy course to follow. It required some effort and I had to back up and review parts over and over, to make sure I understood what was being said. It's a complex subject, but I'm glad I took the course. I didn't walk away an expert by any means, and if I had time, I could watch it several times before really absorbing most of it. It does seem to be current, which was important to me.
Date published: 2015-05-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worth listening to more than once I bought this course because I was headed to live in a muslim country for the first time. I listened to the lectures on Islam at least three times for each The other lectures were a nice bonus. I learned a lot about many religions. The section on Hinduism got hard to follow, but that was the only negative comment I have
Date published: 2015-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Survey of World's Religions Dr. Berkson presents this course on World Religions in an objective and factual way. He does not attempt to infer any sense of "right" or "wrong" to the beliefs and practices of the various religions, nor try to show how any one religion is better than the others. He does illustrate the origin, proliferation, practice and beliefs of each religion. Beyond educating the student on these details his only agenda seems to be to provide a better understanding to promote a better dialogue and understanding among the various religious groups. After a couple of generic lectures on reasons to study religion and its characteristics, Dr. Berkson follows a more or less chronological order by first introducing Hinduism and the other Eastern religions, then moves to the monotheistic religions of the West. While this journey includes all the major religions, it also includes some smaller ones such as Shamanism, Shintoism, Jainism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Baha'i. Along the way he shows us the philosophy behind each religion and the origin and motivation for the various ritual practices. He concludes with two very important lectures on Religion in America with respect to separation of church and state, and on the changing face of religion in the world today. His final thoughts on the role of religion in conflict and peace are most sobering. He concludes with a clear articulation of how and why eliminating ignorance about religions of others is an imperative for global peace and harmony. Though Dr. Berkson does compare and contrast the basic tenets of the religions, one finds that they have more in common at their core than they differ. If we come to acknowledge this, perhaps we can find a way toward respect and understanding. Dr. Berkson delivers his lectures with inflection, enthusiasm, and appropriate body language. He demonstrates a clear command of the subject manner. He uses a teleprompter but speaks with dynamics beyond simply reading from it. The production quality of the course is excellent and contains various photographs, art works and artifacts which contribute to the course quality. I recommend the video version for this reason. The accompanying course guide is very good with content rich summaries of the lectures, a timeline for each religion, and an annotated bibliography. Biographic notes on some of the key figures would have been a welcome addition. I strongly recommend this course to everyone. Understanding the impact religion has on the culture of our fellow mankind is key to knowing how to engage in productive dialogue on our "flat" Earth with its global economy and community. Politicians, business people, academics and people of all walks of life can benefit from the basic knowledge of the world's religions taught in this course.
Date published: 2015-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding This is one of the most outstanding courses offered, bar none. The material presented is relevant and interesting, comprehensive but neither too detailed or dense, never drags, presented with enthusiasm and erudition and respect for the all the religious traditions. If only all the Teaching Company's products met this standard of excellence . . .
Date published: 2014-11-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Incredibly Well Balanced and Informative Series I love to travel and have been to most corners of the world. I spent 2 months in India and thought I had a good understanding of Buddhism and Hinduism as well as Jainism. I learned so much more from this series about these philosophies and many more. I have an upcoming trip to Morocco and again, will benefit from this series. I will recommend to family and friends. The professor does an excellent job of clearly and succinctly explaining in a historical context the emergence of various religions. Great job.
Date published: 2014-10-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and Well Presented Excellent course. The instructor is clearly knowledgeable and addresses the topical areas with balance. I enjoyed viewing the lessons and was left with a better understanding of the world's major religions at the end of this course.
Date published: 2014-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful; Fascinating; Important; For All This is an outstanding course in every way. The material is inherently fascinating – the many and diverse ways that humankind has understood our relationship to divinity. Most of us will be familiar with a few of the religious systems discussed; only a small number, other than scholars of religion, are likely to be familiar with more than a few of the at least thirteen faiths (depending on how you count) presented. More importantly, as Professor Berkson emphasizes in his last lecture, it is by becoming personally familiar with those who are different that we may be able to break down the barriers which result in our dividing the world into “us” and “them,” and which have led, and continue to lead, to so much tragedy. Please forgive my offering a favorite quote, from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” We may not all be able to travel the world; we can all certainly, at least, try to learn what we can of those parts of it, and those people within it, with which we are not familiar. It is important to be aware, when considering this course, what it is and is not. It is not a consideration of comparative theology from a deep philosophical perspective. Many educated Westerners naturally assume this is what it is to study religion. This is often taken to be the perspective of the elites of the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions with which we are most familiar – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, other religions stress different concerns, such as ritual and community, and even within these more familiar religions it is only a minority of believers who are focused on theological profundities. Instead, Professor Berkson discusses a number of characteristics which he outlines in Lecture 1, and which apply in very varying degrees to the different religious systems: a belief in supernatural beings, that is, a god or gods or other spirits; rituals and ceremonies; a view of the nature of reality and our place within it; an explanation for suffering and evil; liberation or salvation; and scriptures and their interpretation. And these characteristics are discussed on a level which is more apt to apply to the majority of believers rather than to theologians and other scholars. Also, this is not, in any way, a course in comparative religion or critique. The various faiths are presented with equal respect, and no comparison or criticism is stated or implied. The final lecture provides a superb conclusion. Our professor comments on modern trends in religion, gives some personal views, and discusses the perspectives which religions have of each other. The treatment of religion and violence is, remarkably, not a banal and trite commentary, but instead furnishes a thoughtful and insightful consideration of this difficult but crucially important topic. Professor Berkson is an excellent speaker – deeply knowledgeable, highly organized, and eloquent, with a liveliness and vocal modulation which make him a pleasure to listen to. In fact, the lectures are so highly polished and controlled that they could be used as exemplars in a course on public speaking. The only small complaint I have is that the first two, introductory, lectures are so basic, simplistic, and general that they may mislead the viewer into stopping early. Don’t. Once the focus shifts to particular religions in Lecture 3, the course is superb, and provides an outstanding background for understanding all of the major and many of the minor religions of the world. The visuals are, for the most part, excellent, with views of many religious sites, rituals, and ceremonies. I could have done without those photos, however, which look like they were posed for J. Crew. The Course Guidebook is a good review, but unfortunately leaves out many of the details found in the lectures. (And, professor, if you will permit a presumptuous, perhaps impertinent, and very off-topic but well-meaning comment: lose the sweater-vests!) So – this is a wonderful and extremely worthwhile course for everyone, and it has my highest recommendation. It will, I think, benefit those who take it; if everyone were familiar with the knowledge and perspectives developed here, it would also, I think, benefit our world.
Date published: 2014-06-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worthwhile! In this series of lectures, Professor Mark Berkson endeavours to present various aspects of the world's most important religions, from Hinduism to Baha’i. The potential listener should be aware that his approach is far from strictly theological. He actually grants much more importance to rituals and even to practices that some may not necessarily consider religious, for instance gift-giving at Christmas and Bar-Mitzvahs. He also spends significant time on what he labels Chinese popular religion, including Feng shui and the avoidance of certain numbers, that many would associate with superstition rather than religion. North American practice of shying away from 13th floors could hardly be considered 'religious' per se! For a more profound discussion of religious thought, 'Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad' by Professor Mark Muesse will definitely prove a better investment. Given the variety of religious practices, these lectures have a very wide scope and thus may appear somewhat shallow to many. Yet, this is a worthwhile production for those who travel abroad or are interested in better understanding growing religious diversity in their own environment.
Date published: 2014-06-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Achieves its purpose The presentation was crisp and listenable. The professor does an admirable job of fulfilling the expectations raised by the course title. Those with some background in the various religions may find the lectures treading over some familiar ground. Berkson is a good-hearted, ecumenical fellow. He seeks to promote interfaith tolerance and understanding. Towards this end, he strives to respectfully convey the doctrines and lived experience of the various religions discussed. I suppose I would have been excited by psychological, economic, anthropological, or other critical approaches to religion in general and various religions in particular. But that tack would perhaps have irritated more customers than it would have pleased. Was it (as advertised) a friendly and capable summary of the beliefs and practices of major religions? Yes. Was it a challenging and provocative intellectual adventure? Not really.
Date published: 2013-12-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insightful, balanced, informative A wonderful, respectful, overview of religions that goes through the influential religions chronologically, and includes smaller yet highly important, influential sects such as Jains, Sikhs, and Baha'is. The last few lectures on similarities, extremism, law, and cultural influence were particularly insightful. The professor was non-partisan yet enthusiastic and interesting, without driving me, a rational, empirical, atheist crazy. I highly recommend this course, especially for extremist adherents to any of these religions--I think it could increase the amount of tolerance and understanding in the world.
Date published: 2013-11-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good overview of religions I enjoyed this course, as it was one of the first ones I purchased and completed. The professor does an excellent job creating the historical narrative of the founding of each of the religion, and then showing in detail how it is practiced today and all its major variants. I liked that he went into just as much detail into religions that don't fall into the ''Major Religions" category, such as Sikhism. It helped me to see how my own views fit in the great mosaic of religious belief and practice worldwide, and for me personally it was great to learn in depth about all the religions stemming from India, as that is where my wife's family is from.
Date published: 2013-11-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from note on the Islam lectures Considering the span and depth of the subjects, Professor Berkson does an excellent job of introducing the different religious traditions. However: 1. The expression of the unity of God in Arabic is 'Tawhid', which, during the course, is pronounced more like 'Tahwid'. 2. Towards the end of the lecture entitled "The Five Pillars of Islam", the 'fiqh' (jurisprudence) criteria are presented as the Quran, hadith, tradition, 'Ijma’' (consensus), and 'Qias' (analogical reasoning). 'Qias' is not recognized as one of the criteria in Shiite Islam. Instead, the Shiites include 'Aql' (intellect). 3. In the lecture entitled "Forms of Islam", it is mentioned that some Muslims believed that the successor to the Prophet of Islam had to be chosen from among the companions, while a second group believed that the successor had to be from the Prophet’s bloodline. The latter group would later become the Shiites, but the general Shiite position (at least now) is that the Prophet had already chosen his cousin, Ali, as his successor at Qadir Pond while returning from his last Hajj. 4. In the lecture entitled "Forms of Islam", it is implied that when Ali was murdered, the Shiites turned to his son, Hussain. However, after Ali's death, the Shiites turned to Hassan, Ali’s eldest son.
Date published: 2013-09-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best 'comparative religion' course i've taken I've listened to about 25 of TTC's religion courses, including 2 titled "Comparative Religion" and the full set of "Great World Religions", have read extensively on the subject, and found this course the best basic course ever. It hits the highlights of all the major world religions, and some not so major (i.e. Jainism) in a lively and informative manner. I particularly liked that it included the rituals of every day -- not just the official creed. It reminded me of "The Jewish Book of Why" in that it explains the Why of certain behaviors within a group of people. It was not pedantic like some courses can be. Nor was it judgmental of the sects discussed. I would recommending this course to any person just starting his/her inquiry into this field of knowledge, and for those who have studied a lot..
Date published: 2013-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from As an introductory survey of the major religions in the world, I thought it was outstanding.
Date published: 2013-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Cultural Literacy for Religion Outstanding lectures from a marvelous professor. I learned so much and I am inspired to learn more. Prof. Berkson explained everything in such an easy and enjoyable way and truly inproved my undestanding of the world religions.
Date published: 2013-06-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Intelligent, Accessible and Enjoyable The title of this course should be, “Everything EVERY person should know” rather than “Everything the WELL-EDUCATED PERSON should know.” Professor Berkson has designed a comparative religion program that gives an excellent overview of the major religious forces in the world from past to present. He teaches in an engaging and objective way, and leaves the viewer with much to think about. I lead an educational program at a mainline protestant church and we watched the 24-lecture series over twenty-four weeks, each lecture followed by a rousing group discussion. This course provokes thought, opens minds, and broadens perspectives. My group was very curious about Prof. Berkson’s faith background because we detected no bias whatsoever in his lectures, so we asked him about it. You’d be very surprised to find out his answer...
Date published: 2013-05-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Started Strong.....Ended Very Poorly! Pro's: Well paced, good speaker and a fair amount of information without "overkill." Cons: The professors understanding of religion is too "western" in approach. Some of the religions sampled were fair and balanced while others were clearly elevated and favored. When it came to a study on Islam there was a total whitewashing of historical fact. The final two lectures on politics and religion in incomplete and uneducated with a too broad a brush. This course was handed to me by a student who wanted my professional opinion of this course. As a teacher of comparative religions and philosophy I found this course well outlined. But as the course went further into detail it weakened. To use words and phrases like "bloodless" by explaining the expansion of Islam while also ignoring Jihad and House of Islam, as part of Islam is an purposeful oversight. As for the final two lectures the professor portrays the religions and law as a discussion on faith as an overall topic. These professors are not qualified to comment on law and faith. Very poorly presented. Very poor presentation and needs some stronger voices on the topic then provided.
Date published: 2013-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I learned so much! This was a fantastic course. It was a good introduction to religious traditions I knew very little about. It was also very informative about traditions that were already familiar. The professor is clear and well spoken. The images used throughout the DVDs add to the presentation and the guidebook is very useful for reviewing the subject matter. I’m looking forward to hearing more from Dr. Berkson.
Date published: 2013-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well Worth It This course will indeed make the student culturally literate about religion. The course was excellent in every way. I particularly enjoyed learning about some of the "minor" religions.
Date published: 2013-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent overview A lively and informative gallop through the histories and practices of the world's major religions. Professor Berkson's enthusiasm for the subject matter and skill as a speaker hold your attention throughout the series. A survey course of this type always runs the risk of sagging under the sheer amount of material presented, but Professor Berkson keeps things moving nicely and articulates his thoughts with great clarity. I particularly enjoyed the final two lectures, which drove home the relevancy of why we need to care about religion in the world today. Like other reviewers, I found the continuous shift to different camera angles both unnecessary and somewhat distracting. The brisk pace of presentation should keep most viewers interested without the need for this visual crutch. The producers should have more confidence in the strength of the material and in the skills of this gifted lecturer.
Date published: 2013-04-30
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