TED Talks For The Religiously Minded

Ndidi Nwuneli. Photo from TED.

Ndidi Nwuneli. Photo from TED.

Giving a TED talk has become an important rite of passage for public intellectuals. But despite thousands of lectures sprawling over everything from Quark Theory to ancient cave paintings, one realm has been noticeably neglected: religion. 

Out of more than 3,200 talks listed on the TED website, less than 80 center on religion, and the ones that do often approach the topic from a secular humanist perspective. Lectures like Why I Chose Humanism over Faith and My Failed Mission to Find God—and What I Found Instead bring in millions of views. 

Yet, religion still plays a prominent role in public life. A recent study from the Pew Research Center demonstrated that only 7.1% of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic. 

Despite the persistent role of religion in American life, very few TED Talks approach the topic from a perspective of sincere faith and belief. Is it because religion is a taboo topic in intellectual spheres? Or is there a perceived dichotomy between genuine investigation and religious faith? 

There are many possible reasons for this seeming divorce between public intellectualism and the topic of religion, and any explanation is likely to be speculative in nature and limited in scope. 

But the gap in content provides an opportunity to highlight a few powerful TED Talks that investigate the intersections of faith and public life. 

Here is a list of our top seven:

1. The Role of Faith and Belief in Modern Africa

Ndidi Nwuneli has advice for Africans who believe in God -- and Africans who don't. To the religious, she advises against using God to outsource responsibility for what happens in their lives. To the non-religious, she asks that they keep an open mind and work with faith-based organizations, especially on issues like health care and education.

2. It’s Time To Reclaim Religion

At a moment when the world seems to be spinning out of control, religion might feel irrelevant -- or like part of the problem. But Rabbi Sharon Brous believes we can reinvent religion to meet the needs of modern life. In this impassioned talk, Brous shares four principles of a revitalized religious practice and offers faith of all kinds as a hopeful counter-narrative to the numbing realities of violence, extremism and pessimism.

3. Faith Versus Tradition in Islam

Journalist Mustafa Akyol talks about the way that some local cultural practices (such as the seclusion of women) have become linked, in the popular mind, to the articles of faith of Islam. Has the world's general idea of the Islamic faith focused too much on tradition, and not enough on core beliefs?

4. The Unheard Story of the Sistine Chapel

In this tour-de-force talk, art historian Elizabeth Lev guides us across the famous building's ceiling and Michelangelo's vital depiction of traditional stories, showing how the painter reached beyond the religious iconography of the time to chart new artistic waters. Five hundred years after the artist painted it, says Lev, the Sistine Chapel forces us to look around as if it were a mirror and ask, "Who am I, and what role do I play in this great theater of life?"

5. Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile

When the dotcom bubble burst, hotelier Chip Conley went in search of a business model based on happiness. In an old friendship with an employee and in the wisdom of a Buddhist king, he learned that success comes from what you count.

6. The Doubt Essential to Faith

When Lesley Hazleton was writing a biography of Muhammad, she was struck by something: The night he received the revelation of the Koran, according to early accounts, his first reaction was doubt, awe, even fear. And yet this experience became the bedrock of his belief. Hazleton calls for a new appreciation of doubt and questioning as the foundation of faith.

7. Let’s Teach Religion—All Religion—In Schools

Philosopher Dan Dennett calls for religion -- all religion -- to be taught in schools, so we can understand its nature as a natural phenomenon. Then he takes on Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, disputing its claim that, to be moral, one must deny evolution.

Elizabeth Vandenboom is a student at The King’s College and an intern for Religion Unplugged.