Religious Literacy Guidelines for College Students – and the Rest of Us

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Religion is frequently in the news, whether we are hearing about shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, SC, or Sutherland Springs, Texas; differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East; objections to abortion by leaders in the Roman Catholic Church and conservative politicians, including Vice President Pence; or the statements and travels of the Pope. While an increasing number of Westerners have no explicit religious leanings (the so-called “nones”), religious belief and practice remain powerful forces in the world, for better or worse.

The prevalence of religion and religious people in our world means that it would greatly behoove us, especially us Americans, to know about religion – to have at least a basic level of “religious literacy.” As “religious” as we Americans still are, according to most studies and compared to other Westerners, we are notoriously uninformed about religious issues.

Elsewhere in these posts we have dealt with religious literacy: Westar Institute and the Wilbur award; a HarvardX course; the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature; the challenges of translating scripture; and the “bible” domain name. We have argued that the ignorance about religion can often lead to conflict between people of different faiths, including – tragically – violence, injury and death. Errors by well-meaning journalists, who have great reach in the public square, can lead the general public to unfairly and erroneously equate sincere, open-minded practitioners of a religious faith with more radical adherents. The reluctance of public schools to teach about religion, fearing they will overstep supposed restrictions that are not well understood, has led to a large swath of religiously illiterate younger Americans.

A new initiative by the American Academy of Religion – the world’s largest association of scholars who research or teach topics related to religion – is addressing religious literacy among college students. Led by Harvard Divinity School’s Diane L. Moore, the Religious Literacy Project offers guidelines for what graduates of two- and four-year undergraduate institutions should know about religion. Such graduates should be able to:

  • Discern accurate and credible knowledge about diverse religious traditions and expressions.
  • Recognize the internal diversity within religious traditions.
  • Explain how religions have shaped – and are shaped by – the experiences and histories of individuals, communities, nations, and regions.
  • Interpret how religious expressions make use of cultural symbols and artistic representations of their times and contexts.
  • Distinguish confessional or prescriptive statements about religion from descriptive or analytical statements.”

The AAR has earlier recognized the need for K-12 public school students to also become religiously literate. The 2010 AAR document states, “Given that few educators have taken religious studies courses, the AAR encourages using these Guidelines in substantial teacher pre-service and professional training that imparts content, pedagogy, and academically and constitutionally sound approaches for teaching about religion in K-12 public schools.” The Guidelines provide four helpful approaches for teaching religion – historical, literary, tradition-based, and cultural studies – and outline competencies for teachers in those areas. The Guidelines’ authors maintain that “All teachers should have some contact with the history and cultural context of the discipline of religious studies, including the awareness that ‘religion’ itself is a Western construct” (page 18).

For anyone who might be concerned that teaching religion is fraught with the risk of coercion and should thus be avoided like the plague, the AAR Guidelines lay out suggested attitudes/postures:

  • “Teachers should never try to coerce students to accept or reject any particular religious tradition, belief, or practice, as well as non-belief or atheism.
  • “Teachers should not give any particular religious belief, practice, or tradition inappropriate (or unfair) emphasis.
  • “Teachers should not discourage students’ free expression of their religious beliefs or ideas.
  • “Teachers should present religion content in the context of the approved curriculum.
  • “The personal religious beliefs or practices of the teacher do not qualify or disqualify the teacher from teaching about religions in his or her classroom. Rather, academic training in religion content and pedagogy are the qualification for teaching religion in the schools, regardless of the personal religion, or lack thereof, of the teacher.”

In sum, it is vitally important for a sophisticated democratic republic like ours to be composed of religiously literate citizens, for the reasons we have noted. Here are some humble suggestions for Americans in our various places in life vis-à-vis religious literacy:

  • If you are a college student, consider taking at least one course that increases your level of religious literacy. If your college does not offer such a course, speak to faculty and administrators about the importance of learning about religion; introduce them to the AAR guidelines.
  • If you are a college professor in one of the fields in which religion can be covered and you feel inadequate to treat religious issues, consider taking courses or participating in seminars or workshops that will allow you to put a toe in the water.
  • If you are a parent of a K-12 public school student, determine if your child will take a course in religion as taught from a scholarly perspective. If none are offered, encourage your school’s administrators and School Board to read the AAR Guidelines, make space for some of their teachers to be trained, and develop appropriate religion courses.
  • However you get your news, track your sources’ coverage of religion. If religion is treated in a biased or uninformed manner, contact the writers, journalists and/or editors and offer them the various resources for religious literacy. If religion is not covered at all, point out the reasons that it should be.
  • When you weigh the candidates for whom you will vote in upcoming elections, explore candidates’ religious backgrounds. What is their level of religious literacy, especially as related to the position for which they are running? If they run in the opposite direction when someone asks them a question about a religious issue, perhaps with the excuse that their religious beliefs are private and do not belong in the public sphere, push back on the importance to our society of knowledge of religious issues, regardless of personal belief.
  • Keep an eye on the level of religious literacy among officials in your town or city offices. When religious issues come up – whether they involve the question of women wearing the hijab in public, or the disposition of religious-themed monuments in the public square, or faith communities addressing the issue of sanctuary for undocumented immigrants – determine the extent to which arguments are based on facts, evidence and scholarship and not just opinion or belief.