Religious Literacy: Knowledge vs. Understanding

Religious literacy is important to me. It drives my commitment to interfaith and to education; it is essential to progressing into a more understanding and empathetic world. I catch myself giving impromptu lectures – it’s my soapbox speech, and I’ve got it down pat. Religious literacy in the United States is abysmal, and there is much we can do to improve it. To allow religious ignorance to fester is downright irresponsible. For our own sakes, for the sake of the future, we have to start teaching one another about one another. Ignorance breeds fear and hate and violence and more ignorance. That’s the short version.

Back in April, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote about the lack of religious literacy in the United States. Initially the column bothered me because he inaccurately stated that secular Americans were the least religiously literate group in the United States. He also tried to say that Secularists believe religion doesn’t matter – as a Humanist Celebrant and interfaith educator I’d like to correct his misinformation. However, over the next couple weeks I continued to think about the column because more is at stake than my pride as a religiously literate atheist. The real problem with this version of religious literacy is the simplification of religious literacy into easily memorized factoids. Although Kristoff offers valuable points, the piece made me anxious. I applaud anyone giving religious literacy the national attention it deserves, and if more people think about the value of teaching children the basics of world religions because of a NYT column, I shouldn’t complain. And yet, what Kristoff argues for is factual – what we need is understanding.

Understanding comes from wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge properly applied. Of course we need to start with knowledge – but that is only the beginning.

Why is religious literacy so important in the United States? Regardless of whether or not one adheres to any particular tradition or religious practice, it is impossible (or at least incorrect) to claim religion has had no effect on one’s life. Despite the “wall of separation” between church and state, religion affects how people think, behave, vote, and understand one another in the United States – including those who are atheistic or even anti-theistic, as well as those who are unaffiliated. This isn’t surprising, because religion has played a dominant role throughout world history – it affects politics, family systems, social structure, technological innovation, warfare, and ecological action. I don’t mean to say that religion is the key that holds all of these factors together, but religion is a major element of human history, and by removing religion from the public discourse and public school system, we are denying students huge swaths of information and perspective. We wouldn’t teach mathematics without zero, so why do we try to teach humanities without religion?

Religion is not just historical, either. The United States is one of the most religiously diverse countries on the planet, and with each passing year we bump up against one another more and more. We have to be religiously literate in order to be good citizens – not only of the world, but also of our own backyards.

Kristoff talks about religious literacy like a category on Jeopardy, and he’s not alone in taking this stance – I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was the dominant understanding of the term. At the end of his book Religious Literacy, Boston University professor Stephen Prothero offers a short religious literacy quiz covering major world religions in proportion to their presence in the United States. There is a key difference, though. Prothero recognizes this as the beginning, not the end goal. He quizzes students to show them how much they have to learn, and then takes the time and energy to help them go from there. When we talk about improving religious literacy, we shouldn’t be talking about being able to ace such a quiz as much as being able to relate to other human beings, and to understand where they and their beliefs are coming from. Religious literacy requires more of a commitment from us than trivia. My anxiety over spreading this fact-based view of religious literacy is that it claims understanding text or laws or doctrine is the same as understanding religion.

Religion is lived experience, not a list of doctrines, texts, and beliefs. Religious literacy must therefore be about people and how they live out their tradition, which is going to vary by individual. Being able to name the Gospels, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path, and the Five Pillars of Islam is – and I really can’t emphasize this enough – a great place to start. Religious history is a huge part of religious literacy, as are the fundamental building blocks of each tradition. We have to take the next step, too, and properly apply that knowledge to our interactions with and approach to people or communities different from ourselves. Religious literacy requires that we are not afraid to discuss religion in public, whether it is in the classroom or a cocktail party. It removes the taboo from discussing what we believe and why and how we live it out and how others respond to us and how we respond to the lived practices of others. Religious literacy is learning how to navigate the exploration of other faiths and traditions, of learning to be respectful and sensitive, and of learning to shed our preconceived ideas.

Maybe the language confuses us. “Religious literacy” makes it sound like a study of texts. But just as with great literature, the value is not in memorization, but in the ability to be transported into the lives of another, to learn to empathize, to change one’s own understanding of the world and one’s place in it. To be religiously literate is not to be able to answer trivia questions about other religions as much as it’s about being able to discuss them with someone else, and use the knowledge gained to grow into greater mutual respect and understanding.


This image is used by permission of the author.

Share this!
  • Print
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Reddit
  • RSS
  • Twitter

2 thoughts on “Religious Literacy: Knowledge vs. Understanding

  1. Esther,

    I want you to know that I had attended a couple of weeks ago a Religious Diversity Leadership workshop at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, and that your article was used in their content!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

  2. Dina, thank you for sharing this! I was so excited to hear that Hartford Seminary was going to include in their workshop materials, and it’s great to hear that the event came off well.

Comments are closed.