What is Religious Literacy?

Posted On 21 May 2021 by religionmatters

Tim Hall, Ph.D.

What is religious literacy? What does it mean to be religiously literate? In past blogs, I have specific reasons why an understanding of religion is vital to students of the 21st century. I provide a sound framework for educators to teach about religion in the classroom. But, I haven’t defined the end goal for religion in education, which is religious literacy. 

The American Academy of Religion has adopted a very exact definition of religious literacy. It should be used by educators to understand the end goal of teaching about religion in the classroom. According to the AAR: 

“Religious literacy entails the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social/political/cultural life through multiple lenses. Specifically, a religiously literate person will possess:

  1. a basic understanding of the history, central texts (where applicable), beliefs, practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world’s religious traditions as they arose out of and continue to be shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts.
  2. the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place.” [1] (AAR Guidelines for Teaching about Religion in K-12 Public Schools)

Most important to this definition is the understanding of religion in a cultural context. This understanding draws on the framework that I detailed in an earlier blog summarized below.

  1. Religions are internally diverse.
  2. Religions evolve and change over time.
  3. Religions are embedded in a culture. 

Sadly, many current approaches to teaching about religion in the classroom are simplistic and stereotypical (e.g. a focus on religious holidays during December). These approaches give students an inaccurate and inauthentic understanding of faith in the globalized 21st century. 

Rachel Rueckert, a member of the HarvardX World Religions Through Their Scriptures courseprovides five easy steps to build your religious literacy in which I have added a sixth critical addition. 

  1. Learn more about a variety of religions to understand the influence of religion on all cultures more deeply. HarvardX World Religions Through Their Scriptures is a great place to start.
  2. Recognize religious illiteracy and the need for religious literacy through education. 
  3. Reject religious prejudice and bigotry towards all faith traditions. 
  4. Build authentic relationships with new people and communities of different faith traditions. 
  5. Recognize the diversity of religions in the 21st century and also the internal diversity of those faith traditions. [2]
  6. Work to defend religious freedom for all faith traditions around the world

These steps should be aspirational for all people, and they start with teaching about religion in the classroom.