What is Religious Literacy?

Posted On 1 Oct 2021 by religionmatters

What is Religious Literacy?

Dr. Tim Hall

What is religious literacy? What does it mean to be religiously literate? And why is it essential to our students? These are crucial questions towards better civic literacy and global competence in the 21st century for our students. 

Religious literacy can be simply defined as a basic understanding of beliefs, behaviors, and institutions of global religious traditions. Stephen Prothero, professor at Boston University and author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Need to Know-And Doesn’t, defines it as ” the ability to understand and use the religious terms, symbols, images, beliefs, practices, scriptures, heroes, themes, and stories.” [1] But it is Diane Moore’s, Director of Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School, definition of religious literacy that guides the American Academy of Religion’s defining of the term which provides the most exactitude. 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.” [2] (AAR Guidelines for Teaching about Religion in K-12 Public Schools)

Embedded within this definition is a cultural studies perspective. This perspective asserts the following when studying religions:

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

The cultural studies approach to religion is interrelated to religious pluralism, in which students learn about other religious traditions as a means of appreciating, understanding, and respecting the diversity of others. This religious pluralism helps to strengthen a pluralistic democracy by improving civic literacy and global competence. Yet sadly, many current approaches to teaching about religion in the classroom are too 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 which does not provide true civic literacy and global competence. 

Rachel Rueckert, a member of the HarvardX World Religions Through Their Scriptures courseprovides five easy steps to build your religious literacy as an educator. 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. [3]
  6. Work to defend religious freedom for all faith traditions around the world. (My addition)

These steps should be aspirational for all educators as they start a more profound journey teaching about religion in the classroom. 

[1] Stephen R. Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008), p. 16-17.

[2] American Academy of Religion, “AAR Guidelines for Teaching about Religion in K-12 Public Schools,”, p. 4

[3] Rachel Rueckert, “How to Be More Religiously Literate (and Why It Matters),” edX Blog: Stories, Insights, and News, accessed October 2, 2021, https://blog.edx.org/religiously-literate-matters.