What They Forgot to Teach in Kindergarten: The Problem of Religious Illiteracy

By: Derek Buyan

March 24, 2014

Diplomacy: Bridging Religious Divides was the topic of the 2014 Wheatley International Affairs Conference hosted in February by the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Meeting with delegates from universities across the country, participants were part of roundtable groups steered by leading academics and policymakers to explore the various implications religious considerations have for American policymaking, diplomacy and peacemaking around the globe. Derek was a member of the roundtable group “Religion as a Defining Element of Culture.”
We started our roundtable discussion with a quiz. Fifteen questions left ten college students with embarrassed looks, scratching our heads and twiddling our thumbs. The topic of the quiz: everyday religious literacy. Taken from Steven Prothero’s book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t, the questions touched on the basic scriptures, figures, and ceremonies of all five major religious traditions: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. You can find a very similar quiz here. Can you pass it without reaching for Wikipedia?

We had a difficult time, and so did Prothero's class at Boston University in 2006 and 2007. Many Americans remain embarrassingly religiously illiterate, both regarding their own faith tradition and the faith traditions of their neighbors. The results of Pew’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey from 2010 demonstrate this fact.

This state of affairs is complicated by the fact that, despite the high levels of secularization that characterize the last half-century in the West, the United States remains “fiercely religious,” as sociologist Peter Berger likes to put it. Indeed, survey data maintains that the United States boasts greater numbers of citizens who are more religious than the rest of the West. In short, we Americans believe what we believe with gusto, in large numbers, but don’t know much about the content of that belief.

So, why does religious literacy even matter? What does it mean to know that I am a Christian, but not be able to name Catholicism’s seven sacraments? What does it mean that I’m a Muslim who cannot name a sacred text of Hinduism? In short, whether I am a person of faith or not, why does my religious literacy, or the religious literacy of my neighbors, matter?

As the week progressed, our roundtable group coalesced around two responses to these types of questions.

First, learning about one’s own faith tradition demonstrates responsibility. Rights imply responsibilities. And if the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees Americans the right to practice their religion freely, then it necessarily also implies a corresponding responsibility. Part of that responsibility fundamentally involves proficiency, if not fluency, in the content of one’s faith tradition. It demands that believers understand what it is that one professes to believe and is able to articulate this belief clearly and respectfully in both the public and private arenas. A high level of religious literacy demonstrates respect for the sanctity of the freedom that the First Amendment protects: the freedom to believe.

Second, learning about another’s faith tradition fosters respect. In a country that constitutionally sanctions a diversity of religious traditions, Americans cannot afford ignorance of the beliefs of their neighbors. Moreover, in a religiously pluralistic society, putting these traditions in dialogue assumes a newfound importance. Religious literacy must be fostered, not for the end result, but for the sake of the process of learning about fellow citizens’ faith traditions. In the act of learning about belief systems and religious traditions outside the scope of one’s own, an individual necessarily demonstrates a minimum level of respect for the tradition of inquiry. By inquiring about a different faith tradition, one implicitly validates that faith tradition as worth learning about. Learning the “nuts and bolts” of various religious traditions enables not only Americans’ fluent discussion with their diverse neighbors. It also is a process that implicitly or explicitly recognizes that the reality of diversity lays the groundwork for navigating this landscape, guided by a sense of curiosity and mutual respect.

In our readings, discussions, and debates, points of divergence emerged. Differences in our own religious traditions, but also opinions on the conference’s topic of religion and diplomacy, proved to us precisely that which Dr. Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, reminded us in his keynote speech on the conference’s first evening: “Diversity is a fact.” We cannot pretend to be able to make everyone in the world believe the same thing. We can, however, through such dialogue, discussion, and debate, learn to respect the disagreements that diversity necessarily implies, and by doing so, respect the individuals who hold these beliefs. The week found my roundtable group beginning to do just that, to realize the respectful responsibility that accompanies religious literacy in a world of diversity.

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What They Forgot to Teach in Kindergarten: The Problem of Religious Illiteracy