Ever been in an argument that seemed irreconcilable? Did this argument turn out to be an issue of miscommunication and a misunderstanding of where the other person was coming from?
An inability to communicate with someone different from us can often be the result of ignorance. Not knowing anything about your communication partner can lead to some hairy situations. Do you both speak the same language? If not, a lot can be lost in translation. Do you know the customs of their culture? If not, you could unknowingly offend them. It’s important to know something about those with whom we interact and, if we know nothing, to learn.
The same is true about religion. Having a basic understanding of the various faith traditions in the world is just as important as learning basic geography, another language, or history!
Yet, for years religion has been included in taboo topics for polite conversation and Miss Manners’ suggestion seems to have won the day in the United States.
A recent Pew Forum study revealed that 33 percent of Americans seldom discuss religion with people outside their family. Even within families the topic rarely comes under discussion with 39 percent of American seldom to never speaking about religion.
Silence around religion doesn’t help the country deal with its immense diversity. A lack of discussion leads to a lack of knowledge, which leads to misunderstandings which only foments discord between citizens.
Unfortunately, religious knowledge in the U.S. is minimal.
In 2010, Pew Forum surveyed the American population’s religious knowledge. Using a quiz of 32 questions, Pew Forum found that American religious literacy variable based on religious affiliation and education level. On average, Americans got 16 out of the 32 questions correct — or 50%.
You may be thinking, 50% that’s pretty good! Yea us, we know a decent amount about religion.
While that’s a fair assessment based on the Pew Forum study, religious literacy involves more than being able to recognize a tradition’s symbols or recite a few factoids. Religious literacy involves understanding the societal impact of religion.
Religion scholar Diane L. Moore defines religious literacy as:
“Religious literacy entails the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social/political/cultural life through multiple lenses.”
Moore suggests that knowing a religion through its rituals and scriptures does not provide a comprehensive understanding. Religious practices and texts should be the starting point, not the end goal. Ultimately religious literacy consists of historical context, multiple perspectives (especially non-Western ones), and firsthand accounts from adherents.
Historical context — Beliefs do not form in a vacuum. They are shaped by time, culture, technology, events, and people. What Christianity or Taoism was at its beginning does not reflect its current manifestations. Yet, it is still necessary to understand a religion’s origins and the context of its founding to being to comprehend its contemporary impact on society.
Multiple perspectives — Religions are not monolithic. One country’s, one community’s, one person’s interpretation does not apply to everyone. There are the basic tenants of each tradition and foundational scripture, but they do not educate us about how Catholicism as practiced in Mexico shapes interpersonal and familial relationships. Knowing the five pillars of Islam does not help you understand the various ways Islam influences life from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia and from Morocco to the United States. As for non-Western perspectives, it’s important to recognize the continuing influence of the colonial era on educational materials. Recognize that historical accounts and current perceptions of other people are informed by the disproven and outdated understandings of social hierarchy. Find sources that give voice and agency to those outside the Western world.
Firsthand accounts — People, people, people! There is nothing more lasting than an interfaith relationship. The information from a book or a film may fade from your memory, but meeting someone from that tradition and respectfully talking to them about their beliefs will last. In having a religiously diverse social network you are less likely to find someone else’s tradition antithetical to yours. What Robert Putnam and David Campbell call the “Aunt Susan Principle” allows for personal relationships to extend beyond the immediate connection. By knowing a Sikh, you are less likely to believe stereotypes and misinformation.
As mentioned, nothing beats meeting someone from the tradition. Search for an interfaith organization in your town, they may have discussion groups or visits to places of worship that will assist you in meeting new people.
Some online and book sources to help you get started:
Harvard University’s Religious Literacy Project
EdX’s course on religious texts is a good foundation
Your local library! Pick up a book about the history of some place you’ve never visited. Explore the religion section (trust me, it exists). Peruse the shelves for books about culture, social movements, politics, etc. Once you begin to expand your religious understanding and start to look, you’ll find religion everywhere and recognize the subtle impact of belief all around you!