Overcoming Religious Illiteracy

The following excerpt is from Diane Moore's article, “Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach.”

Author's note: I have the privilege of working with secondary school teachers and teacher educators in several parts of world for over a decade regarding issues related to teaching about religion from a nonsectarian perspective. I have learned a tremendous amount from these dedicated professionals and continue to be inspired by their rich competences and shared commitments to empowering forms of education. I have also learned that many of the assumptions they bring and issues they face regarding teaching about religion in the schools are surprisingly similar to those of educators in the United States. Thus, although this article is essentially an overview of themes I address in more depth in my forthcoming book Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Multicultural Approach to Teaching About Religion in Secondary Schools (NY: Palgrave, 2007), I have tried to frame my presentation here in a way that I hope will also be relevant for colleagues outside of my own U.S. context.

The premises of this essay are threefold: First, there exists a widespread illiteracy about religion that spans the globe; second, one of the most troubling and urgent consequences of this illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism, thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for pluralism, peaceful coexistence and cooperative endeavors in local, national and global arenas; and third, it is possible to diminish religious illiteracy by teaching about religion from a nonsectarian perspective in primary and secondary schools.

By religious illiteracy, I mean the lack of understanding about 1) the basic tenets of the world's religious traditions; 2) the diversity of expressions and beliefs within traditions that emerge and evolve in relation to differing social/historical contexts; and 3) the profound role that religion plays in human social, cultural, and political life in both contemporary and historical contexts. Conversely, I define religious literacy in the following way:

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; and 2) the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place.

These definitions presume that religion is a social/cultural phenomenon that is embedded in human political, social and cultural life. They also presume that religion shapes and is shaped by the social/historical contexts out of which particular religious expressions and influences emerge. Finally, these definitions presume that there is a difference between religion understood through the lens of personal devotional practice and the academic study of religion. One way to characterize this distinction is to recognize the difference between religious learning (or learning religion) through a devotional lens and learning about religion from an academic one. Both are legitimate enterprises that can serve complementary but distinctive ends.

In the following pages I offer a brief explanation of the three premises articulated above and then make a case for the importance of teaching about religion in schools from a nonsectarian perspective. I then offer an outline of both a theory and a method for how to teach about religion that can be incorporated in and adapted to diverse global contexts. I close with brief remarks summarizing a method for educating teachers about how to enhance their own religious literacy.

Premise Number One: There exists a widespread illiteracy about religion that spans the globe.

In my work with educators in East Africa, Pakistan, India, Indonesia and the United States, I have found that in spite of tremendous differences between and within these communities there is a marked similarity in their approach to and understanding of religion as represented the by the following shared practices and assumptions:

  1. Religious traditions are often represented inaccurately by individuals who define themselves as "religious" as well as those who self-define as "non-religious." For those who define themselves as "religious," this inaccuracy often manifests itself in relationship to their own traditions as well as the faith traditions of others.
  2. Religious traditions are often represented as internally uniform and static as opposed to diverse and evolving.
  3. Religion is deeply and nearly exclusively equated with sectarianism in ways that render the study of religion a difficult concept to grasp and apply.
  4. Practitioners of a given religious tradition are assumed to be the best sources of information about the tradition and are often looked to formally or informally as "experts." This fails to recognize the distinction between an academic study of religion and the devotional expression of a particular religious worldview.
  5. In some contexts, religion is interpreted as a "private" affair distinct from the secular "public" sphere of political, economic and cultural life.


These common practices and assumptions expressed by educators about religion are widespread and often indicative of their fellow citizens. They are manifestations of the religious illiteracy that I define above and should not be interpreted as evidence of a lack of intellectual capability or awareness on the part of those who harbor these and similar assumptions. Given that the main sources of information about religion come from training in or about one's own religious tradition (or none) and the media, it should come as no surprise that these and other forms of religious illiteracy are widespread. Appropriately, individuals who are raised in or convert to a certain faith tradition will learn about that tradition within their faith communities or through sectarian forms of education in the schools aimed at promoting a particular religious worldview and values that are consonant with it. Individuals who are not religious also learn particular worldviews and associated values from family and/or community members. In relationship to religion, these values are often a-religious or anti-religious. The other main source of information about religion is the media whose coverage about religion is notoriously inconsistent at best and not a reliable source for representing the complexity of religious traditions and their diverse manifestations and influences. None of these sources expose individuals to a comprehensive study of religion whereby 1) the diversity within a given tradition is knowledgeably and sympathetically represented and 2) religion as a social/cultural phenomenon is explored and analyzed. Such an understanding requires an academic approach to the study of religion and although there are some schools that offer instruction representing this approach in primary and secondary education, relatively few citizens of the world have the opportunity to engage in this type of inquiry.

Premise Number Two: One of the most troubling and urgent consequences of religious illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for pluralism, peaceful coexistence and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.

I am certainly not suggesting that religious illiteracy is the sole or even primary cause of the heartbreaking violence that dominates local and global news stories. I do, however, believe that religious illiteracy is often a contributing factor in fostering a climate whereby certain forms of bigotry and misrepresentation can emerge unchallenged and thus serve as one form of justification for violence and marginalization. Many others share this concern as evidenced by a recent online consultation focusing on this topic that was sponsored by the United Nations. One well-studied example of the negative consequences of religious illiteracy is Christian forms of anti-Semitism that have been promoted wittingly and unwittingly and which have fueled countless atrocities against the Jewish people for centuries, including (but sadly not restricted to) the Holocaust. Another example in countries where Muslims are in the minority is the widespread association of Islam with terrorism and the consequent justification of individual hate crimes against those perceived to be Muslim as well as overt (or barely veiled) political rhetoric that lends justification for State sponsored acts of aggression, including war. A third example is the antagonisms that are fueled between different expressions of the same tradition (e.g. between Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians and between Sunni and Shi'i Muslims). A fourth and final example is when some dismiss religion altogether as obsolete, irrational and/or inherently oppressive thereby offending the dignity and sensibilities of people of faith everywhere.

Training in religious literacy provides citizens with the tools to better understand religion as a complex and sophisticated social/cultural phenomenon and individual religious traditions themselves as internally diverse and constantly evolving as opposed to uniform, absolute and ahistorical. Learning about religion as a social/cultural phenomenon also helps people recognize, understand and critically analyze how religion has been and will continue to be used to justify the full range of human agency from the heinous to the heroic. Finally, those trained in religious literacy learn to question the accuracy of universal claims such as "Islam is a religion of peace" or "Judaism and Islam are incompatible" thereby helping to deepen discourse about religion in the public sphere. Learning about religion is no guarantee that religious bigotry and chauvinism will cease, but it will make it more difficult for such bigotry and chauvinism to be unwittingly reproduced and promoted.

Premise Number Three: It is possible to diminish religious illiteracy by teaching about religion from a nonsectarian perspective in primary and secondary schools.

Given the prominence of religion in human history and contemporary affairs it would seem that education about religion from a nonsectarian perspective would be widespread and popular. This is unfortunately not the case. There are several reasons for this, but the most prominent and relevant for our discussion is that education about religion in the manner promoted here is not without controversy. Conservative religious practitioners from many faith traditions often oppose learning about religion in schools for they feel that it is the role of faith communities and families to teach about religion from their own theological perspectives. Learning about religion from an academic lens presumes the legitimacy of multiple religious worldviews which is theologically problematic in some circles. On the other hand, many others who identify as religious and non religious alike fear that if religion is introduced in the schools some teachers will inevitably proselytize either by intention or default due to a lack of adequate training and clear understanding of the distinction between an academic and devotional approach. These are legitimate concerns that merit attention and I offer the following two responses below.

First, it is important to note that religion is already being taught in classrooms across the globe in intentional and unintentional ways. Uninformed and often unconscious assumptions about religion are transmitted on a regular basis to students who, in turn, absorb these assumptions without interrogation. Teachers who have participated in training seminars about how to teach about religion commonly lament with chagrin the false and/or problematic assumptions regarding religion that they unwittingly promoted and reproduced prior to their training. For example, one teacher in Kenya spoke about how before participating in a seminar on Islam she wrongly interpreted Miriam Ba's text So Long a Letter as "an indictment against Islam as inherently oppressive to women." This is one of the texts approved for use in the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum and she commented that her entire department made the same problematic assumptions about the text. There are dozens of other examples that I could offer along these lines. Given this reality, I believe it is better to educate about religion directly and to give teachers the training they need to do so more responsibly than they are often currently able to do.

Second, the objections cited above highlight an important point: this form of teaching about religion is not neutral and needs to be justified (or not) in light of the larger aims associated with the nature and purpose of the educational enterprise itself as defined in specific local contexts. Most schools and/or systems of education have articulated a statement of purpose or mission statement reflecting the vision of education they seek to promote. On a larger scale, many nations have imbedded in their own narrative histories the values they hope to instill in their citizens through education in the schools. In some cases, the larger educational values that are articulated may lead to a clear decision not to include the study of religion from a nonsectarian lens in the curricula. This would be true, for instance, in some (but not all) intentionally sectarian schools whose aim is to promote a particular theological worldview. For many others, however, the larger goals of education are quite compatible with learning about religion in this way. This is especially true in contexts where pluralism and the cultivation of respect for diversity are values explicitly articulated. For example, I make a case in my book for why teaching about religion in the United States is an important dimension of educating for democratic citizenship in the context of our own multicultural, multi-religious pluralism. The position I develop in the manuscript is too lengthy to reproduce here, but the point I want to emphasize is that education is never neutral and therefore all educational decisions (including content, pedagogical practices and assessment standards) need to be justified in light of a larger educational vision that is intentionally articulated and embraced. It is sound practice for any educator to consciously align beliefs with practices in this way, but especially important when engaging in potentially controversial issues such as teaching about religion. Being transparent about the larger goals of the educational enterprise also provides a forum for open deliberation about those goals in ways that will strengthen public discourse and accountability.


  • pluralism : The term refers to the belief that diversity is an asset to a society. See also: multiculturalism.

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