Religious Literacy and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue

(Part 3)

Shlomo C. Pill

Parliament of the World’s Religions, Chicago, United States, 1893. Wikimedia.


Part three of this series on interfaith dialogue focuses on religious literacy. Religious illiteracy is a widespread phenomenon and can seriously hamper attempts to engage in at least some forms of interfaith dialogue.  Notably, this problem is not exclusively one of interfaith illiteracy as many people exhibit religious illiteracy about even their own faiths. Both kinds of religious illiteracy can complicate interfaith dialogue.  


What Does it Mean to be Religiously Literate?

What exactly are we talking about when we speak about religious literacy? According to Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero, religious literacy is “the ability to understand and use in one’s day-to-day life the basic building blocks of religious traditions—their key terms, symbols, doctrines, practices, sayings, characters, metaphors, and narratives.” Several scholars have offered significant critiques of Prothero’s account, however. Some have argued that this conceptualization of religious literacy focuses too much on objective religious facts—texts, doctrines, symbols and their meanings—and far too little on subjective religious experiences. Others have suggested that Prothero seriously underestimates the importance of understanding the ways religions, religious individuals, and religious communities are situated in their broader political, social, cultural, legal, economic, ethnic, and other contexts.  Lived religion is not a construction of the ivory tower, nor is it grown in a sterile laboratory; to be literate in religion means to not only understand religion as a kind of static ideal form, but to also understand religion as a dynamic thing that is constantly both influencing and being influenced by myriad contextual factors that lie outside the strictly ecumenical sphere.

This last critique raises another important point: even defining “religious literacy” is hardly a religion-neutral project. Prothero’s account of religious literacy belies a distinctly Western Christian—and perhaps Protestant—mindset in which religion is defined in terms of beliefs, theology, doctrine, worship, ritual, narrative, etc. But it is not self-evident that this way of thinking about religion is helpful for attaining literacy about non-Christian traditions. Many scholars of religion have argued and continue to argue that even the term “religion” carries strong Western Christian, and especially Protestant, undercurrents that are simply orthogonal to organic Jewish and Muslim ways of thinking about their own faiths. Even leaving aside the obvious shift in religious ethos from religions rooted in faith and grace to traditions in which religious virtue is measured primarily in terms of right action and religious legal practice, Jewish and Islamic worldviews involve more than just the factors that Prothero notes as being key to religious literacy. Religion is about worship, origin stories, symbols, and beliefs, but it is also about economics, politics, culture, art, literature, philosophy, even architecture, urban planning, agriculture, manufacturing, and so on. 

With these concerns in mind, I tend to be more inclined to Diane Moore’s approach to defining religious literacy. Moore is a leading scholar in the field of religion and director of Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project. For Moore, religious literacy entails understanding the basic tenets and teachings of the faith; the diversity of expressions and beliefs within the faith that have evolved in relation to varied contexts; and the profound role that the religion plays in human social, cultural, political, and economic life in contemporary and historical contexts. A religiously literate person ought to have a working understanding of the history, central texts, beliefs, practices, and contemporary expressions of a faith tradition, and the ways that they arose from and continue to shape and be shaped by particular social and historical contexts. In part, this means understanding the religious dimensions of political, social, cultural, and other “secular” expressions of human experience in varied temporal and geographic settings.  

Religious traditions and communities are too often represented as internally uniform and static, rather than as diverse, dynamic, and evolving.

This sounds intimidating—and it is. Moore sets a high bar for religious literacy, and this is sensible if religious literacy is to be useful in facilitating greater interfaith engagement and dialogue. It is also worth noting that while religious literacy is not religious proficiency, it is also not the same as religious fluency. Indeed, confusing the two is a major pitfall in making interfaith literacy do some of the heavy lifting in interfaith exchanges.

It may be helpful to think of gaining religious literacy as being a lot like learning a new language. We may speak about gaining proficiency in both formal knowledge and colloquial usage of a foreign language; we may consider the kinds of book learning, immersion experiences, grammar exercises, topical vocabulary, and so on that may be helpful at achieving literacy; and we may think about the different kinds of foreign language literacy one might seek to achieve—academic literacy, business literacy, tourist literacy, etc. In all cases, however, we recognize that foreign language proficiency is a different animal altogether and entails not merely memorizing vocabulary or understanding grammar and syntax but also a kind of intuitive feel for the ways in which the objective forms of the language interact with other phenomena—politics, economics, culture, literature, entertainment, and so on. 

It is helpful to think of religious literacy along similar lines. One may seek to become religiously literate in different senses. Prothero offers one model, and Moore offers another. Religious literacy could involve the kind of objective, external knowledge about a religious tradition typically associated with academia; it could be the more intuitive, internal perspective of a religion’s ethos and way of being; it could be broad or narrow in scope; shallow or deep. One can engage in religious learning or in learning religion—and the distinction is an important one. Nevertheless, in almost all cases there will be a substantial gap between religious literacy and religious proficiency; one can learn about a tradition, but an outsider will almost never become a true insider so long as they remain on the outside looking in.

Why Religious Illiteracy?

With some sense of what we mean when we speak about religious literacy, let’s briefly consider some of the reasons why such religious literacy is too often lacking, even among many people engaged in various forms of interfaith dialogue.

First, there is often resistance to the idea of teaching or discussing religion in any kind of serious, normative way. This is true for obvious reasons in the American public education system, where current understandings of constitutional law permit only objective teaching about religion; religion may be taught, but religious teaching is prohibited. There are very good reasons for this, and I don’t mean to seriously question the limitation. The drawbacks must be recognized; however, it makes it quite difficult for students to gain any real religious literacy at a young age. The same is largely true when it comes to teaching religion in private schools—which often have their own parochial commitments, and exhibit relatively limited interest in cultivating deep and broad interfaith literacy—and in universities, where studying religion from an internal devotional perspective that provides real understanding of religious communities and experiences is avoided.  

To the extent that religion is taught, it often fails to move us towards any substantial religious literacy in part because religious traditions are often represented inaccurately, often by those who are not themselves deeply invested or innately familiar with the complexities of those traditions and the ways they interact with social, political, cultural, and other factors. When religions are taught by practitioners of those faiths, educators’ personal investments in the traditions they are teaching can manifest in biased presentations and limited exposure to the various manifestations of the faith. Whether represented by outsiders or insiders, religious traditions and communities are too often represented as internally uniform and static, rather than as diverse, dynamic, and evolving. Even when diversity within religious traditions is acknowledged, it is too often used to make sectarianism a focal point of religious experience and outlooks, as is the case in many presentations of Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.  

Both teachers and students of religion also often hold a host of embedded assumptions about religion—some consciously, many others entirely unconsciously but deeply rooted in their frames of reference. These biases—and I use the term descriptively, not pejoratively—can make it quite difficult for one to genuinely wrap their head around religion, and can make it especially challenging to attain literacy across multiple faith traditions. To use one example, in many contexts, religion is viewed as a matter of private conscience that is distinct from the “secular” public sphere of political, economic, and cultural life. This reflects a very Western Christian—very Protestant—way of thinking about religion that sometimes results in framing knowledge of other traditions in terms and with questions that simply fail to adequately account for the ways those faiths see the world and themselves.

What Does this Mean for Interfaith Dialogue?

Religious literacy is an important prerequisite for effective interfaith dialogue.  Religious illiteracy is a contributing factor to social, political, legal, cultural—and yes, even academic and intellectual climates—in which certain kinds of religious intolerance, bigotry, and close mindedness can take root and grow. Such religious intolerance, bigotry, and close mindedness helps cultivate environments in which suspicion and hostility among, between, and even within religious groups can—and depending on other factors, will—thrive. While interfaith dialogue is often seen as a panacea for such ills, I would argue that in the kind of context in which interfaith strife born of interfaith illiteracy tends to thrive, interfaith dialogue is almost invariably a matter of preaching to the converted. Those who are suspicious, prejudiced, and intolerant of the religious other will likely not be sitting at the interfaith dialogue table. That has been my own experience, at least, and I therefore tend to think it best to view religious literacy as a foundation for interfaith dialogue rather than interfaith dialogue as the cure for religious illiteracy. 

That said, it is important to note that interfaith literacy is spectral and should not be approached as a one-size fits all kind of project. The kinds of religious literacy that should be developed, when, how, and by whom, are best tailored to the kinds of interfaith dialogue one seeks to generate. One needs different kinds of religious literacy to engage alternatively in the dialogue of everyday life and the dialogue of theological exchange. The dialogue of religious experience may require sufficient literacy to know that you should remove your shoes before entering a Mosque for a Friday prayer open to the community and that you should not bring a cake to a traditional Passover Seder. Engaging seriously and effectively in a dialogue of action, by contrast, can often demand more of a nuanced awareness of the ways in which a community’s religious ethos, beliefs, and practices implicate political, economic, educational, and social interests that can be leveraged into cooperative initiatives. One might formulate a general programmatic approach to offer broad and relatively shallow ways of remedying religious illiteracy in general, but it is important to appreciate that to the extent one means to take interfaith dialogue seriously, one must also think hard about how to deploy resources most effectively to garner the kinds of religious literacy most instrumental to one’s interfaith goals.

Another important observation: developing religious literacy can best be achieved by relying on teachers with sufficient credibility in the religious communities they are seeking to educate. There is an obvious and often difficult balance that has to be struck here, but it is an important one. On the one hand, religious illiteracy is often at least partially the result of poor teaching about religion. When it comes to developing religious literacy, therefore, depth, breadth and an intuitive feel for how a given faith tradition and community dynamically breaths and lives is critical. Too often, those teaching religious literacy lack the requisite knowledge of the religious tradition they are tasked with explaining. Recall, we are ideally setting the bar rather high: Religious literacy should encompass knowledge of religious facts—texts, doctrines, narratives, etc.—as well as the diversity of religious expressions and the way they relate to other phenomena and contexts in which they are situated. On some level, this is really insider knowledge and is best acquired from those who have not merely studied a faith from the outside, but those who have a native feel for that tradition’s religious experience. This poses a number of practical challenges, but I want to focus on the problem of credibility. If a Christian is most likely to attain some reasonable level of interfaith literacy about Judaism or Islam from a Jew or Muslim, we cannot avoid the fact that the Jewish or Muslim communicator of their own tradition faces a serious credibility problem. The same is of course true if the positions were reversed; Jews and Muslims are less likely to truly internalize understandings of Christianity presented by Christians absent other bases for trusting that such accounts are authentic and accurate rather than apologetics.

What can be done? Here, I think there are two important solutions. First, we should recognize the value of investing in developing real, deep, and genuine interfaith literacy within our respective faith communities. Christian communities need to support the cultivation of religious literacy about other faith traditions so that these interreligiously literate leaders can in turn provide qualified—but more importantly credible and persuasive—interfaith education to their own congregants and coreligionists. The same is true for Jewish, Muslim, and other communities.  

Moreover, interfaith literacy educators need to strive to not only to be fluent in their own traditions—that is a given—but to also be adequately literate in the language, doctrines, cultural currency, symbolism, and narratives of those of other traditions who they seek to educate about their own tradition. A Jewish educator may be well situated to help others become religiously literate in Judaism, but will be able to communicate to, say Muslims, a feel for Judaism in the kind of way we have been discussing only by being adequately literate in Islam. This can equip the Jewish educator to express Jewish concerns, concepts, traditions, practices, the complex various expressions of Judaism, and the ways in which they relate to other social phenomena in ways that utilize parallel ideas that already inhere in the Islamic faith and with which a Muslim audience will be intuitively familiar. Often, this translates into not only conveying information about Judaism, but to also giving a Muslim religious audience a genuine feel for Judaism as a dynamic organism. And the same is true, of course, for other faiths.  

This is religious literacy rather than merely knowledge of religious facts.



Shlomo C. Pill is a Senior Lecturer at Emory Law School and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. His teaching, research, lecturing and consulting work focuses on church-state issues, as well as religious law in both Judaism and Islam.