APU Online Learning Original

Religious Literacy: Knowing Answers to Essential Questions

By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Department Chair, Communication and World Languages Programs

Why is having religious literacy important? Before this query can be properly answered, we should consider these essential questions:

  • Why is religion important for people?
  • Why is religion important for communities and countries?
  • Why is it important to know why people follow a religion or do not follow a religion?
  • How can you connect with and understand people better if you know about their religion?
  • Why is it important to not be judgmental when it comes to religion?
  • Can you still be friends with someone if you are a different religion or a different denomination?

Why Is Religion Important for People?

Religion is important because it is one way that we try to explain our existence on this planet. Humans have, do, and will always practice religion in one form or another.

Religious scholars assume that humans practiced some sort of religion when people lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, a period of time that is estimated to go back around 1.9 million years ago and ended around 12,000 years ago with the advent of the Neolithic era.  Now, we still practice religion even when all the vestiges of our hunter-gatherer past have been abandoned.

Why Is Religion Important for Communities and Countries?

With religion being a fundamental part of human existence, why should we know more than just what we know individually, as a family or as a community? It’s because the world is often very different from the religious and demographic makeup of the country we live in. Here is the religious makeup of the U.S., according to a recent Pew Research Center study:

  • 70.6% Christian, including Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, Catholic and Latter-Day Saints (Mormon)
  • 5.9% other faiths: 1.9% Jewish, 0.9% Muslim, 0.7% Buddhist and 0.7% Hindu
  • 22.8% unaffiliated, including none, agnostic and atheist
  • 0.6% Don’t know

A different Pew Research Center study published in 2017 shows that other nations around the world follow a different pattern of religious affiliations:

  • 31.2% Christian
  • 24.1% Muslim
  • 16% Unaffiliated
  • 15.1% Hindu
  • 6.9% Buddhist
  • 5.7% Folk religions
  • 0.8% Other religions
  • 0.2% Jewish

Why Is It Important to Know Why People Follow a Religion or Do Not Follow a Religion?

There is a huge difference between the religious makeup of the world other than the mainly Christian affiliation of the U.S. population. For instance, there are 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide. According to Pew, the number of Christians and Muslims will almost become equal at around three billion each by 2060.

In addition to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there are just over one billion Hindus. In addition, there are hundreds of millions of Buddhists, millions of people in other religions and over a billion who are unaffiliated with any particular religion.

The worldwide diversity of religion extends beyond the top four of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. There are an estimated 4,000-plus religions in the world. These additional religions include Jainism, Sikhism, Shinto and Bahai, and there are also regional folk religions that only have a few thousand adherents each.

With so many religions in the world, how do we become religiously literate? The Harvard Divinity School quotes an excellent definition of religious literacy created by religion expert Diane L. Moore:

  • 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.
  • The ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place. 

In a similar vein, the American Academy of Religion uses a slightly different definition of religious literacy.

If you take this approach religious literacy, it will take a great deal of study to become familiar with just the “Big Four” religions of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Judaism should also be an area of study, since it is an important faith in the U.S. and the foundation of the Abrahamic religions.

Just trying to understand the cultural origins of each religion, their beliefs and practices, and how these have changed over the years would take a great deal of study. However, growing your familiarity with world religions would give you a useful insight into around 77.3% of the world’s population.

Also, you could investigate other numerically popular religions including Shintoism, Confucianism, various Chinese traditional religions and Jainism. These religions will mainly introduce you to Asian and South Asian religions, especially the wide diversity of religions that exist in China but have been restricted because of its communist government over the last 70 years.

After these religions, you should investigate the numerically significant portion of the world that is unaffiliated or does not align itself with any particular religion. This population contains the nones, agnostics, atheists, and people who just do not care or worry about religion.

Around 16% of the world is unaffiliated with any particular religion, with most of that population in Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea and Japan. After these Asian countries, various European or Western countries have a similar percentage of their population that is unaffiliated.

Interestingly, Russia and the U.S. have an almost identical percentage of unaffiliated people. Another part of religious literacy is knowing about why people and groups of people are unaffiliated and what it means to be a none, an agnostic, or an atheist.

Related link: How to Teach Controversial Subjects Such as Religion

How Can You Connect with and Understand People Better If You Know about Their Religion?

One of the difficulties of religious literacy is just the sheer quantity of information that must be learned. Learning the basics of world religions would give you a greater understanding of each religion, how they view the world, how the individual is placed within the religion and how they view the metaphysical.

Using this approach to religious literacy is more on par with religious studies, rather than how religion truly impacts the individual. As Harvard Divinity School states, “Critical to this definition is the importance of understanding religions and religious influences in context and as inextricably woven into all dimensions of human experience.” It is important, above everything else, to understand how religion and the individual intersect and how people live their lives in relation to their religion.

Besides learning why people follow a religion and the different grades of religiosity, it is important to understand why some people do not follow a religion. As with many difficult and complex questions, you, as a fully formed critical thinker, need to answer those questions yourself. You should not rely on others to tell you the answers, especially if the answers are simple, biased or not well researched.

Why Is It Important to Not Be Judgmental When It Comes to Religion?

Where religion is concerned, there is nothing more unproductive than being judgmental. Religion is one of those concepts that has many people follow completely different paths, books and “truths” their entire lives. The more empathetic and accepting of other people and their religion that you demonstrate, the better you will understand and get along with them.

Related link: Podcast: Learning about Religion Leads to a Greater Understanding of People

Can You Still Be Friends with Someone If You Are a Different Religion or a Different Denomination?

Yes, it’s possible to still be friends with people from another religion. The world is not against you or your religion, but you are part of a community of people who live together and all work for a better future. You, and your belief system, are part of this world and by knowing the people around you, you can help make the world a better place. 

If you want to learn more about the religions of the world at the University, please consider RELS201 World Religion, taught as a part of our online bachelor of arts in religion. In this course, you will learn about the major religions of the world, their beliefs and practices, and how they connect to each other and the individual.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Department Chair in the School of Arts, Humanities and Education. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and a MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about culture, leadership, and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

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