We live in a time when seemingly difficult conversations – including around race, gender, and sexual orientation – have become an important part of the public discourse. However, one arena, central to many people’s lives, affecting our world every day, usually remains out-of-bounds: interreligious dialogue and the literacy it offers.
Religion is a critical aspect of most people’s identity. It shapes how millions of our fellow citizens (and perhaps you as well) understand their place in the world. It provides a framework of values that orient their actions. And yet, as a society, we are largely illiterate about religion – and especially about minority religions – a reality that incites misunderstanding, problematic assumptions and prejudices, and, in the worst cases, violence. In societies that are becoming more diverse every day, it is imperative that we to start addressing the question of religious literacy.
What is Religious Literacy?
Religious literacy involves education about diverse religious communities in a non-sectarian, non-proselytizing manner. The goal is neither conversing or disproving or challenging religious claims. Instead, it seeks to gain a basic functional knowledge of the religious perspectives and practices of our fellow citizens.
Religious literacy is not about doctrines – it’s about people. The goal is to make us reasonably conversant with the traditions and perspectives that inform each other’s lives so that we can better understand one another and communicate more easily and genuinely. Without religious literacy, we are left feeling ignorant and ill-equipped to talk with one another, fostering silos and isolation, and opening the door to harmful stereotypes. Religious literacy is not only personally valuable, it’s socially imperative to foster communities where everyone feels heard, where we all feel we belong.
Complicating the Quest
We have never been more diverse. Half a century ago, Western societies were overwhelmingly Christian. This was true both demographically (most people identified as such) and socially, as Christian stories and perspectives were shared in numerous contexts. TV hosts and novelists made Christian references casually, Christian holidays were widely recognised and celebrated, and Christian stories were often used to express and teach social values. Such a situation created religious literacy among Christians about themselves. It also marginalised religions outside of this framework whose adherents often faced harsh ostracising and sometimes violent discrimination.
Today our societies are vastly different. The ‘spiritual but not religious’ are multiplying, as are non-Christian religious communities in American neighbourhoods everywhere. In our schools, our workplaces, and our communities, we encounter a wide range of religious, secular, and spiritual identities – something unimaginable a few decades ago.
Existing minority religious communities continue to grow, due partly to immigration and partly to a younger generation, with more people of child-bearing age. So, our societies are more religiously diverse than ever and become more so with each passing year.
We Live in a Time of Rising Hate Crimes: Unfortunately, heightened diversity has come with a significant rise in hate crimes. Hate crimes data show a significant spike in hate crimes in 2017 in countries like the USA and Canada with another significant spike over the past two years.
Among religious groups, Jews are the number one target. The 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was the worst mass murder of Jews in American history. Two more synagogue shootings came within a year. Not far behind Antisemitism is Islamophobia. Two of the worst atrocities in Canada in recent years occurred when a man walked into a Quebec city mosque in 2017 and gunned down six men. In 2021 a driver intentionally ran over a Muslim family of four while they waited to cross the street.
A police officer I work with said to me, “When someone steals a bike, it affects that person. But hate crimes affect a whole community.” Theft is about goods; hate is about identity. It is personal and visceral in a way that completely erodes people’s sense of safety.
Interreligion can invoke silence and discomfort. What is our response to growing diversity and rising hate crimes? Frankly, as a society, we just don’t know how to talk about it. Of courses there are public statements during high-profile incidents. But the more fundamental issue – namely that the hatred comes from ignorance – is not something we are addressing on large scale. We hear calls for decency and kindness, but they aren’t enough.
What is really needed is a concerted effort to create connection and understanding so that fear and hate never arise in the first place. Respectful, in-depth conversation among people from different religious traditions remains the gold standard and is rarely achieved. When I do presentations in workplaces and other settings about religious literacy, immigrants in the room often note that this aspect of North American culture surprised them.
Most remember that where they grew up, one could ask about someone’s religion the same way you asked if they had any children. But here, people learn that interreligion is somehow volatile, an improper topic best avoided. The resulting silence suggests to newcomers that a key part of them is in some way taboo. Not only does that dissolve a sense of belonging; it keeps us in our silos, ignorant of our neighbours.
What Can Be Done?
I propose that religious literacy should be addressed in three different arenas.
First, schools: Schools must never advocate for religion or proselytise in any way. But just as we learn history and civics in order to become adults who understand our society, we need similar programs addressing our many religions. This approach is taken in the United Kingdom where the school system educates students about religion in its many expressions. Students are actually very curious about this information. We like learning about our peers and the communal and family traditions that structure their lives. My organization has worked with high schools and universities for the past two decades. Religion Matters, led by Tim Hall, provides a wealth of resources and guidance.
Workplaces: Leading research in organisational effectiveness has found that psychological safety is one of the largest predictors of productivity. Psychological safety might sound like coddling, but it’s the opposite. Harvard researcher Amy Edmondson calls it “permission for candour,” which arises in environments where we feel we belong. That sense of acceptance creates the safety required were we to challenge the team’s current approach or venture an idea that falls flat. It opens the space to divergent thinking, which Google found is critical to high functioning teams.
However, those with religious minority identities often lack this sense of belonging at work. A Canadian study found that 39% of religious minorities are uncomfortable speaking up at work (a number that was worse than those for racial minorities or women) while American research shows discrimination in hiring if a person’s religious identity is known. Some organisations have started addressing this through workplace education and the creation of employee resource groups (ERGs) that are either interfaith or for specific faith identity. These ERGs create community at work and often use holidays and other events to educate their colleagues about the beliefs and practices of their tradition.
Communities: Religious literacy initiatives should use every effort to reach members of the public. Libraries, social clubs, community centres, sanctuaries and more. are all great places to foster increased education and understanding. Many faith communities have programs like open houses or dedicated people who do community education. There are organisations and institutions that can help, such as the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program, Harvard’s Religion and Public initiative, and my own organization, Encounter World Religions, which works in all three of the above domains.
In short, we are becoming more diverse every day. We are surrounded by people of different ethno-religious backgrounds at work, school, in our neighbourhood, and, increasingly, even in our own families. As we engage with one another, what will these interactions look like? Will they be governed by a certain level of apprehensiveness that comes from our proclivity to fear what we don’t understand? Or will we break the spell of ignorance and taboo. Will we foster in its place engagement, encounter, and familiarity by taking the time to learn about each other and the religious, spiritual, and/or secular systems that shape our lives and create a society where we all belong?