Religious Literacy—Another Dead End?

“Religious literacy.” Nerds say it is a “critical dimension of understanding human affairs.” In some cases, it might be a question of life and death. Even your humble editor makes a plea for it in his new book. But as we’ve seen from other fields, it might just be a waste of time.


The deadly consequences of angry ignorance.

The latest call came from Peter Feuerherd in the pages of JSTOR Daily. He made a strong case that poorly informed religious antagonisms fueled the deadly government assault on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, c. 1993. Seventy-six people died. With a little more “religious literacy” on the part of the government forces, Feuerherd argues, the death toll could have been avoided.

As Feuerherd put it,

with a little more patience and understanding of biblical theology, the massive loss of life could have been avoided. . . . Religion scholars argued that the FBI’s impatience at Waco grew out of theological ignorance and unquestioned assumptions. . . . Waiting longer, by offering Koresh the attention he felt his theological views deserved, would have averted the tragedy, said religion scholars who spoke out in its aftermath.

We might dispute Feuerherd’s conclusion, but it seems likely that a soldier who views his enemy as a “desperate apocalyptic cult” is probably going to be more aggressive than one who views his enemy as a “church meeting.”

As the Religious Literacy Project of Harvard Divinity School argues, religious illiteracy is a significant human problem: “it fuels conflict and antagonisms and hinders cooperative endeavors in all arenas of human experience.”

As I work on my new book about American creationism, I too fall into a sort of “religious literacy” argument. People need to understand creationist religion as it really is, I argue, not as some sort of Creation-Museum, Jesus-on-a-dinosaur cartoon.

But are all these arguments about “religious literacy” doomed from the start?

After all, in the field of creation/evolution debates, we’ve seen that notions of “scientific literacy” miss the point. Creationism is not simply an “illiteracy.” Creationists don’t yearn for knowledge of mainstream science. Rather, creationism is a strong and internally coherent alternative science.

If we want to change people’s minds about evolutionary science, thinking about them as “illiterate” won’t help. If we do, we will fall into Bill Nye’s ineffective brand of “save-the-world” missionary endeavor. As Nye sees it, creationism represents one facet of America’s “striking science illiteracy.” Nye’s answer is to go on TV and go to the Creation Museum and explain, explain, explain.

It won’t work. Bill Nye won’t save the world. Why not? Because the notion of “science literacy” is at heart naïve. As science-communication guru Dan Kahan might say, “literacy” is not a helpful concept in this case.

Bill Nye will not save the world by explaining science to it. Creationism, climate-change denialism, and other zombie sciences do not merely reflect an absence of knowledge about science. They do not suffer from “illiteracy.” Rather, they are obstreperous and lively alternative sciences. If we want to convince their adherents of anything, we need to do more than just tell them about better science.

Is the same true with “religious literacy?” I agree wholeheartedly that people can and should be better educated about all religions, especially ones that we tend to think of as threatening or hostile. But precisely because people think of many religions as threatening and hostile, I think we need to do more than just spread information around. We need to think of this as something other than “illiteracy.”

People KNOW things about religion in most cases, but those things can be false and those falsehoods can be dangerous, even deadly. Talking about “literacy” obfuscates this crucial point. So what would be better?

We could copy Dan Kahan and toss out “religious literacy” in favor of “religion communication.” Or, as many activists do, we could switch from talking about “literacy” to talking about “toleration.” Or even “appreciation.”

coexist bumper sticker

Is THIS the goal?

None of those options feels right. We don’t want to imply that we are trying to convert people from one religion to another. We don’t want to fall into the go-nowhere liberal trap of calling on people from different religions to merely “co-exist.” To my mind, anyway, that approach downplays the vital universal claims of many of the religions themselves.

What are we really after? Informed understanding about religious traditions besides our own…right? That’s more than “literacy,” and “literacy” implies that the knowledge is coveted by all and value-neutral. We need another term to describe this important goal.

What is it?

Leave a comment


  1. I think you used a good term – ‘informed understanding.’ This does not imply any kind of acceptance, endorsement, tolerance, etc. Sadly most religionists do not seek understanding but rather are focused on proclaiming the truth of their religion and the false teachings of every other.

    • How do you know that most religious people don’t seek to understand, and why do you think that it’s just religious people that don’t?

      • Second question first since it’s straightforward – I never claimed that it was only religious people who don’t seek to understand. Obviously there are both religious and non-religious alike who could be considered as not interested in understanding. First question is observation; there are about 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.1 billion Christians among the 5 billion or so folks who claim to adhere to a religion. There are over seventy sects of both Islam and Christianity, although there are data that indicate more than 40,000 different subsets/brands of Christians. To me this indicates that even within one religion, there is not much practical interest in understanding the other; if there was, there would not be sects. The title of Adam’s blog sums up the attitude of many, and points toward the major emphasis being who’s in and who’s out.

      • You’re not wrong, but this is a bad way to make the point. The proliferation of sectarian identities and even internal schisms based in historical conflicts aren’t necessarily exclusive of universalizing values and tendencies, or a quest for understanding beyond the idols of one’s own tribe. There are historical examples of both outward embrace of others and new ideas in the major religions as well as an inward focus and a dogmatically closed stance toward others and reality. Each person and group is capable of either posture, and in each you can see both on display. Today we can generalize that the western abrahamic faiths are tending increasingly toward the inward/closed attitude that is a reaction to and catalyst for trauma and conflict. Even Alasdair MacIntyre says the internal tension in Christianity between obedience and the questioning search for truth is enormous and not resolvable — see his little book, based on a class he taught at Notre Dame, called _God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition_. I would agree with those who say Evangelical/Fundamentalist Protestantism is incapable of ever getting even that far, and the same goes for Fundamentalist Islam. Oddly the two groups do not recognize how they mirror each other.

  2. Paul Boyer was one of the scholars whom the FBI consulted during the Branch Davidian crisis, and afterward he expressed great frustration with the fact that in the end the Bureau would not take Koresh’s theological commitments seriously. (Oh, and congrats on the creationism book project!)

    • Thank you! I’m leaning on RACM heavily in my chapter about creationist institutions, “What Not to Know and How Not to Know It.” And I’m not surprised to hear that Professor Boyer was on the FBI’s short list. More proof that you never need to leave the friendly confines of Madison, Wisconsin. The world will come to you.

    • What difference could it possibly make? They were heavily armed and holed up with kids.

  3. If you’re talking about creationisms that reject evolution or the true age of the earth (etc) there is nothing coherent about it, nor is it religion. It’s false facts and bad science mixed up with politicized religion. There’s nothing in this to tolerate or respect. Awareness of the history and psychology of these kinds if creationists is worthwhile in combatting them.

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