Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

We’ve tentatively identified four big educational goals for the religious education programs in our church, and one of those goals is to make sure children have basic religious literacy compatible with the society they’re living in. More specifically, we want children who have gone through our program to know: (a) the main Bible stories they’re likely to encounter in Western culture (in literature, film, painting, etc.); (b) stories and facts about the main world religions they will encounter both in their immediate environment and in current events; (c) a basic knowledge of the history of Western religion (primarily Western Christianity), and in particular the history that led to the formation of Unitarianism and Universalism; and (d) the main characters and stories of Unitarianism and Universalism in North America.

Yesterday I had lunch with three of the lay leaders in the children’s religious education program to talk about assessment strategies for our religious education program. I suggested that part of our assessment strategy for this educational goal of religious literacy should be a list of the specific things we want to teach our kids; i.e., which Bible stories should kids know? which famous Unitarians and Universalists should they know? etc.

Below is my first attempt at generating such a list, with material to be covered from ages 3 to 18. I would love to have your comments on, suggestions for, corrections to, and additions to this list.


Religious Literacy for UU kids: A List

N.B.: In generating this list, I’ve made the following assumptions: (1) The list is aimed at people living in the United States; (2) The list assumes that in spite of increased diversity in the United States, Western culture remains by far the dominant culture; (3) The list does not assume that one religion (not even Unitarian Universalism) has sole access to “truth”; (4) The list assumes that “literacy” involves stories, facts, history, and written texts, rather than knowledge of how to participate in rituals, worship, etc.

Other things to remember before you comment: Please note that this list is meant to help define educational outcomes. Please note that tests will NOT be an assessment genre we plan to use. Please note that this list includes material to be covered from ages 3-18, at age-appropriate levels. Please note that I’m counting on no more than 30 contact hours per year over no more than eleven years, and that there are other goals besides religious literacy, so that this list is probably way too ambitious already.


    Bible stories: Bible stories important in Western culture

Hebrew Bible — Torah

Genesis: Creation story, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Abraham and Isaac, Lot’s escape from Sodom and Gomorrah, the story of Joseph
Exodus (and Numbers and Deuteronomy): Moses’s birth, the ten plagues, escape from slavery, Moses and the burning bush, the ten commandments, the Golden Calf, manna from heaven, entering the promised land
Leviticus Chapter 25 on the sabbatical year (included because this has been used recently and frequently by Christian and Jewish ecological activists)

The rest of the Hebrew Bible

Joshua Joshua and the battle of Jericho
Judges Deborah, Samson, Samson and Delilah
1 and 2 Samuel Saul’s madness and David’s harp, David and Goliath, David becomes king, Absalom’s revolt against David
1 and 2 Kings Solomon’s kingdom, Solomon’s wisdom, Solomon and Queen Sheba, the later kings and the exile to Babylon
Psalms and Proverbs Psalm 23; Proverbs 3.13-18; and there must be some other Psalms that should be included
Other books of the Hebrew Bible The exile in Babylon; Job’s story; Ruth and Naomi; the later prophets, including Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah; Daniel in the lion’s den; the philosophy of Ecclesiastes.


The story of the Maccabbees

Christian scriptures, a.k.a. the New Testament — the Gospels

Two birth stories of Jesus; John the Baptist.

Parables attributed to Jesus: the good Samaritan; parable of the sower; parable of the mustard seed; parable of the unforgiving servant; the parable of salt; prodigal son; parable of the unjust steward; rich man and Lazarus; the wicked tenants; parable of the talents;

Miracles attributed to Jesus: water into wine; walking on water; feeding of the five thousand (loaves and fishes); healing of Lazarus; expelling demons into pigs (please, no “deviled ham” jokes); the woman caught in adultery;

Other deeds and words attributed to Jesus: Sermon on the Mount; light under a bushel; the widow’s mite; paying tribute to Caesar;

The story of Jesus’s trial and execution by the Romans on trumped-up political charges.

Christian scriptures, a.k.a. the New Testament — Acts and all the rest

The book of Acts: Pentecost; Paul’s conversion (road to Damascus); Paul and Silas in jail; early Christian communities.

The book of Revelation: the four horsemen of the Apocalypse; the New Jerusalem down on earth


    Non-Western religious traditions


The life of Buddha: his birth; decision to be a monk; his enlightenment under the Bo tree

Earlier lives of Buddha: some Jataka tales

The four noble truths

The eightfold path

Hinduism (indigenous religions of India)

Basic stories of the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana

The story of the Bhagavad Gita

Key gods and goddesses: Brahma, Ganesh, Hanuman, Kali, Krishna, Lakshmi, Shiva, Rama, Vishnu

Ancient Greek religion

The stories of key gods and goddesses: Gaia, Ares, Aphrodite, Apollo, Athena, Demeter (and Persephone), Hades, Hera, Hermes, Hephaestus, Dionysus, Poseidon, Zeus, Hestia.

Other myths and stories: Prometheus, Gorgon’s head, King Midas, Pandora’s box, the Golden Fleece, Daedelus, Heracles (Hercules), the Odyssey


Mohammed’s life, his revelation, the escape to Mecca

The Five Pillars of Islam


Stories and myths of Confucius



Living or exterminated indigenous religions in your area

    Stories of Western religion(s), esp. stories leading towards Unitarianism and Universalism

Constantine’s conversion and the Nicene creed; the emergence of Roman Catholicism

Cranmer and Anglicanism

Luther’s 95 Theses

John Calvin; Calvinism comes to the New World (Puritanism)

John Wesley and Methodism

George Fox and the beginning of Quakerism

The Black church in the U.S.

Pentecostalism: Aimee Semple McPherson; the Aszusa St. Revival


    Key Unitarian and Universalist characters and stories, emphasis on North America

Francis David and John Sigismund

18th-19th C. Universalism: John Murray and Thomas Potter; John and Judith Murray and the Gloucester church; Hosea Ballou; Olympia Brown

18th-19th C. Unitarianism: Joseph Priestley [added thanks to commenter Jeremiah], William Ellery Channing; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Theodore Parker; the Prophetic Sisterhood

20th C. Universalism: Clarence Skinner

20th C. Unitarianism: John Dietrich and humanism; James Luther Adams in Germany

UUism: Unitarians and Universalists merge; the Fellowship movement; Black Empowerment Controversy; the feminist revolution

Unitarians and Universalists around the world, with special attention to sister church connections

The story of your congregation

22 thoughts on “Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

  1. Paul Oakley

    Given the growing prominence of Islam and the difficulty of “Western” societies’ dealing with and coming to an understanding of the broad mosaic of Islam, I can’t help but feel that your section on Islam needs a great deal more attention than the other “Non-Western” religions you list (other than Buddhism, of course, which has so much influence in UUism and in American society at large that UU RE needs a pretty big chunk of time devoted to it).

  2. Dad

    Would it be worth adding the subject: humanism in the second half of the 20th century on into the present day. (Dietrich was a humanist, but he died in 1957).

  3. Elizabeth J. Barrett

    I would hope that the children experience how religion (including our own Unitarian Universalism) can help in times of distress: when they’re scared, when they need help, etc. as well as times of joy: when they celebrate, when they feel grateful. It’s great to learn about religion, but let’s remember to give children room to experience our rituals, our hymns, our service to others and our sense of the sacred (i.e., our understanding that some things are so special that we cherish them).

  4. Jeremiah

    C and D are good things to include; I have found that most RE programs lack any true depth of our religious history, and instead do a “Jeopardy”- level assessment/dissemination.

    Do our youth truly appreciate what Joseph Priestly had to endure before he left England, for example, or the impacts of his association with Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams? He may well have played a more significant role in our nation’s formation than almost anyone gives him credit for. (My point: include Priestly in your discussions! He’s not just some bloke who invented soda water.)

    And the talk of Universalism is possibly more grim. To have a church denying the very existence of hell in the early 19th century must have been something to behold. In my neck of the woods, this was once one of the fastest-growing faiths around. It’s hard to even believe that now.

    The real point is that youth and adults need this information in their spiritual toolkit as our current faith continues to evolve and change.

    I concur with Elizabeth’s (@2) comment about the use of religion as a balm in times of trial, as well as a sense of the sacred. Perhaps when we jettisoned many of the old ways and rituals post-merger we threw out the baby with the bathwater. We must find our own way, and not serve as a way station for people moving from one “true” faith to another.

    Thanks for giving us an opportunity for input!

  5. Bill Baar

    This is a good list. Certainly plenty of material. I think it’s important to memorize some things. A Pslam or a prayer or a passage of text. It’s those things committed to memory we recite years later at moments of stress.

  6. fausto

    What a great curriculum! Plenty of stuff in there pertaining to the Eastern religions that I never learned myself but would love to know. I would add a few psalms and leave out Greek mythology (which is no longer a living religion), but that’s a small quibble. A larger concern might be paring it down into a leaner list of essentials that are taught and re-taught at different age levels as children’s comprehension matures.

    I would also echo Elizabeth’s comments about teaching the purpose and function of religion, which is remarkably similar across even vastly different times, cultures and belief systems.

  7. Victor

    Waaay too much time on the Bible – even “beyond” Bible, as in the Apocrypha. This would an excellent topic for an Adult RE class, but I think kids would be bored. (…speaking as a 63yo, it’s hard to imagine what a 3yo would be thinking about some of the items on this list). I’d suggest you pare down the Bible list into specific stories (e.g., perhaps just the story of Adam & Eve, and Noah, not all of Genesis), and figure out what “value” you want each story to illustrate. The goal should be to illustrate values, not just to provide “religious literacy.”

    I also think your goals are lop-sided. Goal (d) should be goal (a). The most important item should be your #1 goal, not your last.

    Yes, there needs to be time devoted to humanism and ethics, which is at the core of UUism.

  8. Ted

    I’m wondering why to include world religions.

    Is it to promote a general religious literacy? In that case, the religions with the most followers should be included.

    Is it because other religions have important lessons to teach us as UUs?. In that case, other smaller religions, particularly Native American, should be emphasized.

  9. Jeremiah

    Ted@7 – Good point – if we’re doing the time-honored UU smorgasbord approach, why not smaller faiths (in terms of adherents). Why not Baha’i, for example?

    My experience is that a shockingly high percentage of kids in RE are the scions of upper-middle class academic types who want their children conversant in faith backgrounds so they can impress their friends at dinner parties (and yes, I’ve seen/heard this with my own eyes/ears). Once their children reach high-school age, the family no longer has any use for the church and discards it like last year’s Volvo.

    To know about other religions is only significant spiritually if it helps to build our youth into the UU religion. I’m not sure this is something we’ve been doing.

  10. Bill Baar

    My UUC Church took the High Schoolers to the Baha’i temple in Wilmette. One thing about a town like Chicago is the huge variety in Churches. That’s true of more and more of the US now too. I have a Lao Buddhist temple in an old farm by me, and Hindu Temples in old Lutheran Country Churches.

    If this is something from K through 12, I don’t think it’s too much. It’s fundamentals everyone; religous or not should know.

    Watch Turner Classic Movies and you’re going to get a lot of it during Easter and Christmas. It’s important for people to get Christianity without Victor Mature channeling the heritage; even if the Robe is a good movie.

  11. Jean

    Hm. Sounds a bit like a “canon” to me. If I were a kid, in Sunday School, I really would want someone to look at me and say, Hey, Kid: what do you believe in? What do you know? What do you fear? What do you love? Oh, and kid: what are your dreams?

    I realize that’s not the point of this post, but still…it is possible to have learner-centered curricula…isn’t it?

  12. Dan

    Paul @ 1 — OK, more about Islam. But what specifically do you think should be included?

    Dad @ 2 — I can’t think of any major accomplishments post Dietrich that would be worth teaching to kids. If you can provide specific examples, I’ll consider them.

    Elizabeth Barrett @ 3 — Good point, but your suggestion is not an example of religious literacy; i.e., what you suggest is not a fact about religion, it is rather a religious skill. Developing religious skills is another one of our big goals, and I will cover that goal in a later post.

    Jeremiah @ 4 — I will add Joseph Priestley. Thanks.

    Bill Baar @ 5 — Memorization will likely be one of many assessment genres we use, as we figure out how to assess what children have learned.

    fausto @ 6 — Greek religion will remain in, simply because you have to know it in order to understand many works of Western art. E.g., any literate person in Western culture simply has to know the Prometheus story, and has to know who Herakles/Hercules was.

    As for paring this down — this is already as pared-down version of what we used to present to Unitarian and Universalist kids in the early 20th C. I’m reluctant to pare it down any further.

    Victor @ 7 — I disagree that there’s way too much about the Bible. The Bible is one of the core books of Western culture, and any literate Western person should have this bare level of familiarity with it.

    You also claim that children won’t be interested in the Bible, but that has not been my experience at all — In fact, this list has been driven in part by my years of experience of working with kids and seeing what they’re actually interested in. Kids pick up many of these stories in bits and pieces from being immersed in Western culture, and they are fascinated to hear the real stories — and older children are often relieved to hear our UU interpretation of the Bible, that these are myths, and not literal truth (which is what their fundie friends try to tell them).

    Ted @ 8 and Jeremiah @ 9 — Again, part of the purpose of this goal is to inculcate basic religious literacy in our children. We want our children to have the religious information necessary for them to better understand the international scene. Those of us who live in the West do not need to know much of anything about Jainism (or about Baha’i, for that matter) in order to understand what’s going on in the world today, but we had better know about Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

    Confucianism is included in the list above for cultural reasons, because Confucius has become a part of the Western canon.

    Bill Baar @ 10 — Yes to all three of your points.

    Jean @ 11 — Well, you can call it a canon if you want. But basically what we’re trying to do with this list is to identify the main outlines of religious facts we want kids to know. Part of what’s driving this effort is that we want our religious education to be more child-centered. Right now, our religious education programs for kids are pretty much wholly driven by printed curriculums, which tell teachers what to teach week by week without reference to the growing interest of the kids. Right now, when a kid comes in to Sunday school and says that her best friend tells her she’s going to hell because she doesn’t believe Christ is her savior, that immediate need and problem is going to be passed over because the printed curriculum says that the class shall study Buddha today. With this list, we are trying to strike a balance between teaching kids what we think they should know, while still paying attention to their immediate needs and interests.

    Also, remember what is driving this list — we are trying to give kids the facts they need to be considered well-educated. We want to be sure that when they read Shakespeare they understand the references to the Bible without having to read the footnotes — we want them to look at a painting by Rembrandt and understand the allusions to the Greek myth depicted in the painting — we want them to be able to listen to a Bach Mass and know what it’s about, in general terms. And then when they read in the newspaper about Islam and jihad, we want them to know that jihad is not one of the Five Pillars of Islam — when a Hindu temple opens up down the street from their house, we want them to have some basic cultural literacy and at least know something about Hinduism.

    If I may draw a parallel to the college classes on writing which you teach — yes you want kids in your classes to express themselves, but they also have to know some basic facts about grammar, punctuation, English style, etc. Being a learner-centered teacher does not preclude telling learners that they have to master a certain body of knowledge.

    As far as asking kids what they believe in, I would refer you to the first 8 paragraphs of this article by William J. Doherty — Doherty is psychologist, licensed therapist, and professor with a doctorate in family studies. It may be developmentally approrpaite to ask a 14 year old what he or she believes (and this is something UU religious education programs routinely do), but it is not appropriate for a seven year old.

  13. Victor

    Dan@12. I am surprised that kids are interested in the Bible. I guess I need to rethink the goal of providing “religious literacy.” Assume you know about Stephen Prothero’s book on this topic.

    Oddly, what seems missing from your list is Catholicism which comprises 24% of the U.S. population (more than any individual Protestant denomination). As an ex-Catholic I can tell you that the Bible is not as central to most Catholics as a belief in the Holy Sacraments, or a belief in Saints. You are also missing religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and New Age religions.

  14. Jeremiah

    Dan @12:

    I agree that religious literacy/teachings has to have bounds, lest it become an endless journey that has no destination (hmmmm… I’ve heard that criticism somewhere before, methinks). It may be that some literacy for “lesser” (???) religions could be of significance to a denomination as tiny as ours when, in the case of the Baha’i, that faith includes the following compatible practices/beliefs:

    1.) Egalitarianism
    2.) Use of the Democratic Process
    3.) Tolerance and Respect
    4.) Continuous and Emerging Revelation

    If our young are comfortable with a background in these other faiths, it could open the door to future alliances. And that has plenty of precedent in our religion.

    Ultimately when we teach our children, it may not be about certain details, or hand wringing over acceptable levels of indoctrination – it’s about compelling storytelling. Religions are really just shared stories, transcribed and made more real by belief or ritual.

    In this day and age where endless sources of media provide an abundance of stories (some better than others), one must ponder whether our challenge is not with other faiths or even no faith alone, but if more compelling options than church exist. Until we understand this issue better, and how we can address it, we will struggle for relevance.

  15. Jean

    Dan – Yes facts are important. But beware the “banking method” of education (Paulo Friere). Assembing a list (canon) of facts or readings can quickly become the end, rather than the means. When I teach writing, the facts of grammar and punctuation and vocabulary are only a means to the end, which is very broadly: communication of ideas to an audience.

    As I read your post, which by the way is fascinating, I am left wishing the “end” goal were more lofty, more spiritual. But that’s just me, unchurched and a rather religious illiterate.

  16. Victor


    I think what’s missing in this discussion is a description of how the religious literacy list would be implemented in practice; in other words, a curriculum. It’s not clear to me how the topics listed in the “syllabus” would be allocated over the 330 hours of Childrens RE spread over 11 years. Will there be one class or several geared to different age groups?

    Also, it’s not clear if there will be any time allocated to a “comparative analysis” of the main differences among the religions on the list. I’m fearful that inundating kids with religious facts will mean less time devoted to interpretation and analysis.

    The devil is always in the details.

  17. Paul Oakley

    Mohammed’s life, his revelation, the escape to Mecca
    The Five Pillars of Islam


    I’m no expert on Islam and someone else can probably better expand on what, in addition to the above, a UU young person should be exposed to before being released into the wild, so to speak.

    That said, differences between Sunni, Shia, Wahaabi, Ismaili, Sufi, etc. are probably important to cover to some degree: Islam is no religious monolith, and these distinctions have very real impact on the lives of non-Muslim Americans as well as shaping the religious sensibilities of the faithful.

    And it would be good as well to examine the vast array of national and ethnic cultures within contemporary Islam, from Morocco to Senegal to Turkey to Indonesia, as well as all its new homes in the Americas, Europe, Australia, etc. Islam is no cultural monolith, and these differences are as much a part of understanding the so-called Islamic world as understanding the theology and religious customs is.

    It is worth covering to some degree the sources of authority within Islam and examining the basic structure of each: Koran, Hadith, and sharia, as well as ways these are implemented, such as fatwa. There can sometimes be competing and contradictory fatwas, and sharia is not interpreted uniformly. And these differences have a real effect on the way the rest of the world can or must interact with Muslim majorities in different places.

    No curriculum can deal with everything. Sorting through what is important enough that it can’t be overlooked is a task I do not envy. But I do think some of what I’m suggesting here is pretty important to include.

  18. Paul Oakley

    In looking at my inclusion of the mosaic of cultures in the Islamic world, I would like just to clarify that, of course, they are not the center of an RE Unit and could never be covered to thoroughly. But I do think it is important at a certain level or RE to make sure distinctions are drawn between the religion in the abstract and the cultural realizations of it.

    For example, female circumcision, a.k.a. female genital mutilation, which in some areas is so strongly a part of the culture that it is not separated from the religion, even there is no theoretical basis in the religion for it. Or, say, what is the difference between the Islamic culture of Malaysia and the Islamic culture of Saudi Arabia.

    The not purely religious differences have a strong impact on how the local religion interacts with the rest of the world. So It’s important for our teenagers to learn that knowing the life of the prophet and history of the earliest origins and the five pillars, while very important, will not give us nearly enough to understand our Muslim neighbors.

  19. Dan

    Victor @ 13 — I’ve got “emergence of Roman Catholicism” on the list. But how far do we go? — do we cover the split between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic? I’m up in the air on that one.

    Jeremiah @ 14 — You make a compelling case, but it comes back to the question — where do you draw the line when you’re lucky to get a kid for 20 hours a year, for maybe ten years, and religious literacy is only one out of four big educational goals?

    Jean @ 15 — I’m a big fan of Paolo Friere. By trying to frame this as “religious literacy,” I’m trying to move this big educational goal in the direction of Friere’s call for literacy, and his goal of shaping persons into transformative intellectuals. The majority of the above list deals with specific texts that I want kids to encounter, to engage with critically. Even with the historical subjects, I often have a specific text in mind, i.e., it’s not enough to talk about Emerson, I’d want older kids to engage with either “The American Scholar” or “The Divinity School Address” or his sermon “The Lord’s Supper” or “Nature.”

    Friere is very critical of the banking method of education, but Friere is also careful to say that educators “know quite well that it is not discourse that judges practice, but practice that judges discourse” [Friere, Literacy: Reading the Word and Reading the World, p. 39]. Assuming that all education is essentially political, I want to produce kids that know how to engage critically with religious texts — so, for example, our UU kids cannot be bamboozled by the many religions which manipulate key texts to “prove” that women are less important than men.

    Thus the ultimate goal for me is not to fill kids up with a certain body of knowledge (i.e., I’m not concerned if an individual kid doesn’t know every item on this list) — but rather to develop kids that have been exposed to key texts, and know how to work in groups to engage those texts critically. Much of the assessment I hope to do will not be assessing kids as individuals, but assessing groups of kids in religious community who can engage critically and take political action together.

    Victor @ 16 — Good points all. Again, I am generating this list as a precursor to generating appropriate assessment, and the assessment is intended to drive the curriculum. Thus a specific assessment genre we might use could be asking a group of ten and eleven year olds to identify sex stereotypes in one or more Bible stories from this list (ten and eleven being a great age to begin introducing kids to the radical feminist notion that women and girls are just as good as mean and boys).

    Paul Oakley @ 17 — Good points. My treatment of Islam reveals my own weak knowledge in this area. I had hoped that one of my readers would know more, and would be able to, e.g., identify specific hadith that kids should know. There’s still lots of work to be done here.

    Paul Oakley @ 18 — Good suggestions for promoting critical thinking about these topics. And good point that this kind of thing should be studied in the teen years, which is when it would be developmentally appropriate. One of the things we’re talking about right now is the possibility of inviting guest speakers from other religious traditions in to talk with with our teens, so we can bring up these kinds of interesting questions. As Victor notes above @ 16, this list does not tell us what the curriculum will look like in actual practice!

  20. Lily

    Actually, Greek Paganism *is* a living religion–Hellenic Polytheist Reconstructionism, or Hellenismos, has several umbrella groups and thousands of practitioners around the world, mostly in Greece (where its followers face much institutional discrimination from the Greek Orthodox-dominated government) and North America.

  21. Dan

    Lily @ 20 — Thanks for reminding us about the revival of Greek paganism. In the context of religious literacy, this revival religion is a very small new religious movement which has roots in ancient Greek indigenous religion — but I’m pretty much not including any new religious movements on this list. So what I want to include on this religious literacy list is the fragmentary literature on ancient Greek religion which survived the Middle Ages.

  22. kim

    Why did you not mention Michael Servetus? Was that intentional?
    I think the goal of religious literacy is a good one — these stories are at least as essential to our culture as the movies and tv programs they talk about all the time. It helps when you are reading something and there is a classical reference and you know what they are referring to — even if vaguely — it adds richness to reading.
    Discussing the meaning of stories is important too.

    Jeremiah@14 — you say Baha’i includes 1.) Egalitarianism. My sister is Baha’i, and my impression is they think of themselves as egalitarian, but they don’t seem to consider LGBT people equal. This is the problem with any religion that says revelation is sealed, nothing should change from here on out. Things always change.

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