Dianne L. Moore, Senior Lecturer on Religious Studies and Education at Harvard Divinity School, was the speaker for the second plenary session of the Religious Education Association (REA) 2013 conference. She spoke on the topic “Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach.” Moore chaired the Task Force on Religion in the Schools for the American Academy of Religion, which looked at teaching religion to grades K-12 in the public schools in the U.S. She is the author of Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Moore told us that in large part she was going to present the material that is in her book.
It quickly became clear to me that she was interested in teaching religious literacy in the schoolroom and in academia, not in the congregation. Her approach draws from religious studies, which tends to bracket the truth claims or other claims that religions make. As she puts it, she wants to distinguish between her approach and a devotional approach. However, in my own work as a religious educator working in a congregation, I can’t do that; e.g., my tradition has integrated feminist theology to a very large degree, and when I am teaching about another religious tradition that I feel denigrates women, I am going to say something critical about the sexism of that other religious tradition.
Nevertheless, in my own work, I do draw on the insights of religious studies and cultural studies, and I found Moore’s talk to be enlightening and useful. She reminded us that religious studies makes it clear that theological voices do not represent the tradition itself (i.e., James Luther Adams does not represent Unitarian Universalism any more than Charles Hartshorne does). Further, religions are internally diverse (thus Transylvanian Unitarians are very different from North American Unitarian Universalists), and indeed local religious communities can be internally diverse (e.g., my congregation contains both theists and atheists). Another key insight from religious studies is that religions change and evolve.
As an example of how not to teach religious literacy, Moore pointed to the common practice of teaching about Buddhism by referring to the Four Noble Truths — which practice ignores how Buddhism has evolved and is evolving, and how Buddhists may have internal differences.
Moore also gave some great examples of how religious illiteracy manifests itself. The following are examples of religious illiteracy:
— representing religions as static and unchanging rather than as diverse and evolving
— representing religious traditions as either wholly positive or wholly negative
— assuming that individual practitioners of a religious tradition are experts in their traditions (“Oh, let’s bring in an imam to tell us what Muslims believe”)
— assuming that religion is a private matter that can be kept out of the public sphere
I found this last point to be extremely important. Moore said that the notion that religion is solely a private matter, and that it can be kept out of public life, is “a legacy of the Enlightenment” that has become “very problematic.” By contrast, Moore asserts that religions do not reside in some separate sphere; they are “embedded in all dimensions of human experience.” Continue reading “REA 2013 conference: Dianne Moore”