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.”
Moore said she draws on the work of Johan Galtung, who is the founder of the field of peace studies. Galtung distinguished between direct violence, structural violence, and cultural violence. Using this typology, Moore said that religion “serves as a source of cultural violence and cultural peace.” In Galtung’s conception, much of the violence we engage in (esp. structural and cultural violence) is unconscious; but Galtung is optimistic, and he believes that we can bring this to consciousness and so reduce our violence.
Thus, religious illiteracy can lead to horrors like Christian anti-semitism; the equation of Islam with violence; and a blanket portrayal of religion as oppressive. All these are negative consequences of religious illiteracy, from which can arise unconscious violence. Religious literacy — knowledge and awareness — can reduce such violence.
In his response, Chuck Foster of Emory University praised Moore’s work, but brought up the fact that she does not provide much help to those of us who teach religion within a faith tradition. Foster posed the question: how do our contexts might inform how we do religious education? Some of us are engaged in religious education that emphasizes “the continuity and transmission of a tradition.” Some of us are doing religious education “where the emphasis is on the encounter between two or more religions.” And some of us in the REA are doing religious education in the public schools or other public settings. “So,” Foster asked, “how are we to talk about RE?” He suggested that Moore write another book that would outline how to teach religious literacy within a religious community.
During the question and answer session, Tom Groome asked Moore a similar question. For those of us who are doing religious education within a religious tradition, how are we to ground our learners in the particularities in a way that also opens them to the universality? Moore responded: “Have them read Tom Groome!”
After we all laughed, she went on to reiterate the importance of what she calls “situatedness,” acknowledging that we are all “situated” within a certain context, and this affects our perception of the truth. “We cannot any longer,” she said, “afford to be for exclusivism.” So how do we do what Groome asks for? She said that we simply don’t assert exclusiveness. “Who can speak for the divine? We cannot!” she said. In that vein, she said, it’s equally destructive to try to dismantle religion, as some atheists are trying to do — that’s simply another kind of exclusivism. She concluded, “Avoid exclusivism to get to pluralism.”
Updated 2023 to correct typos.