Every college graduate ought to have a basic understanding of religion as a part of human experience.
Religion, though it can be defined in different ways, provides frameworks for interpreting human purpose, action, and self-understanding. Religious traditions have functioned throughout human history to inspire and justify the full range of acts and attitudes from the heroic to the heinous. Its influence remains potent in the 21st century in spite of predictions that religious influences would steadily decline with the rise of secular democracies and continuing advances in science. Many local, national, and global events and environments have prominent religious dimensions that need careful, critical examination in both their contemporary and historical contexts. Understanding these religious dimensions requires a form of “religious literacy” that the academic study of religion provides. “Religious literacy” helps us understand ourselves, one another, and the world in which we live. It includes the abilities to:
- Discern accurate and credible knowledge about diverse religious traditions and expressions
- Recognize the internal diversity within religious traditions
- Understand how religions have shaped—and are shaped by—the experiences and histories of individuals, communities, nations, and regions
- Interpret how religious expressions make use of cultural symbols and artistic representations of their times and contexts
- Distinguish confessional or prescriptive statements made by religions from descriptive or analytical statements
This document proposes a basic level of cultural competency that every graduate of a two- or four-year college should develop. It argues that some critical understanding about the ways in which religion shapes and is shaped by human behavior should be part of the general education of every person who receives an undergraduate degree.
One essential outcome of a college education is for students to gain informed understandings of belief systems and other worldviews different from their own (see the report from the American Association of Colleges and Universities, College Learning for the New Global Century, p. 13). Students in any field—from the humanities to political science to business to the STEM disciplines—should learn something about how religion shapes and is shaped by the ways humans view the world. A college-level education helps students to identify assumptions, reflect on those assumptions, become informed citizens, interact effectively at work, foster good relationships with diverse people, as well as understand local, national, and global events. By investigating multiple religious frameworks, the academic study of religion enables students to situate and compare their own experiences and convictions with those of people in broader historical and cultural contexts. It is therefore crucial that every college student gain at least some basic understanding of how religions function in human experience.
In proposing these guidelines, we recognize that there are many competencies―from the arts, humanities, sciences, and other fields―that college students ought to acquire. Given the breadth of what graduates should know and the practical limits on how much depth is reasonable in any one area, these guidelines describe a basic rather than optimal competency.
Ideally, each college student in the United States would take at least one course in the academic study of religion; however, this is not currently feasible. Some of the more than 4,500 U.S. degree-granting institutions have departments or programs for the academic study of religion, but a majority of them offer only a few courses specifically about religion or about one single religious tradition. Yet, religion is a subject of study in many other fields such as in the humanities and social sciences, the arts, and sciences. In whatever context religion is taught, it should be approached using the same critical skills—historical, comparative, interpretive, and so on—that are applied to other subjects.
These guidelines are intended for faculty who teach in two- or four-year colleges in the United States. Faculty, whether full-time or contingent, have the primary responsibility for designing curricula and teaching students. Because college governance models vary, we also encourage administrators and other stakeholders to read these guidelines. Their leadership on how these guidelines can best be aligned with institutional mission and vision, and how to support their implementation by faculty, is vital.
An Academic Approach to Religious Literacy
These recommendations are founded on the conviction that sustained and rigorous academic study of religion makes a distinctive contribution to college students’ understanding of the world and themselves. Even though students may learn important and valuable things about religion in other contexts and through other processes (see Appendix B), we focus on the particular value added by the academic study of religion.
Although religion is a topic in many academic disciplines, this document draws on the broad field of “religious studies.” Faculty members trained in the academic study of religion represent an extensive range of academic expertise and methodologies. They teach in diverse higher education settings. Departments and programs in the study of religion have the primary mission of advancing the kind of religious literacy we describe. Their expertise is invaluable.
These guidelines, however, are also intended to be helpful to institutions where the study of religion is dispersed throughout the curriculum and not centralized in a department or program. This document may also stimulate faculty who might not otherwise think about teaching religion from an academic perspective to do so.
Suggested Outcomes for Students in Two- and Four-Year Colleges
Keeping in mind the distinctive missions of different schools, graduates of two- and four-year degree programs should be able to:
- Discern accurate and credible knowledge about diverse religious traditions and expressions
- Recognize the internal diversity within religious traditions
- Explain how religions have shaped—and are shaped by—the experiences and histories of individuals, communities, nations, and regions
- Interpret how religious expressions make use of cultural symbols and artistic representations of their times and contexts
- Distinguish confessional or prescriptive statements about religion from descriptive or analytical statements.
Courses in the academic study of religion directly address these learning goals in a sustained fashion over an entire term. They also bring distinctive, often multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary, approaches to the study of religion; this strengthens students’ interpretive and critical thinking skills. Coursework in the study of religion facilitates students’ recognition of diversity within and across traditions and helps students to identify and interpret religion’s impact across the globe.
In addition to religious studies courses, religious literacy can also be promoted in other disciplines including (but not limited to) anthropology, archeology, art, biology, criminal justice, economics, education, film, geology, history, humanities, journalism, literature, languages, media studies, music, neuroscience, nursing, philosophy, political science, psychology, social work, sociology, speech, and theatre.
Courses or units that would contribute to religious literacy could also be included in pre-professional, scientific, technical, and work place programs for industries that require cultural awareness for delivery of services, such as healthcare, criminal justice, business, and hospitality. Appendix C has examples of assignments designed to increase religious literacy while at the same time meet explicit course and/or discipline goals and objectives.
In order to understand others in global contexts, participate constructively in civic life, work collaboratively with diverse people, lead meaningful ethical lives, and develop self-reflection skills, college students need to be able to comprehend the views and cultures of others. To hone these capacities, students must learn to think descriptively and analytically, in academically sound ways, about the religious dimensions of others’ views and cultures, recognizing the internal diversities of religious traditions, and appreciating how they have shaped and been shaped by individuals, communities, and nations. This document offers guidance toward designing curricula to ensure that every graduate of a two- or four-year college program has gained a basic understanding of how religion is part of human experience.
1. I work at a public institution. Are there legal concerns regarding teaching about religion?
The academic study of religion is constitutionally sound. In the 1950s scholars of religion and legal scholars developed a legal rationale for the academic study of religion in public universities that is encapsulated in the 1963 United States Supreme Court case of Abington v. Schempp. In ruling that teacher-led devotionally based Bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in the public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the majority opinion of the court also separated the sectarian practice of religion—which the court said should be excluded from public education—from the academic study of religion, which the court judged constitutionally permissible.
Academic approaches to the study of religion encourage awareness of religions, but not the acceptance of a particular religion; research about religions, but not practicing them; exposure to diverse religious views, but not the imposition of particular views; and learning about religions without any promotion or denigration of religions. The Court’s clear guidance supported the development of the academic study of religion in U. S. public higher education. The majority of programs and departments of religious studies in public colleges and universities were established in the decade following the 1963 court case.
2. What does “religious” in religious studies mean?
Religious studies is the academic field that analyzes those elements of human thought and behavior that are often called, in the English-speaking world, "religion." Religious studies is a multidisciplinary field of inquiry. Research employs a range of methodological and theoretical approaches common in other humanities and social sciences fields, such as the historical, anthropological, textual, and sociological. "Religious studies" is the most common name for this discipline and for departments in U.S. universities dedicated to the scholarly study of religion. But other names, such as history of religions or comparative religion, are also common.
Just as the adjective “Russian” in “Russian studies,” indicates that Russia is the object of study, not that people who study it are necessarily Russian, the adjective “religious” in religious studies signals that the object of this study is religion. It does not imply that those who teach religious studies are themselves either religious or not. The aim of the academic study of religion is not to defend or promote a specific religion but to describe and understand religion in contextual and cross-culturally accurate terms.
3. Is a religious studies department or religious studies faculty required for study of religion?
These guidelines are intended for use regardless of whether or not institutions have formal religious studies programs. We hope these guidelines will help faculty and administrators at any two or four-year college to equip their students with basic competencies related to religious literacy. Faculty at institutions without religious studies programs may also be able to partner with neighbor or peer institutions to draw on their expertise.
There is, however, substantial value in having a program in the study of religion at any institution of higher education, not least because having such a program helps many students meet and even exceed the baseline cultural competencies described in this document. Such a program can also serve as the focal point for organizing the study of religion campus-wide across departments and disciplines. There is also value in having at least one person trained in the academic study of religion on any campus, for some of the same reasons. The absence of such programs and individuals makes it harder to ensure that students graduate with basic religious literacy.
4. I teach in a pre-professional program. Is religious literacy really relevant here?
Religious literacy is relevant to all fields. Over time, the religious diversity of the United States has increased substantially, and is predicted to do so in the future. Diana Eck, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, has argued that the U.S. is now the most religiously diverse country in the world. Consequently, it is highly likely that college graduates will live and work in contexts that are diverse religiously, no matter what their profession. Thus, it is important for everyone to develop a capacity to understand how religious perspectives of others shape behaviors. For example, students training in healthcare careers need to learn how religious beliefs affect a person’s willingness to seek care or accept certain treatments.
College graduates also benefit from the rigorous forms of reflection and self-reflection within the academic study of religion.
5. What resources are available for faculty or schools who might not otherwise feel capable of teaching about religion in academically sound ways?
There are more than 8,000 members of the American Academy of Religion, many of whom have experience in developing courses and programs in the study of religion at their home institutions and by consulting at other institutions. They are invaluable resources for anyone who would want to infuse a curriculum with goals promoting religious literacy. There are also entities such as the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion that offer substantial resources—including course syllabi—and even some monetary support for program development. Programs sponsored by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Lilly Endowment, the Henry Luce Foundation and the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education also support the academic study of religion.
6. Should this document be used to assess standards and provide a basis of assessment for departments or faculty?
No. This document argues that religious literacy should be a general education curricular objective of two- and four-year U.S. colleges and universities. The guidelines are intended to help those responsible for general undergraduate education engage institutional stakeholders about the importance of religious literacy and to provide guidance about formulating outcomes that support it. Determining how to do this will vary across institutions, given the diverse practices for humanities instruction. The guidelines are not intended to provide a basis for assessing particular departments or faculty.
Approaches to Religion Found in Two- and Four-Year Colleges and Universities
A number of approaches to learning and teaching about religion exist on college campuses. In addition to the religious studies approach endorsed in this document, we outline six other common approaches. The approaches outlined below, while distinct, are not mutually exclusive.
A religious studies approach provides students with tools to analyze religion from an academic perspective. There are many different methods that can fall under the category of the academic study of religion (e.g., literary-critical, anthropological, sociological, historical, etc.). There are also sub-disciplines whose approach to the study of religion is congruent with religious studies. These include the sociology of religion, anthropology of religion, and psychology of religion, among others. All of these academic approaches share the following overarching assertions about religion:
- There is distinction between the confessional or prescriptive expression of a religious belief or practice and the study of diverse religious expressions
- Religions are internally diverse
- Religions are always evolving and changing
Religions are culturally and historically embedded in virtually all dimensions of human experience. Religious literacy is the ability to discern and analyze the role of religion in personal, social, political, professional and cultural life. Religious literacy fosters the skills and knowledge that enable graduates to participate—in informed ways—in civic and community life; to work effectively and collaboratively in diverse contexts; to think reflectively about commitments to themselves and others; and to cultivate self-awareness.
The broader study of religion includes other approaches to religious literacy that can have value or can be included as vehicles to engage students. They can supplement a religious studies approach to religious literacy. However, it is challenging for any of these approaches, on their own, to meet all of the core competencies about religion that students living in a global society need. It should be noted that some faith-based colleges and universities and some individual scholars consciously engage in a variety of approaches including religious studies.
Faith-based teaching about religion promotes an explicit belief and/or practice of religion. Faith-based approaches can often be found on college campuses in (1) chaplaincy or campus ministry programs (e.g., Newman Centers, Hillel, Muslim Student Associations, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Buddhist meditation groups, Campus Crusade for Christ, etc.); (2) in some classes offered in religiously affiliated schools (e.g., “Christian Formation,” or “Buddhist Journey of Transformation”); and (3) where individual instructors of any discipline present a confessional approach to the topic. The faith-based approach advances understanding a particular faith’s interpretations, justifications, and practices. It also responds to some students’ religious and spiritual needs. The faith-based approach may or may not incorporate critical analytical tools, such as cultural and historical context, to deepen a tradition's self-understanding by reflecting on its internal diversity. In other words, it may or may not offer a critical approach to the religious perspective given preference.
A faith-sensitive approach to teaching about religion affirms the importance of trying to understand all religious traditions and practices fairly and without prejudice. Yet, it also allows students to voluntarily reflect on their own religious/spiritual traditions as they learn about other expressions of religion/spirituality around the world today. This is the preferred approach to teaching about religion at many faith-related colleges and universities. Also, it is an approach used by some college and university chaplains and campus religious organizations, especially at educational institutions with a diverse student body.
Teaching about religion from an interfaith perspective on college campuses takes many forms. The central assumption is that people of differing beliefs (within and among traditions) can communicate important elements of their experience to others through mutual exploration and sharing. This approach serves to advance religious understanding by fostering productive encounters with diverse people who may not otherwise have significant interaction. This approach includes interfaith groups formed on college campuses, as well as national and international organizations. Interfaith dialogues and encounters can contribute to the academic study of religion when they contextualize immediate encounters and subject them to rigorous analysis.
The experiential approach introduces students to religious traditions and expressions through encounters with religious leaders, practitioners, and/or significant holy sites. The educational purpose of this approach is to provide students with encounters that can ground their studies in the lived religion of people. This approach can be compatible with a religious studies approach, especially when framed as ethnographic research. To avoid privileging particular examples, faculty can include diverse representatives of a particular religion instead of hearing from a single practitioner; visit several different religious sites within a tradition to model internal diversity; and contextualize all encounters with historical and sociological details.
Teaching about religion through the formulation and distribution of “consensus” documents represents a civic-minded approach to bringing diverse religious groups together to agree on “common ground” to address common concerns. This way to teach about religion helps recognize the importance of learning about religion for civic health and well-being; it allows the discussion of religion’s role in civil society from a nonsectarian perspective. When religious violence is included alongside religion’s contributions to peace, this approach moves toward addressing the basic competencies outlined in this document.
Quantitative Data Focused:
This approach focuses on variables that can be measured numerically, such as adherents by faith, self-reported measures of religious practice such as prayer, and attitudes about political issues by religion. Quantitative data about religion by reputable research organizations such as the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Institute is vital for all approaches outlined above because it provides critical factual information necessary for the baseline understanding of religion in focused regions and timeframes. From a religious studies perspective, quantifiable data about religion is an important dimension of the scholarly study of religion. A robust understanding of religion in human experience would include qualitative research as well.
Snapshots Illustrating Academic Approaches to Religion
Religious studies scholars have specialized training for analyzing religion, and their contributions to the understanding of religion on campuses is invaluable. However, as outlined in these guidelines, the academic study of religion is taught in multiple disciplines and departments across every college and university. The following case studies illustrate the five core competencies this report recommends as they might appear in various departmental course offerings.
Discern accurate and credible knowledge about religious traditions and expressions.
In a public community college American history class, students culminate their course with a research paper. Some potential topics directly address religion. But all students, regardless of their choice of topic, would need some help to understand how to negotiate and evaluate the information about religion found on the Internet, where most students do most of their research. An important aspect of that help would be to brainstorm indications of a site’s trustworthiness. Who is the author? What are the author’s credentials or experiences germane to the topic? Where is the site located? Who owns the site? Is the site owned or sponsored by a specific group and what is the purpose of the site? How old is the information? From what viewpoint is the site written and who is its intended audience? Does the article cite sources? Are there lists for more reading and further research? This example shows how the study of religion can promote information literacy.
In a liberal arts college international relations class, the instructor has a unit comparing U.S. foreign policy in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Before learning any course material, students are asked to write down what they think they know about each country, including the predominant religions practiced there, and to speculate regarding the source or sources of their information. After learning about the history of U.S. engagement with both contexts, students return to their initial assertions to compare their assumptions against what they learned and then engage in class discussion about implications and strategies for evaluating the credibility of information.
Recognize the internal diversity of religious traditions.
In an introductory women’s and gender studies course at a state university, students are asked to choose a contemporary issue related to gender and sexuality and to conduct research in which they demonstrate that they can discern differences within a religious tradition. The issue might be marriage, divorce, abortion, religious leadership roles, LGBTQ issues, head coverings, circumcision, and so on. At least one of these traditions should be prominent in the United States. Students should conduct their research over several weeks and check in with each other and the instructor on their findings on a weekly basis, noting new questions and issues that arise as they familiarize themselves with the materials. It should be clear to students that they are not to choose which interpretation is “best” or “worst” on the issues but that they are to note similarities and differences and note “what difference the differences make.”
An instructor of a comparative government at a private university assigns a research paper comparing and contrasting Islamic law (Shariah) in two different nations on two different continents. To understand the examples, students will need to develop a basic understanding of the origins and development of Shariah in each context.
Students in a nursing ethics course at a state college are reading about how to engage with patients and families from diverse backgrounds. One student argues that religion is a source of comfort for some patients and families while another argues that it gets in the way of medical treatments. The instructor responds with case examples from a single tradition to represent internal diversity illustrating both perspectives and engages the students in conversation. Discussion questions include how to conduct basic spiritual assessments, how to avoid making assumptions about a belief system, how to work with chaplains and families' religious leaders, and how to support patients and families—regardless of religious tradition—in meeting healthcare needs.
In a hospitality course on event planning taught in a community college, the instructor includes a discussion of hosting and planning events for religious organizations. In the process of discussing engagement with these organizations, the instructor includes a discussion of the different ways that major religious traditions are institutionally organized, with attention to the internal diversity of each tradition. This is followed by a set of scenarios in which students are asked to identify who is most likely responsible in any given religious organization for making decisions regarding a hospitality event. Another exercise would be to create an event planning questionnaire that takes into account diversity across and internal to religious organizations on topics such as housing, calendar, catering, seating arrangements, etc.
Explain how religions have shaped and are shaped by the experiences and histories of individuals, communities, nations, and regions.
In an introductory astronomy course in a liberal arts college, students give a series of presentations on the life and work of particularly formative astronomers. Students are required to meet with a reference librarian as part of the research for this project. One project requirement is for students to identify whether the astronomers belonged to a religious tradition and how those traditions shaped their astronomical findings.
Students in an American history survey course in a state university are working on a project in which they attempt to understand the complex role that religious tolerance and intolerance has played in the American landscape. Teachers divide students into groups to research case studies for two to three weeks. The groups must empathetically present to the class at least two perspectives. Case studies might include nativism, Mormon groups, historically Black denominations, Nation of Islam, Roman Catholicism, Hare Krishnas, Scientology, or other debates between religious groups about civil rights, and so on.
In a sociology course focused on marriage and the family at a community college, the instructor dedicates a unit of the course to the complex relationship between church and state as regards marriage. Although in the U.S. religious ministers from any religious group (including online “virtual” groups) may perform weddings that have legal efficacy, many countries in Europe insist that couples wishing to marry in the church must also be legally married by the state in a separate ceremony. Questions to be explored might include: What public goods does marriage represent for the state and does it co-opt religion to provide these goods? Can the state dictate to religious groups the guidelines for marriage, such as when the United States passed a law against polygamy that forced the Church of the Latter Day Saints to change its tradition of allowing men to have multiple wives? Could the state eventually force religious groups to conduct weddings for same-sex couples even if such unions are in conflict with a religious groups’ practice and belief? The instructor asks students to pick a country and write a paper to critically examine the relationship between church and state when it comes to marriage, with special attention to how religion shapes and is shaped by the public goods of marriage as articulated by the state.
In an introductory nursing practice course at a state school, the instructor includes a discussion of how to work with patients who are including alternative medical treatments in the management of their own health. As part of the lectures on this topic, the instructor discusses how religious traditions have shaped various understandings of “health” in human cultures. The lectures also lead to discussions with students about initiating and engaging in discussions with patients about health and the role that a patient’s personal religious convictions may play in that discussion. This skill is then practiced and assessed in role-playing scenarios in which students play the roles of nurses and patients with various beliefs about the nature of illness and health, followed by discussions.
Interpret how religious expressions make use of cultural languages and artistic representations of their times and contexts.
In a public community college mid-level Humanities class, students studying the Baroque era are asked to compare the artistic traditions of the southern (Roman Catholic) and northern (Protestant) Baroque. This assignment will come after an entire semester analyzing works of art and architecture through lectures and readings on issues brought out by the Protestant Reformation. Their assignment is to write an essay comparing and contrasting the southern and northern Baroque style via iconic paintings and public buildings. To do this assignment well, students need some basic understandings about the history, beliefs and conflicts between Catholic and Protestant Christianity during this era, and how such issues influenced artistic styles.
In an introductory history of theater class at a liberal arts college, the instructor offers a case study tracing the history of the Passion Play at Oberammergau, Germany, with particular attention to controversies regarding embedded anti-Semitism and attempts to rewrite the script to address those critiques over the past century. The play has been produced by the town every decade since the 17th century as a result of a pledge town leaders made to do so if their community was spared the ravages of the plague. Students are asked to compare the 1930s version that Adolph Hitler attended and praised with the current version with attention to the social forces that led to revision.
Distinguish confessional or prescriptive statements about religion from descriptive or analytical statements.
In a general introduction to biology course at liberal arts college, the instructor begins her unit on evolution by helping students understand the difference between personal religious beliefs about the origins of life and the latest scientific findings regarding evolution. After asking the class to brainstorm a list of origin stories from various religions, she then asks them to discern prescriptive from descriptive statements. For example, “God created the world in seven days” vs. "scholars of Christianity study the history and development of origin stories in various historical contexts." The instructor then illustrates the difference between what they will do in a biology course and what they might do as an adherent of a particular religious tradition by having them read recent Supreme Court cases that delineated distinctions between evolution vs. intelligent design.
In an ethics course taught in a community college, a unit on deontological ethics includes a discussion of duty-based ethics based in confessional or religious traditions, such as divine command theory. The instructor uses this as an opportunity to distinguish how contemporary, duty-based ethics approaches the problem without reliance on any faith-based confessional framework. In a particular class setting, the professor asks students to discuss the role religious traditions play in shaping ethical reflection and action, and what the distinctions are. The instructor focuses on the way philosophy-based ethics attempts to arrive at a notion of obligation without relying on the sort of foundational prescriptive claims embedded within religious traditions. A question concerning this distinction is then included on the following exam.
Steering and Respondent Group Members
Eugene V. Gallagher (Co-Leader), Connecticut College
Diane L. Moore, (Co-Leader), Harvard Divinity School
Cherie Hughes, Professor Emerita, Tulsa Community College
Amir Hussain, Loyola Marymount University
Eugene Y. Lowe, Jr, Northwestern University
Margaret Lowe, Bridgewater State University
Brian K. Pennington, Elon University
Martha Reineke, University of Northern Iowa
Jack Fitzmier (Project Co-Director)
Steve Herrick (Project Co-Director)
Wendy Cadge, Brandeis University
Richard Ekman, Council of Independent Colleges
Joe A. Favazza, Stonehill College
Reuven Firestone, University of Southern California
Jane Iwamura, University of the West
Joe Laycock, Texas State University
Davina C. Lopez, Eckerd College
Debra Mason, Professor Emerita, Missouri School of Journalism
Kenneth Mello, Southwestern University
Nadine (Dena) S. Pence, Wabash Center for Teaching & Learning in Theology & Religion
Grant H. Potts, Austin Community College
Adopted by the AAR Board of Directors, September 2019
 In 1974, religious studies scholar James V. Panoch developed a set of guidelines for distinguishing between teaching religion in a way that promotes a particular faith and teaching about religion from a religious studies perspective. See Peter Bracher, et al., PERSC Guidebook, Public Education Religion-Studies: Questions and Answers (Dayton, OH: Public Education Religion Studies Center, 1974), 2.
Diana Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (San Francisco: Harper, 2002).