What does religious literacy involve?

Last time, I talked about why religious literacy is important. The next obvious question is what things go into religious literacy and then how you can build some up. There’s really two different faces to religious literacy. There’s having good religious literacy about your own religion (or spirituality, or path) and there’s having good religious literacy about other people’s religions.

Your own religion or path

The first case is going to depend a lot on your religion. Some religions have specific expectations (in terms of knowledge, religious experiences that are shared by everyone or large groups within the religion). Other religions have a much shorter list.

There are also things that are technically optional but still a good idea. A lot of religions don’t require a good background in the history of how they got that way (and some religious communities have actively discouraged asking that kind of question, or glossed over things), but that doesn’t mean knowing where your beliefs and practices come from is a bad idea.

(The downside is that this can be really hard, because there’s an awful lot of really awful information – in terms of quality – floating around out there.)

Many religions have some sort of educational process, either for children who grow up in that religion, or people who join it as adults, and these (or books and other materials designed for these groups) often can help fill in gaps you feel got missed in your own experience, if you want.

A lot of religious communities also do periodic classes for adults that focus on a particular topic or area of the religion, and these can also be a good model for exploring things more deeply, even if your religious community doesn’t do it directly.

What might you want to know?

I’m not going to attempt a complete list in a blog post, but here’s a smattering of things to get you started:

  • Where and when was this religion established? By whom? Why?
  • How has the religion changed and developed over time?
  • Does it have key things (books, sources, locations, events) you should know about?
  • Are there different variants of practice or belief that are closely related? What are there, and when did they split off?
  • Are there widely used prayers or religious texts? Where did these come from? Have they been translated, edited, or adapted over time? If so, what are some of the major points or differences?
  • Are there specific rituals that need to be observed? Holy days? Is there a ritual year or cycle of rituals? How is that structured?
  • Are there daily practices or home-based ones? Some religions have them about food. Some have them about things you interact with. Some have home-based devotional practices, and so on.
  • What is the structure of the religion? How are new communities formed? Who leads them? What kind of training or background do those people have? (And who gets to do which tasks, if there are limits on that.)
  • What are the religion’s teachings on things that affect people’s day to day lives – relationships, gender roles and identity, children, financial commitments, and so on.
  • Are there big events in this religion’s history that other people know about and may have opinions about? (Big scandals, historical events that caused a lot of trauma, etc.)

Each of these can break off into smaller questions. For example, if you’re Christian, you might ask why the Nicene Creed is called the ‘Nicene’ creed, and maybe also what a creed is in the first place. If you’re in a witchcraft tradition that uses the Charge of the Goddess, you might want to know where that text comes from, what a ‘charge’ is in this context, and learn more about the names referenced in the text.

Obviously, that can take a while – this is why the intro books designed for people learning about the religion are great because they will show you the high points and things to start with. You can always make note of later questions and come back to them.

Sharing with others:

Learning how to talk about our religion or spiritual practice often takes a while. (I’ve had so many conversations with people new to being Pagan about this! It takes a while to build up vocabulary, have ways to explain to people, or understand what things maybe are not a useful focus in many conversations with people outside of a particular practice. Looking at the above information, and at the guides linked in the next sections will give you an idea of what kind of information may be of especially practical use to communicate to others.

Questions about other religions

We have lots of times in our lives that we interact with religions that aren’t ours. School. Work. Friends. Stores. All sorts of places. What you need to know if you’re someone’s friend is obviously different than if you’re someone’s boss, but some kinds of things come up a lot

The internet can help these days, but there’s a great book that’s helped with this through six editions, called How to Be a Perfect Stranger. Here’s a link to it in my local library system. As you can see, it covers a range of major world religions (including some large denominations). For the religions it doesn’t cover, it’ll still give you an idea of what kinds of questions you might want to ask about. (A hint of those are in the Amazon blurb)

If you’re in a job where you manage or interact with people from a lot of different backgrounds, or regularly do in ways that lead to invites to services, it’s highly recommended.

The key is to figure out what you need to know – and a lot of time, these questions aren’t just religious.

Having someone over for a meal? You probably want to be able to feed them food they can eat, whether the reason for that is religious, medical, or just plain personal needs. Knowing that it’s a religious reason will probably improve the question and answer process for everyone (I may not know all the rules of kosher or halal meals but if I know those are a thing, I have a better place to start [- and some terms to look for recipes with.)

Looking to schedule something with someone? If they’re a witch, and a friend, it may be worth learning that the couple of weeks right around Samhain may not be a great time for random social events. Some are more busy with the solemn ritual part, and some are enjoying the season in other ways, but either way there’s still only 24 hours in the day and the calendar can get sort of full. (Same goes for Jewish holidays, or Ramadan, or anything else that can do odd things to schedules and commitments.)

Life events? People marry, have kids, and die – and all of those things may have some religious events associated with them. Knowing what is considered appropriate in that religion can be really helpful if you’re invited to a wedding or a funeral, or if someone you know is involved in one. Again, just having a sense of how much time and life rearrangement is commonly part of those traditions can be very helpful in managing your own expectations.

Guest etiquette might be different: Often, what’s appropriate for visitors to a service may be a bit different than what’s expected of people in that religion. That’s where books and resources like How To Be A Perfect Stranger come in very handy.

You get the idea.

How do you build religious literacy?

Obviously, this is an overwhelming amount of information to take in all at once. Fortunately, it’s pretty rare we need a crash course in an entire religion. Here’s five things you can do to improve your religious literacy:

1: Check out general news sources regularly.
See a religious thing mentioned? Dip into it if you have a chance. You’ll get a sense for which religious festivals rotate around the calendar and which don’t, and a bit of what they’re about. (You don’t need to remember the details, but ‘this is a pretty festive happy celebration’ and ‘this is a more solemn/quiet thing’ is a useful distinction to keep track of, often.)

While Wikipedia is an imperfect source, it can often provide enough of an overview to do more searches.

2: Read, listen, watch material about other people and customs
Again, this will help expose you to some general information in a way that’s easier to retain (and that is also more like what happens at work or school or in hobby-based groups). When something comes up that is new to you, ask about it (see the next point) or spend a little time with Google and Wikipedia.

3: Ask friends or people you know when they mention things
The trick with this is not to make it awkward, especially if it’s at work or another place where religious pressure or prejudice can get tricky. But a “Hey, I’d be interested in hearing more about that, could we get coffee sometime?” or something similar gives people a chance to prepare a bit, and suggest a location where they’d be more comfortable.

(I am glad to talk about my religion if asked, but I don’t advertise it at work – I’m a librarian who works with a wide range of different people from all over the place. But I am glad to sit down with someone away from work and talk about it, or point them at some good resources by email.)

4: Learn how to read different sources and not take any as gospel truth.
(Sorry, couldn’t resist that pun…) You’ve probably noticed, but people have very strong opinions about religion, and there’s a lot of stuff out there on the Internet (and otherwise) that is from a non-mainstream perspective within a given religion. Don’t assume any single source you read is The One Truth about that religion or people’s practice of it.

Read different perspectives, and when you see differences, see if you can figure out why.

5: Keep your goals in mind
If you’re wanting to make a particular friend more welcome at your social events (by having food they can eat, avoiding scheduling everything at times they have religious commitments, asking them to things they don’t do for religious reasons), ask your friend what works for them. They’re the best expert on their own practice of their religion.

If you’re looking at something more general that might apply to many people (like a work policy or how to handle something in a classroom setting with students from many backgrounds), then you can go out to more general resources, but you might focus on sources that are designed for your particular question or concern.

If you’re marrying someone from a different religion, well, there’s a whole bunch of larger cultural literacy stuff that may also be involved, but getting a head start on it will help you figure out how to navigate the family needs and issues better. Not doing that will make it harder.

More resources:

About the Author

Jenett is a librarian and priestess in a small initiatory religious witchcraft tradition fascinated by the intersection of how we find information and how we can use it to make our lives (and other people's lives) better. She lives in the Boston metropolitan area with a cat and a fair number of books. Along with other online projects, she maintains a site, Seeking, with introductory material about religious witchcraft, research, and other useful tools, and offers research consulting on esoteric and eclectic topics through her business Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

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