Why College Students Should Care About Religious Literacy

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Did you know that less than half of students dedicate time in college to learn about people of different faiths? According to the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), nearly three-quarters of undergraduates (74%) spend time on campus learning about people of other races (74%) and countries (73%), but far fewer take steps to learn about Muslims, Jews, evangelical Christians, Buddhists, atheists, Hindus, or Latter-day Saints. Without knowledge of different religions and worldviews at their fingertips, many students struggled to correctly answer a series of religious literacy questions included in the IDEALS survey. In fact, 72% of students in the study scored a “C” or below, and a full quarter of them received a failing “grade.”

You may be asking yourself: what’s the significance of a failing “grade” in religious literacy? Given the many competing demands of college, why should I make time to learn about different faiths? The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) offers one answer to this question. Their research found that “a majority [of Americans] … frequently interact with people who do not share their political party (53%) or religion (51%) at work.” To collaborate and problem solve with colleagues who think differently than you do, it’s important to possess a foundation of knowledge that will help you understand where they’re coming from. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that employers are actively seeking hires who possess strong civic knowledge and intercultural skills.

While data points highlight the importance of focusing on religious literacy in college, the most compelling proof might come in the form of first-hand experiences of recent graduates. For this reason, we turned to IFYC’s alumni to learn how the interfaith knowledge they gained in college is showing up in their work lives. In a survey of our alumni across a range of professions, 83% felt that knowing how religious traditions contribute positively to society, as well as possessing knowledge of the history and practices of different religious traditions, would be essential to their professional success.

Recently, we also asked our alumni about situations they encountered at work where it was helpful to draw on a strong foundation of religious literacy. Here’s what we they told us:

  • In business… "The element of managing and growing relationships is crucial in business, and interfaith cognition is a significant portion of that. This applies to people management, client relationships, peer interactions, and the overall growth of a company's culture." (Parth B., Sales Manager)
  • In community development… “My interfaith skill-set shows up in … how I plan events and gatherings. It's been very useful … to be aware of different dietary restrictions and religious holidays.” (Andrew S., Program Director)
  • In health care… “I find it extremely useful when I can refer to my knowledge of various faiths while talking to my patients. Most of my patients either have severe behavioral health issues or substance abuse disorders [and] it is comforting for them to know that they can talk to me about their beliefs.” (Iqra I., Clinical Care Coordinator)
  • In higher education… “My religious literacy skills are called upon regularly to create events and activities inclusive and educational for all, and to have difficult conversations when we aren’t serving all students, no matter how they orient around religion.” (Ellie T., Student Engagement Coordinator)
  • In interfaith spaces… “For 3 years, I worked directly with the interfaith community in Kansas … [and] found that … I was able to better communicate ideas and build stronger partnerships because I had an awareness of religious literacy and cultural competency going into those meetings.” (Clare S., Program Director)
  • In journalism… “Having a strong foundation in religious literacy gives me an edge as I'm able to find angles for stories by looking deeper into problems and potentially finding solutions that others may not always think about. It is both enriching and provides a more diverse lens for me as a writer to look beyond the surface by keeping religious literacy in mind." (Tasmiha K., Writer)
  • In marketing and communications… “I have been able to create engaging social media content for all kinds of audiences and make them feel heard.” (Carolina B., Social Media Content Creator)
  • In STEM… “Engineering work is getting more global. Having interfaith knowledge helps engineers when designing a product for people from other faiths. Also, it can enable them to be more creative when serving a certain religious group to accommodate their cultural needs.” (Mohammed B., Doctoral Student)

These alumni offer a strong rationale for improving your religious literacy, but ultimately, it’s up to you to make time for interfaith learning in college. How can you imagine an interfaith knowledgebase serving you well in your career? How will religious literacy be essential to your professional success? If you consider these questions the next time you’re invited to enroll in a world religions class, join an interfaith dialogue, or participate in a religious diversity training, you just might be inclined to say “yes.”

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.