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The Fourth "R" for Schools to Teach

Why religious literacy is just as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic


For years, the so-called three R’s of Education were reading, writing, and arithmetic. Literacy used to be relatively straight forward and simple. In recent years, however, literacy has become increasingly complex. Not too many years ago, proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic provided students with a solid foundation for post-secondary educations and many careers. Today, the definition of literacy has been greatly expanded to include an array of literacies required for students to make meaning of and successfully navigate the world in which they live, and which will unfold before them in the years to come.

Below is a listing of some of the literacies that are increasingly referenced as among those that students need to know now or will need in the future in order to succeed in school and beyond (Pietila, 2017):

  • Digital Literacyinstruction on how to use digital devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops).
  • Media Literacythe ability to adapt to new communication formats and to choose the most effective mode of communication in a given situation.
  • Visual Literacythe ability to comprehend and create videos, photos, and infographics.
  • Data Literacy—the ability to make sense of data sets and to communicate with others using data.
  • Health and Financial Literacythe ability to understand foundational principles and of health and finances management.
  • Civic and Ethical Literacy—ability to understand rights and responsibilities as a citizen and how to act in ways that do no harm and that build communities.
  • News Literacy—the ability to seek out reliable sources of information and to differentiate between fact and fiction.

Unfortunately, one of the literacies not included in this listing, and often overlooked altogether, is Religious Literacy. Indeed, some refer to religious literacy as the fourth R in education. While the United States is one of the most religious countries in the world, a large majority of its citizens are religiously illiterate about the basic beliefs of their fellow citizens and other peoples around the world. For example, only 10% of American teens can name the world’s major world religions. Similarly troubling, a minority of Americans can’t correctly name the first book of the Bible or any of the four gospels of the New Testament. A recent Pew Survey of religious knowledge revealed that only half of those surveyed knew that the Quran is the holy book of Islam, and fewer than a third knew that most Indonesians are Muslim.

What are the possible consequences of students not building a knowledge base of the core beliefs, literature, and influences of different religious traditions? A lack of knowledge about major world religions can contribute to over-generalizations, over-simplifications, prejudicial attitudes, and even antagonism toward an entire sect or toward individual members of a particular religion. Given the growing diversity of our society, efforts to promote peaceful coexistence and cooperative efforts can be curtailed or derailed altogether because of a lack understanding and respect for the core beliefs and religious practices of others.

So how should schools think about improving religious literacy? First, it is important to recognize that public schools are not the place to teach religion, per se, but rather a place where teaching about religion in a secular context is permitted and should be encouraged. The Bible, for example, may be taught in public schools for its historical, cultural, or literary value, but not for any doctrinal perspective that encourages its acceptance as a religious document. In other words, religion may be presented as a part of a secular educational program geared toward improving students understanding about the role of religion in the historical, cultural, and social development of one’s own country and of other nations. Such instruction should instill understanding, tolerance, and respect for the pluralistic views of others. This instruction should be neutral, objective, balanced, and factual.

As schools teach critical information about major world religions, it is equally important that students be taught about the importance of the principle of religious liberty as one of the core elements of freedom and democracy. Religious freedom, or freedom of conscience, is critical to the health of a diverse society. It allows different faiths and beliefs to flourish. Religious freedom protects the rights of all groups and individuals, including the most vulnerable, whether religious or not. All lawful voices should have an opportunity to be heard in the public square. Neither religious nor secular voices should be silenced. Religion is not just private worship; it involves public expression on social and moral issues.

Finding space in an already overloaded curriculum to teach the fourth R won’t be easy. However, a failure to do so only sows the seeds of an uninformed citizenry that by its lack of an understanding of religion and differing religious perspectives will struggle to appreciate and respect diverse viewpoints. Understanding religion is vital for appreciating its influence on individuals and cultures, and the importance of religious freedom as an essential liberty that is foundational to vibrant pluralistic democracies.


Pietila, N. (2017). The top literacies in education today. Advancing K12Blog