Our theme for October is “Why I Believe.”

Recently it feels like terrorism has been ever-present. I don’t even want to think about how many times I’ve heard about ISIS or Boko Haram lately.

The political and cultural response to this climate has been rife with fear, misinformation, prejudice, and anger.

I feel like it’s made two things abundantly clear.

First, religion has vital ramifications for all people, religious or not.

Second, as a nation, we are particularly illiterate in the realm of world religions.

Let me support that second claim with a few numbers from Boston University researcher Stephen Prothero’s study of U.S. teenagers’ religious literacy:

Only 10 percent of American teenagers could name the world’s 5 major religions.

The average number of the four Christian Gospels that teens could name was 2.3.

Less than 1/3 of teens could name the guarantees of the First Amendment in regards to religion.

We live in a world built upon and strongly influenced by religious institutions, ideas, and people groups, but we don’t know much at all about what those religions are, or what they mean, or what our laws protect in regards to them.

Public schools have pared down religious education to avoid the appearance of support of or bias toward or against any religious groups. Private, religious schools, like the one I attended, often have courses on world religions, but they naturally come to the topic with a significant bias, influenced by the beliefs that their teachers are often bound by contract to uphold.

But this knowledge isn’t really optional. It doesn’t matter if we don’t share the beliefs of other religions. We need to know it in order to make informed decisions in voting, prevent racism and xenophobia, and promote greater knowledge. We need to understand it the same way we need to understand any other ideology, because the ramifications are terrifying.

For example, if we get our understanding of Islam by watching news stories about extremism, we will be taking in a particularly misrepresentative image of nearly a billion people worldwide. This doesn’t mean in any way that terrorism or extremism should be tolerated. It means we are making calls about people based on the most “newsworthy” versions of beliefs, rather than understanding the context of those beliefs, and how they relate and do not relate to the beliefs of our muslim neighbors and friends.

This is a tough problem. Solving it will require a lot more effort and thought than a blog post. And I don’t know the next steps, or even where to start.

However, I do know that we have the power to put our country at the forefront of a step from fear and ignorance toward understanding—a step that has never been more relevant.

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