What all college students need to know about religion, according to the AAR

(RNS) — The American Academy of Religion has published a broad set of guidelines outlining what every undergraduate student should know about religion. 

The three-year effort by members of the AAR, the century-old association of scholars, is an attempt to provide a baseline for religious literacy in hopes of challenging undergraduates at two- and four-year colleges to better understand belief systems and worldviews different from their own.

The AAR identified the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, as well as the increasing number of people with no formal religious affiliation, as reasons for undertaking the project.

It follows on a similar project in 2010, in which the AAR provided guidelines for grades K-12.

“As the learned society that established the study of religion as a field we felt our obligation and responsibility to provide some grounding in these guidelines,” said Alice Hunt, AAR’s executive director.

But since the AAR can't tell colleges and universities how to teach about religion, its committee and advisory board settled on broad guidelines.

For example, the guidelines recommend that students know how to find accurate and credible information about diverse religious traditions and that college graduates be able to recognize the internal diversity within religious traditions. 

It also recommends that students learn to distinguish between prescriptive statements about religion — a faith's dogma or theology — and statements that are descriptive or analytical.

The guidelines do not name particular religions or offer any definitions.

Recognizing that not all colleges require a course on religion, the AAR guidelines are intended to be adapted to other disciplines. For example, an astronomy class might require students to identify whether the astronomers studied in the course belonged to a religious tradition and if so, how those traditions shaped their astronomical findings. An introductory nursing class might explore how religious traditions have shaped various understandings of health and healing.

“Any student who graduates with an undergraduate degree from any school with any major should graduate with an understanding that every human being is shaped by religion and that every human being shapes religion in some way or another,” said Hunt.

The guidelines also distinguish between different kinds of religious instruction, such as faith-based, interfaith, experiential and quantitative data focused, among others.

The AAR itself is not faith-based. Established in 1909 as the Association of Biblical Instructors in American Colleges and Secondary Schools, it today consists of 8,000 scholars worldwide dedicated to the academic study of religion.

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