The study of comparative religions is critical to our understanding of history and the diverse communities we live in today. But the Pew Research Center’s 2010 U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey revealed that, due to a lack of knowledge about the world’s religions and—perhaps—our individual faith-based experiences, most Americans lack broad awareness of diverse religious traditions.
- What is the value of learning about different religions?
- How can we create opportunities for people to learn about the differences and similarities between religions?
To expand your students’ understanding of different religions, consider a lesson that asks them to research the religious diversity (or lack thereof) in your town, city, county or state.
Step One: Prepare
- Use The Association of Religion Data Archives to look at religious affiliation by town, city, county or state. Consider pulling data sets on each of those jurisdictions so students can compare how their towns, cities or counties compare to the religious demographics in their state as a whole.
- You can also pull reports that show the changes in religious affiliation over the last 30 years. This will allow you to compare demographics from 1980 to 2010.
- Lastly, the site also provides lesson plans, interactive quizzes and tools for teachers and students to further their understanding about religious practices in their community and in the wider world.
Step Two: Individual Student Research
Have students individually study their community’s data and find answers to the following questions:
- How many different faiths and religions are represented in the area (town, city, county or state)?
- What percentage of the population practices each of the different faiths or religions—or no religion?
- Has religious diversity of the area (town, city, county or state) changed in the last 10 years? In the last 30 years? Explain?
Step Three: Student Group Research
Divide students into small groups and assign each group to focus on one of the major faiths, religions or nonreligious worldviews represented in your town. If your community does not have much religious diversity, have groups study the major religions practiced in your county or state. Groups should focus on topics such as the origin of the religion, core beliefs, values or practices, connection to a particular area of the world and major spiritual leaders.
- To help groups begin their research, direct them to The Association of Religion Data Archives section on the history, beliefs and demographics of the world’s religions.
- You can also encourage groups to do primary research through interviews with local faith or religious leaders. Students should initiate their research by drafting a letter or email introducing themselves and their project. Students can either arrange an in-person interview or send questions by email.
Step Four: Student Group Presentations
Have groups share their learning with each other by staging a mock meeting of an interfaith coalition. Present a definition of what an interfaith coalition is and its function and examples of interfaith work. You could use the example of Interfaith Youth Core, a student-led interfaith project, the national Interfaith Alliance or local interfaith coalitions that provide social services to the community.
- Ask students to imagine that religious leaders from your town or state have decided to form an interfaith coalition. This will be their first meeting. The goals of the meeting are to get to know other religious leaders, increase understanding of other leaders’ religions and brainstorm possible activities to increase the general public’s knowledge of religious diversity.
- Each group should prepare and share written materials and a verbal presentation about their religious heritage with the other groups (covering topics such as origin of the religion, core beliefs, values or practices, connection to a particular area of the world and major spiritual leaders).
- During the mock meeting, students should ask questions to increase their knowledge of the similarities and differences between their religions. If time permits, the coalition should brainstorm community activities to bring people from different faiths together around a common interest or for increased understanding.
To conclude this project, have students determine if any interfaith coalitions, gatherings, etc., meet in the community and, if so, research what role they play in increasing religious tolerance and understanding.