In 2019 the Pew Research Center surveyed a nationally representative sample of Americans to assess their level of understanding of major world religions. What did the survey show? In the words of Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero, when it comes to religious literacy, “We flunked.”
According to Pew, the average respondent correctly answered 14 of the 32 religious knowledge questions. Just 9% of respondents gave correct answers to more than three-quarters of the questions, and less than 1% earned a perfect score. At the other end of the spectrum, one-quarter of respondents (24%) correctly answered eight or fewer questions, and a clear majority (62%) got half (16) or fewer correct.
Despite their poor understanding of religion generally, the American public is deeply religiously engaged. According to a 2014 Pew Research Study, more than 80% of U.S. adults are either absolutely or fairly certain that God exists, and 74% said religion is personally very important.
Those who actively participate in a religious community are more religiously literate than those who do not. But such individuals are still largely unaware of the beliefs and practices of those in other traditions.
To begin to improve the religious literacy of those who actively participate in a religious community, AVDF awarded a series of grants to publications that are largely read by one religious community to publish content that improves literacy concerning other communities.
In 2021 AVDF awarded funds to Tablet, an online publication devoted to Jewish news, ideas, and culture. The grant supported a year-long writing series to increase religious literacy among readers.
“AVDF is making strategic investments in journalism that aims to encourage understanding across religious divides. Tablet is ideally suited for this role, given its award-winning quality and distinctive reach,” said AVDF Director of Programs John Churchill.
In addition to online articles, Tablet produces the podcast Unorthodox, a top-rated show on Apple Podcasts. Tablet receives 1.5 million page views every month and up to 1 million unique readers monthly. The magazine is utilizing its large Jewish readership and a strategic social media strategy to create enthusiasm for interfaith understanding.
Journalist Maggie Phillips produces the AVDF-funded content. Phillip’s body of work includes investigative pieces examining faith issues, interviews with faith leaders and influencers, and articles exploring interfaith connections between Judaism and other religions.
A total of 18stories were published in Tablet as part of the year-long writing series. The stories covered a diverse array of religious traditions and a wide range of topics.
“AVDF funding allowed Tablet to produce an outstanding body of work about diverse faith practices and the significance of interfaith connections that are deeply researched, thoughtfully written, and relevant. Readers responded positively and we’ve demonstrated to other media outlets that religion reporting that goes beyond politics is central to America’s social landscape,” said Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.
A piece about Jehovah’s Witnesses adjusting their evangelistic strategy due to the pandemic was one of Tablet Magazine’s top stories last summer. Another widely read story profiled Christian scientists reflecting on vaccinations and the COVID-19 vaccine.
Collectively the interfaith stories have gained almost 100,000 pageviews, made 63,000 Twitter impressions, and reached 50,000 Facebook and 7,000 Instagram users. Several of the articles were referenced in outlets such as the Washington Post, Real Clear Religion, and the National Immigration Forum. Phillips was also a guest on the podcast Unorthodox where she discussed the religion writing series. During an event at Molloy College in New York, Phillips answered questions from students during a discussion with Religion and Media professor Marjorie Corbman. The question-and-answer session is available on YouTube.
AVDF awarded Tablet a follow-up grant for $216,000 in 2022 to continue the interfaith writing series for another two years. The grant will allow Tablet to produce up to 45 stories focused on improving religious literacy and encouraging interfaith skills among readers. Stores written will include topics such as the legacy of mainline Protestantism in an increasingly secular America, the examination of overlooked religious minorities, and the changing face of the Mormon church in America.
Through the continuation of the writing series, Tablet will model to other media outlets that more stories should serve to educate the public about the religious practices of their neighbors, to promote cooperation and understanding.