BYU-Idaho students may not know as much about religion as they think they do.
“Especially in Rexburg, everyone doesn’t know much about other religions other than LDS, just because that’s the dominant religion,” said Melissa Smith, a freshman studying exercise physiology. “I’m sure it’s out there, but it doesn’t happen tons.”
A Pew Research study showed members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints coming out on the high end of public religious knowledge, fairly close to Jews and Atheists.
BYU-I religion faculty member, Ryan Gardner, said even though members of the Church scored relatively high in the study, they still have much to learn about other religious beliefs.
“They jump up and down and say, ‘Look how good we did.’ Actually, everybody still failed; we just failed not as bad as everyone else,” Gardner said.
Gardner said that after Elder Dallin H. Oaks visited BYU-I in 2014, he felt called to create a class and cluster specifically dedicated to religious knowledge.
“He basically threw down the gauntlet to the university,” Gardner said. “‘You guys have got to do more to protect religious freedom.’ I may not be able to go to law school and work on legal cases to help protect religious freedom, but I could maybe work on religious literacy.”
Such a class would not focus on what Gardner calls superficial and “Wikipedia-ish” religious knowledge. He said spiritual illiteracy is knowing that one’s Muslim friend believes in Muhammad and does not eat pork, yet not understanding how the five pillars of Islam help him navigate the world.
President Clark Gilbert said BYU-I students need to stand up for other people’s beliefs as well as their own.
“We need to know that it’s important to them,” he said. “It motivates their identity far more than a sports team, political party or geography does. It’s where identity comes from.”
Gardner said he would suggest asking others about their faiths without trying to convert them or prove them wrong.
“If you’re not interested, then you don’t learn anything about it,” said Johann Lademann, a freshman majoring in international studies. “But then you can’t expect everything to go well. You can’t judge them for things they are doing, because you don’t know any better; you don’t know why they’re doing that.”
Lademann said he does not belong to any particular religion.
Gardner said a big reason that people do not learn about other religions is because they are afraid of losing their own faith. He said if the learning is done right, one can become even more rooted in one’s faith while simultaneously becoming more understanding of others.
“As the Church becomes more worldwide … we need more members of the Church who are firmly grounded in the truthfulness of the restoration, in the saving mission of Christ, and at the same time are able to really understand and work with people of other faiths,” Gardner said.
While the religious literacy class is still in the works, Gardner said he had an additional suggestion for BYU-I students.
Leaning forward and slapping his knee, he said, “Get a friend that’s not a Mormon!”
He said Latter-day Saints, especially students, have the ability to accept others and their beliefs without losing their faith in the teachings of the Church.
“That’s an example of where I think LDS students have something really unique to offer the world in regards to religious literacy,” Gardner said. “And we can do a really, really good job with that if we’d focus on it.”