The purpose of this introductory unit of inquiry is for students to gain an appreciation of the ubiquity and diversity of Religious Knowledge Systems. The inescapable fact that 84% of the global population self-identify as religious seems reason enough for elevating Religious Knowledge Systems to the status of a full-blown Area of Knowledge in TOK. The intersection of Personal and Shared Knowledge is an intriguing aspect of Religious Knowledge Systems.


Begin the unit by showing the World Faiths slideshow. Limit any commentary, or discussion, to identifying the various traditions and allowing some clarification or appreciation of what seems to be going on as the images unfold. The slideshow is not comprehensive or encyclopedic. Photos have been chosen to please the eye and for apparent authenticity. There has been an attempt to show and/or evoke both mass and individual religious observance. Touristic images purporting to show indigenous rituals largely were avoided. 

The purpose here is not to teach religious content. Rather it is to prime individual students metaphorically to jump out of their own environment and mode of thinking in preparation for wrestling with some of the difficult and, often, counter-intuitive Knowledge Questions inherent in Religious Knowledge Systems.


Next students move away from the slideshow, which offered a qualitative, visual snapshot, towards some quantitative data from a respected source. Students form pairs and explore online a “comprehensive demographic study of more than 230 countries and territories” conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey “estimates that there are 5.8 billion religiously affiliated adults and children around the globe, representing 84% of the 2010 world population of 6.9 billion.”

If time permits students should visit an interactive BBC site which features twenty of the world's prominent “religions and beliefs.” There are some useful descriptions and a definition of religion which will serve as a good starting point. Tell students to read about a religion that they think they know about and also one they know almost nothing about.  After allowing them time to do their individual research, engage the whole class by asking volunteers to relate any surprises or corrected misconceptions they found.


Next show in full Ghanaian philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah's 2014 TED talk entitled “Is Religion Good or Bad?” 



Before unleashing this next sub-unit, invite students to quickly Google roughly how many languages there are in the world, and how many languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea? The point will be driven home further if they look up the population of Papua New Guinea and compare the ratios mathematically.

To add a indigenous cultures perspective, students should first read in silence the following narrative from Geography professor and author, Jared Diamond.  Afterwards it should be read aloud, in bold story telling mode including hand gestures, by a student who has proven theatrical talent. (The performer could be given the text well in advance.) 

This origin story, which has some parallel with the story of the Tower of Babel, could be included with the What can we learn from traditional societies? unit in Indigenous Knowledge Systems. 

Printable Pdf. of the language origins story and the generative questions.

“In the beginning, all people lived around a great ironwood tree in the jungle, speaking the same language. One man whose testes were enormously swollen from infection with a parasitic worm spent his time sitting on a branch of the tree, so that he could rest his heavy testes on the ground. Out of curiosity, animals of the jungle came up and sniffed at his testes. Hunters then found the animals easy to kill, and everyone had plenty of food and was happy.

“Then, one day, a bad man killed a beautiful woman’s husband, in order to get the woman for himself. Relatives of the dead husband attacked the murderer, who was defended in turn by his own relatives, until the murderer and his relatives climbed into the ironwood tree to save themselves. The attackers tugged on lianas hanging from one side of the tree, in order to pull the tree’s crown down towards the ground and get at their enemies.“Finally, the lianas snapped in half, causing the tree to spring back with tremendous force. The murderer and his relatives were hurled out of the tree in many different directions. They landed so far away, in so many different places, that they never found each other again. With time, their languages became more and more divergent. That is why people today speak so many different languages and cannot understand each other, and why it is hard work for hunters to catch animals for food.”

That story was related to me by Sikari people, a tribe of six hundred New Guineans.

Diamond, Jared (2012: 209) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Penguin, New York.


Students should tackle the following Knowledge Questions in Groups of three. Students must stay on task. The conversation will broaden significantly in the units of inquiry which follow. Allow a timed five minutes for each.

  • Well, is there such a thing as religion?

  • Is belief in God a pre-requisite for being religious?

  • Formulate a Knowledge Question of your own on any aspect Religious Knowledge Systems. Write it down and add the names of the triad before submitting your paper to the teacher.

Dani tribe chief carrying smoke-preserved ancestor. The Dani live in a remote area of the Papuan central highlands.  Photo: Getty.

Dani tribe chief carrying smoke-preserved ancestor. The Dani live in a remote area of the Papuan central highlands. Photo: Getty.