What is religious literacy?

Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 26/10/2020

Last modified: 26/10/2020

Religious literacy is a term that has become more popular in recent years, but what exactly do we mean when we talk about it?

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Religious literacy is a term that has become more popular in recent years, but what exactly do we mean when we talk about it?

The word ‘literacy’ definitely sounds like it has something to do with reading and understanding written texts - religious traditions will often (but not always!) write things down, so is religious literacy the ability to read these texts?

Nope!

Just like how being able to read is a skill that you can apply throughout your life, religious literacy is a skill that allows you to understand and interpret religious phenomena wherever you encounter them.

It doesn’t mean you have to memorise lots of facts or know lots of fancy words - it means that you have the ability to look at someone’s religious expression, their attitudes, or their experiences, and gain some understanding through discussion, empathy, and research. You’re not likely to be distracted by flashy headlines that try to convince you all Christians are homophobic, all Muslims are violent, or all Buddhists are peaceful.

One of the key points of religious literacy is the recognition that religions are complex, variable, and internally diverse.

In 2016, the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education issued a report called Improving Religious Literacy, which defined religious literacy as:

the ability to understand and engage effectively with religion and religious issues

Further noting that:

…improving religious literacy in society does not mean promoting adherence to particular religions, encouraging a more positive view of religion in general, or giving religion greater influence in the public sphere [instead, it] means equipping people with the knowledge and skills to understand and discuss religions and issues around them confidently, accurately and critically.

All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education, 2016

However, not everyone shares this definition or perspective - notably the UK’s National Secular Society voiced concerns in the same year that religious literacy - due to its ambiguous meaning - was being used to expose children to religious ideas not as an academic subject, but as a form of indoctrination or religious training.

Some groups seek to use ‘religious literacy’ as a Trojan horse to advance an agenda of increasing religion’s public role and profile, or as a justification for the imposition of religious rituals and practices on children and young people in schools.

National Secular Society, 2016

Naturally, this is not the approach that we are encouraging when we talk about religious literacy.

The American Academy of Religion, an organisation dedicated to promoting the academic study of the subject, offers this useful definition:

"Religious literacy” helps us understand ourselves, one another, and the world in which we live. It includes the abilities to:

  • Discern accurate and credible knowledge about diverse religious traditions and expressions
  • Recognize the internal diversity within religious traditions
  • Understand how religions have shaped—and are shaped by—the experiences and histories of individuals, communities, nations, and regions
  • Interpret how religious expressions make use of cultural symbols and artistic representations of their times and contexts
  • Distinguish confessional or prescriptive statements made by religions from descriptive or analytical statements

American Academy of Religion, nd

In other words, this is a skill, not an encyclopedic knowledge of every tradition, practice, and belief, and certainly not a ‘Trojan horse’ used to secretly convince you to be more religious.

To be religiously literate, you need to learn a few facts to give yourself a grounding, but it’s most important that you develop a sense for how people express themselves religiously, how the word ‘religion’ might be used and abused, and some of the common mistakes people make when they talk about the topic.

Religious literacy means the ability to recognise the importance of religion, and also the ability to question and critically engage with religious claims, without accepting them as absolute truth.

Recognising complexity

Religious literacy means understanding that ‘top level’ religions like Islam and Hinduism aren’t uniform groups, that we can’t assume a person’s perspective just because they call themselves Christian. In fact, we can’t really say with confidence what ‘Christians’ believe - we have to look at specific, real world examples and ask people.

The idea that we can’t make blanket statements about religious groups might make perfect sense to you, or it might sounds completely absurd, but the truth is - our language is a powerful tool. If we’re not careful, we can easily lose the dynamic reality of a person’s religious experience and expression; individuals lose their identity, misunderstanding creeps in, and in some cases people are discriminated against, talked over, or put down on the basis of half-truths and hearsay.

At its core, religious literacy is a skillset that allows you to engage with religious events and individuals intelligently, without falling into some of the potholes that frequently cause difficulties in understanding. It encourages a mindset that is open and sympathetic to religiosity without being apologetic or doctrinal (you don’t have to agree with someone to listen to them), and resists lumping people together - rather it looks first to the individual and then the community to understand how they experience and express their religion.

In an increasingly multicultural world, religious literacy is essential. It helps us to accept diversity, resist simple labels, and seek to contextualise and understand people in their own terms. As the world gets ever smaller, and cultures ever more intertwined, this skill can only become more important and relevant. Without it, the potential for misunderstanding, hatred, and even violence, can grow.

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