What is Religious Literacy? – Q&A with Adam Dinham 6 December 2016


Religious literacy has increasingly become an important term. We need greater religious literacy according to the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, Aaqil Ahmed (outgoing editor for religion at the BBC), Lapido Media (a charity working for between journalists and religious groups), and even the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. This begs the question, what is religious literacy? We speak to Adam Dinham, Professor of Faith and Public Policy at Goldsmith’s University, to find out. Prof Dinham has researched religious literacy for several years, and working on the RE for Real project that gave key recommendations for religious education in Britain as well as the newly established Religion Media Centre.

What is religious literacy?

There is a lamentable quality of conversation about religion and belief, just as we need it most. Religious literacy is an emerging response. It is obviously a metaphor, connecting to the ability to read and write and communicate in general. Easy fluency in talk about religion and belief is the goal. But it is also a method which is rooted in education. A crucial aspect of that is school RE. But it also resides in what happens in universities, and in training and lifelong learning for adults as citizens, workers and leaders and across the public professions.

I think religious literacy is a journey in four parts. We need to have an understanding of religion as a category, and I draw here especially on sociology of religion to understand what I call the real religious landscape, and how to think about it critically. And the flipside of the coin is understanding the category ‘secular’ too, because secularity is the context in which religion is assumed to be declining, but is itself in fact also highly nuanced.

We also need to address our disposition: what emotional and deeply held assumptions are brought to the conversation and what are the affects of these deep, ‘in the bones’, positions?

Then there is knowledge. But not comprehensive knowledge – that is obviously impossible. I talk about ‘a degree of general knowledge about at least some religious traditions and beliefs’ and ‘the confidence to find out about others’. And to discern what bits of knowledge are needed, you look at the shape of religion and belief where you find yourself. This obviously varies from place to place and time to time. To manage this we need to be released from the notion that we can and ought to learn religions as though they’re monolithic blocks of unchanging tradition, the same everywhere, for everyone at all times.

And that leads us directly skills. This is where we get to what to do about religion and belief in practice and especially in public and work places. On this, my programme has developed initiatives in universities, schools, the civil service, law, media and business. And we have developed a two-stage method for doing this. First, we use research processes to audit the challenges and needs. Then we use those findings to develop training which fits.

What isn’t religious literacy?

Different versions include conflict resolution between different faiths, and for that matter within different parts of the same faith; biblical literacy – knowing the key stories about the birth of Jesus, or the life of John the Baptist, for example. This is especially prominent in the US where there’s anxiety about losing and regaining a sense of a culturally Christian West; there’s a strand which is committed to peace-building; and versions which are interested in the relationships between religion and non-religious people.

What it isn’t helps illuminate the differences. For me, it is not the ability to answer questions like ‘what are the Ten Commandments’ or ‘what language is the Qu’ran written in?’. It’s not a miraculous knowledge of more religious traditions and theologies than any one person could possibly hold in their heads. And it’s not the acquisition or communication of personal belief coming from commitment to a system or tradition of faith.

Where does the term come from?

Religious Literacy is a term which has been around for about 20 years, though until the last few years, it was used relatively rarely and vaguely. More recently it has grown in use and popularity, and it’s a mark of the now widespread recognition of the importance of religion and belief as a public category – certainly after 9/11 – that the religious literacy idea has now become very current, and also contested.

Why is religious literacy important?

Billions of people around the world remain religious, despite the assumptions of secularity, which had expected religion and belief to decline in social significance and eventually to disappear to a vanishing point. Indeed, sociology had predicted exactly this disappearance by the year 2000. In fact research at the Pew Foundation suggests that 84% of the global population reports a religious affiliation. Millions of these religious people are in Britain, Europe and the West. Globalization and migration put us all in to daily encounter with all this.

But the crisis is that, after decades in which we have barely talked about religion and belief, society has largely lost the ability to do so now. And in many cases, it has largely lost the understanding of why it should bother in the first place. We assume we’re post-religious. And then publics are panicked when they see religion around after all, and it quickly gets grumpy or downright unpleasant, as some of what gets said about Muslims suggests.

I think four things have changed and made religious literacy pressing: one is equality. And this is about how employers and service providers behave in relation to religion and belief. Then there’s diversity. This is about cohesion – how to make and keep community amidst so much diversity, and not let it fall apart in to hate crime. Then there’s globalization. And this is about the export and import of trade and goods, but also people and culture. And of course, there is extremism which is a matter of security.

Who needs to be religiously literate?

The focus for me is in the relationships between religion and non-religious people. That’s the starting point because it’s where the biggest numbers of mutually mystified people meet – at the interface between the religious and the non-religious. I am convinced this is a problem for everyone, regardless of one’s own religion, belief or none because all of us encounter religion and belief in everyday life, whether we’re religious or not, and whether we like it or not.

So religious literacy is not about more religion, but a better quality of conversation about the religion which is everywhere anyway. And where this bites is in shared public spaces. I’m thinking especially of workplaces and the professions, and of social, cultural and educational institutions.

And because it’s an issue for everyone, it is important I think that the solution comes from everyone too – involving people who are, and are not religious and those who might believe something a bit sometimes, but aren’t committed or sure either way – which is where it appears most people in contemporary Europe really are anyway.

I liken public discourse on religion and belief to the state of public discourse on race in the 1960s, gender in the 1970s, and same sex equality in the 1980s – that is to say, with some prominent voices, and large numbers of people to whom it matters, but a generally unformed popular way of talking about it. That’s why religious literacy is needed.

Is religious literacy a British/Western/secular issue?

We should not assume that being religious gives people religious literacy. Sometimes it impedes it through conversation-stopping certainty. But I think religious literacy is a particular problem of the developed West, where fuzzy secularity and a complex religious landscape coincide. European and Western thinking has long assumed a post-religious world, and seeks to act as though it is one. But on religion, Europe is the exception, not the rule. It also continues itself to be Christian, more secular, and more plural all at once.

Religious literacy is also a Western solution, standing within the values of human rights, social justice and freedoms of speech and thought – the liberal values. It invites people of all religions, beliefs and none to engage with religion and belief diversity because it’s just and liberal to do so. But even liberalism has its limits. Religious literacy needs to acknowledge that it’s inherent liberalism does not extend as far as respecting or tolerating every expression of religion or belief, especially where they cut across liberal values, for example when they’re sexist, homophobic, or violent.

Are widespread calls for more religious literacy to be welcomed?

Yes, I am delighted that a phrase I started to put flesh on the bones of some years ago has gained so much attention and traction. It’s good to know that my work has been something to do with that, and exciting to see other initiatives joining the conversation. I welcome the range of approaches which is emerging, but I hope everyone working on this will carry on talking to each other. It would be a shame to find ourselves mirroring what sometimes happens within religions themselves and end up with lots of slightly differing, competing approaches, which struggle to work together. My new International Religious Literacy Network will be part of making the connections.

Prof Adam Dinham is co-author author of Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice, available now.

This article is from Issue 14 of On Religion. Intelligent thinking about religion and society is needed now more than ever, help us and subscribe for £19 a year. Subscribe Button

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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