Religious literacy can help society to ‘disagree better’

19th May 2017 at 00:00
Pupils often dismiss religion as boring – but if we show them the human side of faiths, it is rewarding for themselves and for society, says Kenneth Primrose

Walking down the street in any major city today, you are likely to see more diversity than an 18th-century explorer did in a lifetime. People with very different ideas about how society should function must live together, and there is no idea more divisive than that of religion. Many of the most important moral disagreements break out along religious lines. Indeed, differing religious views on freedom, sexuality and justice threaten social cohesion. We must not allow society to be broken apart.

One crucial way in which people can learn to live with one another is by increasing their religious literacy. In 1945, the British author CS Lewis said that one will gain greater insight into other belief systems by stepping inside and looking “along” them, rather than looking “at” them from the outside.

He explained this with an analogy. Think of the difference in the experience of looking at a beam of light through a window, in comparison with the experience of looking along it. It is from within that we can test a system’s internal consistency and its ability to form and inform the believer. The idea is to see religion not merely as a set of propositions held in the head, but, in the words of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, as a “lived experience”.

The key to this kind of understanding is dialogue. This isn’t the all-too-common conversation in which the goal is to poke holes in another’s religious argument. Rather, the purpose is only to understand, however fanciful or wrong the beliefs might appear.

It requires moral imagination, letting the human voice of a believer express in concrete terms how his or her world is experienced. When questions are asked, they are there to reveal rather than eviscerate. It’s similar to how you experience stories, entering into them imaginatively and empathising with the characters.

Stories are at the heart of human life, and also at the heart of religions. It is through understanding the way that human stories are affected by religious ones that we begin to look along that beam of light, rather than at it. Becoming literate is a basis for a stable and peaceful multicultural society.

Countries across the world are seeing the emergence of a poison-breathing hydra that has never been taught to understand anything other than itself. The inevitable result of this has been the scapegoating, racism, tribalism and isolationism that have marked our recent politics.

Complexity leads to understanding

Increasing religious literacy will not necessarily lead to more agreement – indeed, it might even steel our convictions. But it will lead to people being able to “disagree better” (the aim of the Scriptural Reasoning movement, which brings together people of different faiths) by tempering cheap stereotypes and petty caricatures.

In educational theory, religious literacy could be considered a “threshold concept” for 21st-century citizenship. The word “threshold” comes from the word “threshing”: to separate the wheat from the chaff, filtering out what does not nourish in order to be left with what does. A concept that establishes a threshold is one that disabuses us of superficial understandings, and creates something more profound, complex and paradigmatic. For example, a threshold concept in physics would be understanding “temperature gradient” or in literature it could be learning to deconstruct text for analysis.

Such concepts are a boundary through which one must pass in order to advance in the understanding of a subject, allowing one a fuller grasp of a discipline. Similarly, in the study of religion, and indeed in global citizenship, religious literacy should also be deemed a threshold concept, as it moves us towards a perspectival understanding of religion rather than a reductionist one.

Religion shifts from being a set of propositions and practices, to an animating force behind human behaviour – something that needs to be heard in its own key.

Teaching religious literacy requires a focus on process rather than content. Since religious literacy is predicated on meaningful dialogue, the purpose is to develop these skills in students: active listening, honest questioning and humility.

Teachers need to create and facilitate encounters of the “I-Thou” variety, in the words of the Jewish theologian Martin Buber – encounters that are deep and genuine, rather than instrumentalised and utilitarian “I-It” encounters. Buber, unlike Jürgen Habermas (another major proponent of the educational value of dialogue), emphasises the need for dialogue to be based around a common focus – understanding of faith positions provides a generous focus.

An identity crisis

In Scotland, this need is no less acute than elsewhere. RMPS (religious, moral and philosophical studies) departments can often suffer from something of an identity crisis, as they do not deal in one discrete discipline. As is evident in its name, the subject area is composed of several subjects, and the emphasis across schools can vary considerably between philosophy, morality or study of religion.

While all three are important subject areas, to many the study of religion is less sexy, and can be written off as uninteresting and undemanding. If all it involves is the reduction of a religion into a constellation of propositions and practices, then the study will be neither rewarding nor demanding.

However, if an approach to religious literacy that elicits empathy and understanding for other world views is adopted, then the study of religion is not only rewarding – it is crucial for society. In The Proclaimers’ wonderfully democratic song Scotland’s Story, they list the many traditions and ethnicities that Scotland is composed of. The point of the song is that it is a diversity of cultures and traditions that makes up Scotland’s identity. If we are to live peacefully within that national story, then a good place to start is by trying to understand the “other” in our midst.


Kenneth Primrose is head of religion and philosophy at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen and runs the examined-life.com website. This is an adapted version of an article that originally appeared in the digital magazine Aeon

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