Category Archives: Religious literacy

Critical Religious Literacy: Education and Empowerment

By Paul-François Tremlett

[What follows is an edited version of the paper I presented at the 8th IARS conference at the University of East London this January 29th, which was on the theme of violent youth radicalisation in Europe.]

Religious education in Britain has seen itself as contributing to the wider social aims of education, such as instilling tolerance, respect for difference and building social cohesion. However, in recent years religious education has been in something of a crisis. First has been the general suggestion that religious education is failing to meet its social aims, because it is failing to represent religions accurately. According to Barnes, “…current representations of religion in British religious education are limited in their capacity to challenge racism and religious intolerance, chiefly because they are conceptually ill-equipped to develop respect for difference” (2006, p. 396), while according to Panjwani and Revell, representations of Islam in textbooks, examinations and syllabi are essentialized “leading to stereotypes and unsubstantiated generalizations” (2018, p. 269).

Second is the ongoing decline in the numbers of pupils taking Religious Education at GCSE and A-Level in England and Wales and in the recruitment of students to undergraduate courses and qualifications in Religious Studies. For example, a recent report by the Religious Education Council found that entries for GCSE RS (combined short and full courses) in England and Wales had peaked in 2011 at 461,795: today’s figures show a decline in entries of 42.6% in eight years with almost 200,000 fewer pupils achieving a qualification in RS at the end of KS4. Moreover, according to a report by the British Academy, there were around 6,500 fewer students on Theology and Religious Studies courses in higher education institutions in 2017/18 than there were in 2011/12.

In light of this crisis in teaching and in recruitment, a report by the Commission on Religious Education report titled ‘Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward: A National Plan For RE’, aimed at revitalising the subject area in schools, drew the following response from the association of departments of Theology and Religious Studies in the UK (TRS-UK):

We consider the subject as crucial for all pupils, for their understanding of themselves and others, and of local and global realities. The current decline in religious literacy is already resulting in prejudice, discrimination, fear, hatred, and an impoverished public discourse. Education about religion and worldviews is important for all citizens, whether they are themselves religious or not. The unique combination of skills fostered by the subject is essential in the workplace, in the media, and in politics (local, national and international), and all pupils deserve to be well taught in this subject (link).

TRS-UK draw a causal link between declining “religious literacy” and instances of “prejudice, discrimination, fear, hatred, and an impoverished public discourse”. But what is religious literacy and how can it empower young people against prejudice and discrimination?

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Why do we teach Religious Studies? Because Religion Matters.

The figure dominating this image, a highlight in the Kansas State Capital building, is that of John Brown (1800-1859). He was an infamous abolitionist who believed that armed conflict was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. Here he holds a Bible in his left hand, and a Sharps rifle in his right; he is a Moses-like figure straddling a river of blood between the waring Union and Confederate armies.

I grew up in abolitionist-founded Lawrence, Kansas over a hundred years after these events, but John Brown remained a figure in the collective memory of local myth. Along with many of my peers, I cheerfully and enthusiastically joined in rounds of the lively folk song:

John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave,
But his truth goes marching on.

One of the truths I learned growing up in a land of passionate and largely unchallenged belief was that religion has incredible power to motivate people. It brings out the best in people – and the worst. I learned that many people with passionate beliefs do not practice what they preach. However, others provided amazing inspirational examples of being willing to die for their moral principles.

But another thing I experienced was that the people around me often did not know much about what was going on around them, about their neighbours, or about the myths and history which continue to influence contemporary decisions. Because freedom of belief was a Constitutional Right, we did not often challenge others to explain their beliefs or behaviours.

And religion does matter – whether we are believers, atheists, or something in between, it is implicated in our societies if we like it or not. We need tools to understand the role it plays in creating political, social, economic and environmental problems. Religion also has the potential to inspire us to solve many of the global challenges we face today.

Today, Religious Studies offers us the interdisciplinary tools to understand and interact with those who may believe and practice things very different than ourselves. We use the tools of history and the humanities to better explore and understand ourselves and others. We also use the critical investigative tools of the social sciences to get an evidence base for what people are actually saying and doing, what these actions mean, and what might be the best ways to engage. In Religious Studies, we practice identifying the best available tools to address our questions in a disciplined, critical and evidenced based way.

To this end, my colleagues Hugh Beattie and Graham Harvey and I have designed a free FutureLearn course to highlight Why Religion Matters. This course is not a list of beliefs and practices of world religions to encourage greater tolerance. This course aims to give you the skills to critically engage with the world around you. It aims to encourage you not make assumptions, but to educate yourself to ask and engage actively with the meaning-making assumptions of both others – and yourself.

Fostering Creativity in Higher Education: the Case for Religious Studies

By Stefanie Sinclair

[This piece originally appeared in the Bulletin of the British Association for the Study of Religion 132 (Nov 2018). You can read the full issue here. Stefanie was the recipient of the first BASR Teaching Award, and this piece celebrates her achievement.] 

Creativity is in demand. As Gaspar and Mabic point out, “in the last decade creativity has become a mantra which is used by politicians, businessmen, employees, teachers, professors, students and others. Creativity is seen as a cure for a wide range of [social, economic and educational] problems” (2015, p. 598). It is valued as an important life skill, linked to increased levels of wellbeing and depth of learning. It can build resilience and help solve complex problems. Creativity has also been identified as an increasingly desirable graduate attribute that cannot easily be outsourced or replaced by machines in a labour market increasingly dominated by technology (Blessinger and Watts 2017, 3; Csikszentmihalyi 2006; Gauntlett 2011; Osmani et al. 2015; Rampersad and Patel 2014; Robinson 2011).

While there is wide-ranging agreement that higher education can play an important role in fostering creativity, there have been claims that it is not doing enough and there are “calls for a more rigorous approach to teaching creativity” in higher education (Rampersad and Patel 2014, 1). However, there are many different views on what creativity actually is and how its development can be best supported. Studies have, for example, found that academic staff and students in higher education often have different understandings of the concept of creativity. When interviewing academic staff from a range of subject disciplines at Liverpool John Moores University and University College London (UCL), Edwards et al. (2006) found that the academics they interviewed tended to associate creativity with originality, with being imaginative, with exploring or ‘adventuring’ for the purpose of discovery, with synthesis and making sense of complexity and with communication. A parallel study of students’ perception of creativity, on the other hand, found that students tended to associate creativity with freedom from routine and from the need to justify oneself, with expression of imagination, with independence, risk and sometimes superficiality. Students also typically described creativity as something personal and infectious (Oliver et al. 2006). These differences highlight the elusive and complex nature of this concept (Kleinman 2008, 209). Notions of creativity range from understanding it as an elite enterprise that is reserved for the talented and gifted few, to the increasingly influential understanding of creativity as a powerful collaborative process that can and should be harnessed in everyone (Rampersad and Patel 2014, 1; Robinson 2011). I find the latter particularly convincing.

However, in an environment determined by league tables, funding cuts, stifling levels of bureaucracy and the looming pressure of the REF and TEF, where students are increasingly encouraged to approach education as customers purchasing qualifications, it can be very challenging to inject creativity into the curriculum and adopt a greater focus on teaching and learning as a collaborative process of discovery and growth. So what can we do to address this? Csikszentmihalyi argues that “if one wishes to inject creativity in the educational system, the first step might be to help students find out what they truly love, and help them immerse themselves in the domain” (2006, xix). He contends that to support this process, it is important that teachers model the joy of learning and the passion for their subject discipline themselves. As Kleinman concludes, “academics need to be perceived and involved as agents in their own and their students creativity rather than as objects of, or more pertinently, deliverers of a particular ‘creativity agenda’ “(2008, 216). As part of the Open University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences teaching scholarship seminar series on ‘Creativity and criticality in online learning’ colleagues got together last summer to talk to each other about their passion for their respective subject areas – and some filmed each other talking about this on their smart phones. In the midst of stressful deadlines and piles of paperwork, many colleagues commented on how refreshing and energising they found it to remind themselves and each other of their deep passion for their subject areas and for teaching and research. In the context of the many pressures academics are facing, it is important not to lose sight of why we’re in ‘it’ in the first place, and it is important for our students to see this, too.

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Islamic state, Dabiq, the Mahdi and the end-times

Dabiq is the name of a small town in northern Syria with no special claim to fame apart from the fact that the Umayyad caliph Sulaiman ibn Abd al-Malik (674-717 CE: reigned 715-717) was buried there in 717. So why has Islamic State (ISIS) called the magazine it publishes Dabiq? The main reason appears to be that according to Muslim eschatological tradition it will be the site of a major battle that will be fought between Muslims and Christian invaders, a battle that will be one of the signs that the end-times have begun[1].

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Iconoclasm, Daesh and Modernity

Howls of outrage from Western media greeted recent evidence of organised iconoclasm by Daesh. Footage of statues being destroyed by cadres armed with drills and sledge hammers in what is thought to be a museum in Mosul in Iraq (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-31647484) followed claims that they had also burnt down the city’s library. Since then, evidence has emerged that they have bulldozed the archaeological site at Nimrud (http://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-state-militants-bulldoze-ancient-nimrud-archaeological-site-1425600798). This latter act was described as a war crime by the UN and has fed a frenzy of media stories about Daesh (‘Isis demolition is war crime against heritage, says UN’ The Times 07-03-2015). In this short post I follow the example of thought experiment cum unsettling juxtaposition (of Immanuel Kant and Sayyid Qutb) by Caroline Rooney in her piece ‘From Religion and Security to Religion and Liberty’ http://www.paccsresearch.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Religion-Security-Global-Uncertainties.pdf). Specifically, I want to juxtapose acts of iconoclasm from sixteenth century Europe and twenty first century Iraq to interrogate how they are narrated and understood.

During the sixteenth century, European cities including Antwerp, Basle, Wittenberg and Zurich were rocked by riots, arson, looting and the removal, theft or destruction of books and statues (among other things) from convents and churches. Inspired if not actually led by men such as John Calvin, Andreas Karlstadt, Martin Luther and Heinrich Zwingli, these upheavals have become integral to a popular historical and sociological narrative whereby Protestant rationalization of (pathologically) elaborate (and corrupt) Catholic ritualism opened up space for the emergence of a new (but gendered) subject able to access the Word (of God) and interpret it without the mediation of the Catholic Church. This event transformed Western Christianity (and indeed ‘religion’) into a private mental state called belief, and envisioned ‘the believer’ applying Reason to read and interpret Scripture. This story (or myth) elided the iconoclastic violence of the Reformation to tell a story about freedom from despotic authority and the emergence of Reason. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism implicated this subject and the narrative of freedom and Reason in the development of capitalism and the modern political and social order or in short, modernity.

It is important to draw responsible conclusions from thought experiments of this kind. A simple place to begin might be that contemporary understanding of the Antwerp iconoclasm of August 20, 1566 (represented by Hogenberg in an etching titled The Iconoclasm c. 1570, showing the looting and destruction of a church by men carrying clubs under the cover of darkness – note the figure bottom right carrying a candle https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=hogenberg+iconoclasm&espv=2&biw=1517&bih=714&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=bGkVVay4L87iapnYgAg&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAQ&dpr=0.9) is dramatically different from the people who actually lived through it. Catholic commentators of the time certainly did not regard it as an event likely to precipitate any kind of Enlightenment. In like fashion, understanding of the Mosul and Nimrud iconoclasms is likely to alter through time. But benign historical relativism is not where I want to end. The iconoclasms at Mosul and Nimrud are difficult to understand but most difficult of all is the recognition that Daesh see themselves as engaged in emancipatory acts guided by the application of Reason. As such, their acts of iconoclasm are unfolding within what is a very familiar mental architecture. Is it possible that by seeing ourselves in Daesh we will understand ourselves and Daesh with greater clarity? And by doing that, will we in turn become much clearer about the people we want to be and the kind of society we want to preserve?

 Paul-Francois Tremlett