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?

We can think of literacy in at least four ways: first, sociologically and anthropologically, in terms of the invention of writing and its social effects, e.g. written versus oral literacy. Second, in terms of individuals acquiring specific skills of reading, writing and comprehension. Third, we can conceptualise it in terms of shared social practices through which individuals are socialised in specific domains of knowledge and practice (Biesta et al 2019, p. 10) and fourthly, it has the potential to mobilise the critical frame and generate reflexive forms of knowledge and experience which can enable both individual and societal empowerment.

In terms of religious literacy, religious education in schools and universities in Britain has largely focused on teaching the world religions, assuming that this would be a social good in and of itself. But – arguably as a result of the undue influence of a combination of theology and 19th century phenomenology on all levels of the subject area – religions have tended to be presented as static essences, defined by unchanging sets of beliefs and practices, set apart from each other and from historical and social realities such as colonialism, racism, capitalism and climate change. A critical approach to religions has to begin elsewhere, with religions, cultures and societies as historical and permeable entities defined not by essences but by intermingling flows and economies of power, politics and knowledge:

Both earlier and more recent works on the idea of world religions … have argued that the notion of distinct religions might end up in somewhat the same predicament that anthropology has experienced with regard to the idea of distinct cultures: that it is the product of a certain type of analytical observation made by the scholar rather than empirical reality. When approaching the contexts in which people actually live their lives, such distinct entities tend to dissolve… (Johansen 2013, p. 13).

This critical approach to religions – an approach that seeks to foster critical religious literacy – enables school pupils and university students alike to “discern and analyse the fundamental intersections of religion and social, political, cultural life through multiple lenses” (Moore in Biesta et al 2019, p. 20), equipping them with the critical tools they need to navigate the politically turbulent and digitally mediated contemporary assemblages of religion, culture and society and to understand the processes behind their historical formation.


Indicative Bibliography:

Barnes, P. 2006. ‘The Misrepresentation of Religion in Modern British (Religious) Education’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 54 (4): 395-411.

Biesta, G. et al. 2019. ‘Religious Literacy: A Way Forward for Religious Education?’, Brunel University London and Hampshire Inspection and Advisory Service.

Goody, J. and Watt, I. 1963. ‘The Consequences of Literacy’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5 (3): 304-345.

Johansen, B. S. 2013. ‘Post-Secular Sociology: Modes, Possibilities and Challenges’, Approaching Religion, 3 (1): 4-15.

Panjwani, F. and Revell, L. 2018. ‘Religious Education and Hermeneutics: The Case of Teaching about Islam’, British Journal of Religious Education, 40 (3): 268-276.