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A new academic industry

13 November 2015

David Martin looks at the topical challenge of religious literacy

Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice
Adam Dinham and Matthew Francis, editors
Policy Press £70


ADAM DINHAM is Professor of Faith and Public Policy and Director of the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmith, University of London. Matthew Francis is a Senior Research Associate in Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, and previously managed the Religious Literacy Leadership in Higher Education Programme in the UK for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), besides being a researcher for the charity Inform on fringe religious movements. He has an interest in radicalisation.

Grace Davie has for long advocated improvements in religious literacy. In her foreword, she explains why, at a time of secular advance, at least in the atypical West, it has become imperative to understand the religious presences active all over the world and now increasingly impinging on our Western consciousness.

She, therefore, wholeheartedly commends the Religious Leadership Programme, initially operative in the key sector of Higher Education, but now proliferating into several other sectors, such as the media, social work, the workplace, the law, religious education in schools, chaplaincies, advice and equality bodies, and government officials.

The aim of the volume as stated by Dinham is excellent. It challenges the idea of religion as a problem to be feared or contemptuously dismissed as irrational, or avoided in polite company and segregated by the supposed boundary between religious and secular. Rather, it is “something pervasive, nuanced and pressing in the contemporary world”.

Moreover, the real religious landscape is very different from the one imagined in RE, or Religious Studies, and in the popular and media imagination. We are dealing with a false “imaginary”.

Reading the expert contributions, I think it is obvious that all the multifarious themes jostling under the head of religious literacy will keep the experts busy researching and advising for years to come.

Dinham warns that the concept is contested, fluid, and differently construed according to context — which is to say that you can make what you like of it — while also claiming that this is what makes it so useful for gathering disparate concerns under a single head.

In short, religious literacy has been identified as a pressing need and a multifarious academic industry has emerged to meet it.

Much of this is no better than worthy and marginal. Perhaps it would help if people who want to wear crosses and the corporations employing them were religiously literate. Perhaps it might help if social workers in Australia understood the ethos of religious providers and if media operators did not suppose they could deal with religion sociologically without encountering it experientially.

The question of American religious ignorance is an irrelevant old chestnut: the wall of separation, plus a religion of the heart and the invocation of the overarching political myth of Judaeo-Christianity, ensures the result.

A dividing line emerges with Adam Dinham’s assertion, backed by Diana Moore in the American context, that religious literacy is a “civic endeavour” over and above a religious or theological one, based on understanding the constantly changing web of religious influences in relation to politics and culture.

Unfortunately, this instrumentalises the understanding of religion to service a programme of civic education derived from sociological issues — for example, about peace and violence — so esoteric as to be beyond the competence of teachers or so-called “experts” to deliver.

Clues to what might be possible without handing everything over to the sociologists come in the contribution by David Ford and Mike Higton. Christianity is a language with several dialects acting as a reference point for a constituency of nearly a third of humankind: likewise Islam and Buddhism. Ford and Higton refer to scriptural-reasoning programmes, but essentially one needs to engage through “close reading” with religious narratives and modes of thought based on multivocal signs not univocal propositions.

Without this understanding, we are ignorant barbarians, unable to understand art, music, literature, philosophy, or politics. Questions for RE students which will never be set might be “Discuss the politics of the Divine Comedy as compared with the politics of Paradise Lost,” or “How does Milton deal with the Pauline understanding of nature and grace, sin and death?”

Here I turn to James Conroy on religious education. As currently practised, this is a disgrace, based on packaged gobbets of information, with civic education and current affairs the driver, and examination results the objective. All else, including engagement with a historic tradition, is flattened out in favour of feelings and attitudes. Conroy is against this. So am I.


The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

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