Comment: Religious literacy: what is the future for religion and belief?

Professor Adam Dinham, Honorary Stephenson Professor at the University of Sheffield, discusses religious literacy.

Religious literacy: what is the future for religion and belief?

By Professor Adam Dinham, Honorary Stephenson Professor at the University of Sheffield, 25.04.16.

It isn’t long since the question wouldn’t have been 'What is the future for religion and belief?' so much as 'Is there one?' How times have changed.

Religion isn’t back, because it never really went away. 9/11; the rolling back of welfare states and the turn to faith groups to plug the gaps; new law on equality, which includes non-religious beliefs like atheism and humanism, as well as traditional religion and non-religion, like environmentalism and veganism: all of these press for a public conversation.

But across the West we find that we’ve largely lost our ability to talk about it. To add to the complication, religion and belief have changed dramatically just in the period we weren’t talking about them. We had better regain our religious literacy if the conversation is to shed more light than heat – and blood.

Whichever way you look at it, the future is hard to predict. I think the picture we are looking at is a tryptych.

The questions split in three: 1. how do we prevent atrocities in religions’ name ? This is the security agenda; 2. how do we respond when atrocities happen? This is the cohesion agenda; and 3. how do we engage with the religion and belief which is there in ordinary everyday life, regardless of its role in cohesion and security, and their opposites? For me the answer is in religious literacy. This is a journey to the future which passes through four phases.

First, we have to understand religion as a category, drawing especially on sociology of religion to understand the real religious landscape, and how to think about it critically – including how to think well about the secular.

Second, we have to understand dispositions – what emotional and deeply held assumptions are brought to the conversation and what are the affects of people’s own positions in relation to religion or belief?

Only once these have been addressed can one pass on in to knowledge, based on identifying what we need to know, in each specific setting, and having the confidence and wherewithal to know who and what to ask. A social worker practicing in Solihull will need different religious literacy knowledge than a medic in Medina or a lawyer in Las Vegas.

It’s obvious that nobody can know everything anyway. An engagement with religion and belief as identity, rather than tradition, will disabuse us of the notion that we can and ought to learn the A-Z of a tradition in order to be religiously literate. Rather, it is about recognising that the same religions and beliefs are different in different people and places. Sometimes they differ within the same person, from one day to the next.

And finally, we come to skills – how does what I know translate in to skillful encounter, and am I clear what the encounter is for? If it’s to improve interfaith relations, I need different skills than if it’s to appoint a person to a job, marry someone I love from another faith, or to resolve a conflict from a desk in the Foreign Office.

Religious literacy can go one step further, to enable a renewed encounter with the wisdoms which reside in the books and traditions of religions and beliefs. These are, after all, ‘wisdom traditions’. This draws attention to how strange it seems that millennia of insight, experience, drama, and poetry, should be set aside in favour of the natural scientific paradigm of modernity. How can we take the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Qur’an and others seriously as sources of wisdom, without necessarily ‘believing’ in them?

On religion and belief, religious literacy is at the root of a good future. Equipping the public sphere with the ability to have the conversation will be the urgent task of professional training and CPD in every sector and setting.

More generally, media and politics needs to challenge rather than reproduce the catastrophic polarisation of an enlightened Europe and a perennially backward Islam. Islam is after all a civilised and civilising force, at the forefront of architectural, artistic, social, scientific and political innovation for centuries. It doesn’t need to look more like Europe. Europe and Islam infuse each other, as well as diverge. Religious literacy means recognising this.

Arendt writes “for the first time in history, all peoples on earth have a common present…every country has become the almost immediate neighbour of every other country, and every man feels the shock of events which take place at the other end of the globe”. This “unity of the world” could result in “a tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat mutual irritability of everybody against everybody else”. Or it could simply demand a growing up to the realisation that the West’s story of religion is not the only one and it will not survive such globalisation if it chooses intransigence.

Some talk of the post-secular future. I don’t think so. We’re all of this at once – secular, post-secular; religious and post-religious. These ideas are sedimented, not relegated. Some envisage a frightening and sinister future. For me, one of the Enlightenment’s successes – the detachment of the spheres of theos from politics – will be best sustained by a public sphere which can retain the distinction but welcome both.

Professor Dinham is a visiting professor in the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS), Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

Find out about the SIIBS course MA Leadership, Religion and Society.

Views posted in comment articles are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the University of Sheffield.