Lately, I’ve been fortunate to share in some very good conversations about these questions. One was a summit organised by David Aldridge, Gert Biesta, Pat Hannam and Sean Whittle, as part of their project on religious literacy within Culham St Gabriel’s Research7 series. I recommend keeping an eye out for the findings, when published, because the researchers have been doing a remarkable job. Their approach has been to review relevant literature then invite critical commentary from academics and teachers.
The underlying problem is a lack of an agreed definition of religious literacy. The term is used to convey different meanings and there has been a tendency to use it as if it is more straightforward. However, the researchers identify various definitions of literacy: it has meant well-read, or able to read, or equipped with knowledge of one’s culture, or possessed of a certain set of skills, such as financial literacy, digital literacy and so on. They go on to point out the different views of religious literacy – a critical engagement with religious truth-claims, or an ability to understand the basics of different religious traditions, or an appreciation of how religions intersect with social and political life, or the ability to talk about religion in the public sphere. They pose questions about whether and how religious literacy could or should be an organising principle for RE: given religion’s huge diversity, what counts as ‘basic’ knowledge? But how should ‘religion’ be understood, anyway – should we ask about what it means to live religiously? If there are different modes of what could be called religious literacy, is literacy the best term to carry the different educational meanings, given its basis in reading?
The summit, mainly involving academics, brought out further questions. Again, I can only give examples here, but that of non-religious worldviews was one. Martha Shaw includes these in her definition of religious literacy, together with pupils’ reflecting on their own personal values, and together with Adam Dinham is developing case studies of this approach.
The meeting with teachers took place a couple of weeks after the academic summit, adding questions which in some ways were new, though in other ways overlapped with those mentioned earlier. How do you develop religious literacy despite the demands of exams? Or, do you develop it within those demands? The lack of an agreed definition of religious literacy was what caused there to be two questions rather than one: if it’s defined as measurable knowledge and understanding of religion, the first question doesn’t apply. Prompted by problems over the term religious literacy to discuss what good RE is, none of the teachers then made use of the term to do so. I have no doubt that the term generates interesting discussion, but I open-mindedly wonder whether it adds any value to RE practice.
As well as looking forward to the results of the religious literacy project, I want to see how they’re affected by those of other Research7 projects. On teaching texts, does skilful handling of a text demonstrate religious literacy, or just one instance of it? On knowledge in the RE curriculum, is knowledge of religion through RE the same as religious literacy through RE, or are other factors involved in religious literacy? Or, do discussions of religious literacy help develop our view of what knowledge in the RE curriculum really means? On RE and technology, it would be surprising if today’s young people didn’t draw on technology to develop religious literacy, but does this affect the term’s meaning? On RE and educational and social disadvantage, is religious literacy a form of educational and social advantage, or something that provides these? Do young people need access to technology in order to develop the literacy and gain the advantages? At present, my only prediction is that the questions will multiply.
Kevin O’Grady is Lead Consultant for Research at Culham St Gabriel’s Trust