Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice

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Adam Dinham, Matthew Francis
  • Bristol, UK: 
    Policy Press
    , November
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice is a collection of fourteen essays that challenge the idea of religion as a problem, and question assumptions about religion in public discourse. The authors present religious literacy as a civic endeavor for a postmodern age when religious knowledge is in decline and the quality of conversation about religion and belief is ill informed and ill-mannered. They argue that religious literacy is an urgent need in society across the full range of sectors and settings to cure prejudice, diffuse tensions and conflict, and counter scare stories about radicalized extremists and arguments from the exception. The authors portray religion as a resource for community cohesion and especially see the academy playing an important role in moderating debates, educating teachers, and training media, professionals, and citizens for a 21st-century reality in which religions are relevant and religious plurality is mainstream.

The editors, Adam Dinham and Matthew Francis, define religion as a cultural legacy to be decoded. They propose that an assertive ignorance does not regard religious illiteracy as a problem. Therefore, a willingness to recognize religion as relevant precedes knowledge about specific religions. Religious literacy requires first knowing how the intellectual conversation is framed, including categories and terms. Religious literacy includes knowledge of the role of historic traditions in defining time-and-space and establishing categories of thought. Moreover, religious literacy can also be the key to a treasury of wisdom, collected across millennia and proven to enrich character and society. The impact of religious literacy as a best practice in social welfare is exemplified with case studies from Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Pakistan, and Australia. Contributors are mostly from the United Kingdom.

Religious illiteracy in the United States is highlighted in the fourth chapter by Lauren R. Kerby and Stephen Prothero. Kerby and Prothero argue that religious literacy, and especially knowledge of Protestant Christianity, is necessary for democratic citizenship in America. They declare that the academic study of religion is erroneously assumed as banned in the classroom, which they refute with citations from Supreme Court cases. Support for this position is also promoted by the First Amendment Center and the Religious Freedom Center. Prothero and Kerby advocate teaching the Bible as literature and instituting a national curriculum for the study of world religions in public high schools. They propose teaching the history of freedom of conscience in America with a survey of major traditions including a short description focusing on dates and geography.

Diane L. Moore, Director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, defines theory and method in the second chapter. She was the lead author of the AAR Guidelines for Teaching about Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States, and her work as an advocate of religious literacy recently included a webcast symposium on journalism and popular edX mass online open courses on traditions and scriptures. She is now the co-Leader of the Steering Group for the AAR Guidelines for What College Graduates in the U.S. Should Understand About Religion, which seeks to promote religious literacy across various disciplines of study at a minimum standard of competency.

Moore’s fundamental tenets are well known: religions are internally diverse, religions evolve and change, and religions are embedded in cultures. Her definition of religious literacy was adopted by the American Academy of Religion [AAR] in 2010: “Religious literacy entails the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social/political/cultural life through multiple lenses. Specifically, a religiously literate person will possess 1) a basic understanding of the history, central texts (where applicable), beliefs, practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world’s religious traditions as they arose out of and continue to be shaped by particular social, historical, and cultural contexts; and 2) the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place."

The draft guidelines for college curricula propose that all graduates, regardless of whether they specifically take a class in religious studies, will be able to differentiate devotional expression and claims of normativity from the non-sectarian description and analysis of particular traditions and how religion has shaped various cultures and influenced characters and societies. There is also an emphasis on developing the capacity to assess credible sources and reliable information.

This new initiative caused some anxiety and laments among scholars at the 2016 AAR annual meeting. Russell McCutcheon, Chair of the University of Alabama Department of Religious Studies, declared opposition to national committee perspectives on classroom learning outcomes and measurement in a blog post “Skillz.” He suggests focusing on student ability to describe, compare, and analyze in explanatory and interpretive modes in both oral debate and writing. The committee emphasizes the guidelines are only recommendations for campus-wide integration and not designed for accreditation purposes or a mandatory introductory class to religion. Debate over religious literacy standards will continue as the AAR project is scheduled for two years of revision before adoption and promotion.

Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice is a timely publication for educators and academics that frames the intellectual conversation about religious literacy in public schools and colleges. It is also a valuable reference, citing best practices for professionals and policymakers seeking to honor freedom of religious expression and nurture good relations among a diverse population in the workplace and public square. The authors succeed in providing clear ideas to inform and elevate the public understanding of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a public scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam Dinham is Professor of Faith and Public Policy at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is director of the Religious Literacy Programme and has advised the UK government on issues of public faith.

Matthew Francis is a Research Associate at Lancaster University. He is also the founding editor of and has researched and written about religion and violence for the British Home Office and in the media.


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