Initial Thoughts on Religious Literacy

I was already thinking about writing this blog post before #BlogSyncRE came along, but I was very glad for the few posts I’ve read already, and I’m hoping to get round to reading the others soon! I can’t quite believe that as an RE teacher, I had never really used the phrase ‘religious literacy’ until one of Ben Wood’s sessions at the #NATREnorth conference (read my blog about the conference here, and his blog post on religious literacy here). He talked about Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Ben gave an example from the recent UK elections, where Ed Miliband carved his political pledges on a tablet of stone, to show how we need a basis of religious knowledge in order to interpret the promotional tools of the politicians vying for our votes. Even interpreting the fact that the British public firmly rejected this approach requires knowledge of religious trends. I did buy the book but didn’t manage to read it all before we left for Australia, and so it is currently in a container somewhere en route! However, even just reading the introduction made me realise that it is important that we have religious knowledge first, as it is the basis on which we use the skills we develop.

I do think it is extremely important that students develop critical thinking skills in order that they can approach new religious and secular belief systems that they have not encountered before. However, without any basis of comparison, how can students evaluate these beliefs? The RE classroom gives students a place to form their own views. I am not talking about ‘learning from’ religion, that category just written out of the UK curriculum, but in a broader sense, in the ways in which they might also develop their views in English, History, or other subjects. Moreover, students do not live in a cultural vacuum: they will encounter people who hold beliefs that differ to their own, and gain most from keeping an open mind and engaging in discussion about these differences. In other words, we are teaching students to acknowledge difference respectfully but critically, which is a formative process.

I teach in a Catholic school, and much of the curriculum is based around Christianity. We follow the curriculum of the archdiocese of Brisbane, which includes World Religions section in each year, mostly the Abrahamic traditions, and largely in comparison with Christianity. It’s not a perfect system, but, having read Charlotte Vardy’s post on religious literacy, I am inclined to agree with her that it is better to understand one religion in great depth than to skim the surface of six religions. Of course, in an ideal world, we would teach more about religion, but in the time available to us, it is better to aim for depth rather than breadth. Our skills as teachers are thus utilised, and if the students are inspired, they will be inclined to look out for the breadth themselves. In some ways, every subject in the curriculum has a balancing act between skills and knowledge. There is a lot of content in every subject, and all have limited time on the timetable. We can hope to allow students to develop expertise in some areas – based on knowledge and skill – but we have to be selective about which areas to focus on, otherwise they will not be able to develop any expertise.

One thing I like in particular about the Brisbane curriculum is that it includes units that relate particularly to the Australian scene. Of course, we often encourage students to relate their learning in RE to their own lives, if only to give them points of access to the difficult material, but in studying the context students gain an understanding of the particular context in which they live, and the history through which it has developed. I haven’t taught any of this yet – it will be a learning experience for me as well as for the students!

As a little bit of anecdotal evidence, I was thinking about writing this blog whilst covering an RE lesson in my new school with a year 8 class (equivalent of UK year 9). They were presenting the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, before going on to analyse them. This reminded me a little of @nmckain ‘s post on religious literacy in which he emphasises the importance of understanding the context of religious passages. Students have knowledge of the context in which the Ten Commandments appeared, rather than merely repeating “do not kill” or “do not commit adultery”. Students then applied their knowledge to today’s context, which ultimately led to them asking questions like “if Moses was living today, what car would he drive?” – which they then attempted to answer with reference to the cultural context of the day, the context of the Ten Commandments in scripture, and their interpretation of Moses’ personality and characteristics based on their readings of Exodus. I wasn’t quite prepared for such in depth analysis of “What Would Moses Drive?” in my first lesson in my new school, but it showed the depth of interpretation and analysis of scripture – with no apologetics or confessional stuff going on at all.

This post is part of #BlogSyncRE, read other contributions at:

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