When we work to promote freedom of religion or belief we interact with the complex phenomena of religion in society. To do that well we need to strengthen our religious literacy. So what is religious literacy, and why is it important?
Religious literacy is the ability to understand and navigate a landscape where religious ideas and actors influence societal norms, structures and change processes.
It is a key competence for professionals in many roles. Religious literacy involves appreciating religion and belief as explanatory factors in society, without over- or underestimating their importance, and understanding the religious/belief dimension of the context you are working in. It’s also about reflecting on your own identity as an individual or organisation – on the values and beliefs that you are influenced by and on how you are perceived by others in the context.
In the light of these reflections, religious literacy helps you to make conscious and conflict sensitive decisions about how to act.
Course: Working with change in a religious world – an introduction to religious literacy
Designed for development organisations but useful for a wider range of actors, this short digial course helps you to explore general, contextual and practical dimensions of religious literacy. (Illustration: Majsan Sundell)
Four types of religious literacy – which types do you have?
General religious literacy is the ability to understand and reflect upon religion as a societal phenomena. It includes but is not limited to understanding what people from different religious traditions believe.
So what is religion? That’s an incredibly complicated question, and the answer will depend on whether you are asking from a theological, sociological, philosophical, cultural or legal perspective. Here are a couple of definitions or explanations:
“An organised collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or explain the origin of life or the universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people derive morality ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle.”
“Religion differs from faith or belief in having a collective and social dimension.”
(Prof J. Nielsen, University of Birmingham).
A: FOUR PRINCIPLES
Before we look at different models of analysing religion let’s look at four principles that can help us to understand religion as a societal phenomena. They seek to address some of the most common misunderstandings about religion.
(Adapted from The Harvard University Religious Literacy Project website.)
1. There is a difference between confessional theology and the study of religion
Confessional theology usually focuses on truth – on exploring correct belief (orthodoxy) or practice (orthopraxy). Lots of people and groups consider their particular theological understandings and religious beliefs to be true and it’s perfectly legitimate for them to assert the truth of their own convictions. The non-confessional study of religion on the other hand, recognises that there are lots of different claims to religious truth that have religious legitimacy, and doesn’t concern itself with what is actually true.
When we work to promote freedom of religion or belief as a human right, we generally use a religious studies approach. None the less, if you are working within or with a particular religious community it can be very helpful to relate human rights concepts to religious ideas. The ability to use both confessional theological language and human rights language can be a helpful ‘bilingualism’. But remember – it is always much easier to translate to your mother tongue! Relating human rights ideas to the theological language and truths of a religious group other than your own can be very tricky, both in terms of power dynamics and legitimacy.
2. Religions are internally diverse
Religious traditions and practices are often portrayed as uniform but this is not the case. Let’s take an example.
There is a great deal of contemporary debate about the roles of women in Islam. Often you might hear the words “Muslims believe…”. In fact, each Muslim and each theological tradition within Islam has their own particular understanding of ‘truth’ in relation to this. From a religious studies perspective, within each religion there are lots of different theological interpretations that lead to different, sometimes opposing practices and assertions. It’s also common that different religious and belief communities have similar practices but with differing theological justifications.
Obviously there are formal differences between traditions within religions (e.g., Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant for Christianity; Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, for Hinduism, etc.). But there are also enormous differences within these traditions because religious communities function in different social, cultural and political contexts.
A lack of awareness of the diversity and cultural specificity of religious belief and practice can lead us to make assumptions about religions and religious communities. For example:
“Buddhists are nonviolent”
“Christians oppose abortion”
“Islam oppresses women”
“Religion and science are incompatible”
All of these comments represent particular theological assertions/practices and ignore the diversity of the tradition itself.
3. Religions evolve and change
Religions are often seen as static constructs best understood by knowing their ‘official’ beliefs and practices. But religions are interpreted and lived in specific times and places, and are constantly interpreted and reinterpreted by believers. For example,
– the practice of slavery has been both justified and rejected by all three monotheistic traditions in differing social and historical contexts.
– the Confucian concept of the “mandate from heaven” evolved within dynasties, geopolitical regions, and historical eras and continues to evolve today.
– the Southern Baptist convention in the United States passed a series of resolutions in the 1970s supporting the moral legitimacy of abortion and reversed those resolutions in 2003.
4. Religious influences are embedded in cultures
Religions are collections of ideas, practices, values and stories that are interwoven in cultures and not separable from them. Just as religion can’t be understood in isolation from its cultural (including political) contexts, it is impossible to understand culture without considering its religious dimensions. Of course religions exist across cultures and times. But while the central claims of truth may be fairly stable, culture shapes religion and religion shapes culture in all times and cultures. Whether explicit or implicit, religious influences can virtually always be found if you ask “the religion question” of any given social or historical experience. This is true in ‘secular’ societies too.
B: SIX LENSES FOR LOOKING AT RELIGION
Watch this 9 minute video to learn about six different lenses we can use to look at religion. (This film is inspired by the teaching of Prof J. Nielsen of Birmingham University).
When you reflect on your own religious tradition, can you recognise the kinds of diversity represented in the 6 lenses? (This reflection exercise could also be used in a training – perhaps as a discussion in pairs.)
C: RELIGION, CULTURE AND VALUES
One religion can encompass vastly different ways of life. So can religious identity predict a pattern of behaviour and values?
The World Values Survey is a long term research programme that tracks the development of values over time and across the globe. It provides lots of insights that can help us answer this question. Over the years it has demonstrated that people’s values and ideas play a key role in economic development and that economic realities impact on their values. The survey concludes that values can broadly speaking be divided up into two spectrums:
- Survival values versus self-expression values
- Traditional values versus secular-rational values
Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook.
Secular-rational values have the opposite preferences to the traditional values. These societies place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority. Divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide are seen as relatively acceptable. (Suicide is not necessarily more common.)
Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance.
Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection, growing tolerance of foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life.
Click on this link to open a chart that plots the predominant values in different countries.
What impressions do you gain from looking at the chart?
Instead of showing countries based on religious majority, this map looks identifies groups of countries with similar socio-political-economic cultures and situations. Religion appears to play some kind of role, for example Confucian countries are grouped together as are Catholic-European countries – but that role is is not clear cut! For example there is a huge difference in the values of people living in Mexico and the Czech Republic – both of which have Catholic majorities. Whilst people in Saudi Arabia and Trinidad have similar values despite having different religious majority traditions.
So what determines people’s values? The World Values Survey draws out a whole range of conclusions from their data. Perhaps the most important conclusions for our purposes are:
- Religion is not a good predictor of values. There is no inevitiability to people from any religion having a particular set of values. The best predictor of values is the geo-political and cultural history and the economic development of the country a person lives in.
- Values vary far more between countries than they do within countries. Differences between countries are 8 times greater than within countries. So we could expect a Catholic or Muslim who has grown up in Denmark to have values and ideas that are much closer to a Protestant Dane than to a Catholic or a Muslim in Indonesia.
- The desire for free choice, autonomy and democracy is a universal human aspiration, but it is not top priority when people grow up feeling that survival is uncertain. As long as physical survival remains uncertain, the desire for physical and economic security tends to take higher priority than democracy. When basic physiological and safety needs are fulfilled there is a growing emphasis on self-expression values.
Although this can’t be seen on the chart above, the World Values Survey also identifies a subset of self-expression values called Emancipative Values. These combine an emphasis on freedom of choice (autonomy), equal opportunitites for example gender equality and the voice of the people. They encourage nonviolent protest and activate societies, making the public more self-expressive and vitalizing civil society. In other words, they have a lot of relevance for FORB and human rights more broadly!
Here are some of the survey’s conclusions regarding emancipative values.
- Emancipative values are the key cultural component of a broader process of human empowerment.
- The emancipative consequences of the human empowerment process are not a culture-specific peculiarity of the ‘West.’ The same empowerment processes that advance emancipative values and a critical-liberal desire for democracy in the ‘West,’ do the same in the ‘East’ and in other culture zones.
- If set in motion, human empowerment advances on three levels. On the socio-cultural level, human empowerment advances as rising emancipative values increase people’s aspirations to exercise freedoms. On the socio-economic level, human empowerment advances as an increased level of resources increase people’s capabilities to exercise freedoms. On the legal-institutional level, human empowerment advances as widened democratic rights increase people’s entitlements to exercise freedoms.
- Human empowerment tends to advance in virtuous spirals or to recede in vicious spirals on each of these three levels. Strengthening emancipative values in democratic countries help to prevent movements away from democracy, while strengthening emancipative values in countries that are undemocratic, helps trigger movements towards democracy.
- Emancipative values are the single most important factor in advancing the empowerment of women. Economic, religious, and institutional factors that have been found to advance women’s empowerment, do so for the most part because they nurture emancipative values.
We can use many different ‘lenses’ to understand religion as a social phenomenon. These lenses can help us reflect upon and analyse the religious dynamics of the context we work in in different ways. Which lenses are most relevant to you? What key messages do you take with you from this section?
Contextual religious literacy is the ability:
- to understand and analyse the impact that religious and belief based ideas, practices and institutions have on a context and on change processes in that context. This includes the ability to recognise how religion relates to political, social and cultural factors.
- to reflect both on the values and beliefs (including non-religious beliefs) that influence you and on how your identity and values and their impact are seen by others in the context
LOOKING AROUND YOU
For a specific project or programme to be relevant, general religious literacy needs to be deepened and contextualised. This involves local knowledge and capabilities – not least the ability to ask the right questions, such as:
- How do religious and cultural ideas among majority and minority communities in the area relate to the issue I’m working with (eg FORB)?
- Is there a diversity of ideas/approaches to the issue with more and less traditional approaches being implemented?
- Have ideas changed over time – can I appeal to a past tradition or promote the legitimacy of something new?
- What positive and negative roles do religious actors and leaders currently play in relation to the issue?
- Could religious leaders or progressive groups within faith communities help find religious language to express human rights/FORB principles and use this language to create support for human rights within their communities? Can I build this into my work?
- Are there religious laws that impact on the issue I am working with? (For an overview of Muslim family law in different countries of the world see this link. Sadly we lack information on equivalent resources for other faith communities.)
- Are there positive changes happening in other countries with similar traditions that I could refer to? (For information on positive developments in Muslim family law around the world see here. For information about the United Nations Faith for Rights initiative see here)
How well do I understand the religious beliefs and traditions of the communities I work with? What do I need to learn? Make notes in your learning journal.
LOOKING AT YOURSELF
Whether you and/or your organisation come from the context or are an external actor coming in, it’s important to understand how others in the context perceive you and the role you play. For example a faith based development organisation from a non-majority tradition may be suspected of having a hidden agenda to convert people. Knowing how we are perceived can help us relate to others and take conflict-sensitive decisions about our work.
- What is your/your organisations religious or belief identity?
- What do you believe, how do you practice?
- What collective memory and collective narratives does your community have about your place in society?
- Does your collective memory contain trauma?
- We all hold partial truths about our history and place in our collective narratives. Which partial truths might your community’s narrative include – for example remembering oppression but being unaware of injustices committed (or percieved as having been committed) against others?
- Do you or your group/organisation have positions on political matters, or are you perceived as having these?
- Might any of this influence the way you are perceived by others as you work for freedom of religion or belief (or for any other right or issue)?
To summarise: Contextual religious literacy is not about knowing the answers so much as about knowing what questions to ask about our contexts and ourselves.
Practical religious literacy is the ability to use your understanding and self-reflection to navigate and act in ways that are relevant and effective in the context.
In order for religious literacy to be useful in your activities, projects or programmes it needs to be applied. This means consciously integrating your knowledge and understanding into your strategies. How will you relate to religious ideas, actors and power dynamics that you come into contact with or want to engage in your activities?
It’s also about about having the knowledge and confidence required to engage in practice. This can involve incredibly practical concerns, such as:
- How should your organistion handle it’s own faith or belief basis in contexts where this basis is not shared?
- How do you organise an inter-religious training in a way that respects the freedom of religion or belief of the participants?
- How do you plan sessions to accommodate prayer needs? How do you plan and manage mealtimes if your training is during Ramadan?
- How, within the context of a training, can you build confidence and trust between actors and groups who would not normally work with you/each other?
What elements need to be integrated into my strategies? Am I confident in my understanding and capabilities to deal with religious aspects of the context/issues I am working with?
Different organsiations have different strategies for relating to religion in the context they are working in. Here are 5 of the most common strategies.
(Adapted from SMC Faith in Development’s learning review on Religion and Gender)
1) Avoid religion/ religious actors
Sometimes your contextual analysis and your goal might reveal that the best strategy is to avoid religious leaders/faith based partners and work entirely from a secular/human rights based approach. This might mean that you avoid conflicts with religious leaders/actors – but can mean that you miss key actors for change and fail to harness the potential for social reform religion can harbour. None the less, sometimes this is the best strategy.
2) Adapt to religion
Some organisations choose to work within the frameworks provided by religious actors, interpretations and practice without challenging this framework. This could help you to reach some quick and strong results in relation to issues where you have a shared perspective. But there is a risk that religious norms that are problematic from a human rights perspective will go unchallenged and unchanged, which could undermine long term and sustainable change.
3) Navigate within the religion
Use pragmatic compromise as strategy, choosing your battles wisely in relation to what you challenge and what you leave alone. You may need to sacrifice some principles along the way.
4) Utilise religion to challenge ideas and practices
This strategy creates potential for long term change of norms and structures but there is a risk of hostility and resistance. With this strategy it is important to consider what internal change factors there are within the religious setting and how those can be utilised.
5) Downplay the role of religion
Avoid religiously associated tensions in the context through downplaying the role of religion, for example by being clear with your own religious identity but working interreligiously/inclusively and talking more about human rights/citizenship rights than about religious identities and by avoiding religious terminology
Which of these or other strategies have you/your organisation used in your work in relation to engaging with religion? Will you need to use any of these strategies when you talk about FORB in your context?
The ability to relate human rights concepts and religious concepts to one another and to understand how that relationship is perceived by religious actors/communities. This is partly about FORB literacy – about understanding the rights that specifically relate to religion. But it is also about the relationship between religious ideas/practices and human rights more broadly, for example the right to education, health or freedom of speech.
An important part of any context analysis is understanding how local communities perceive the issue you are working on.
In contexts where religion plays an important role in people’s understanding of the world, it can be important to relate human rights concepts (including FORB) to local cultural or religious concepts. This is perhaps especially true in contexts where human rights are seen as a foreign imposition.
The ability to connect human rights to local cultural and theological ideas can be described as a sort of bilingualism. Actors who both command both religious and human rights languages can function as interpreters between theology and religion on the one side and international law and development on the other.
Actors like this can have increased opportunities to strengthen and deepen discussions about important issues, and help target groups gain a greater appreciation of the value and universality of rights.
Of course the degree to which you can work with theological concepts will depend on your/your organisation’s identity and role. The ability to judge what you can appropriately do or say in terms of working with ‘bilingualism’ is part of religious literacy.
A classic example of an issue where local religious perceptions play an important role is Female Genital Mutilation. Within some Muslim communities in East Africa FGM is perceived as a religious duty, despite there being no support for this within the religion itself. The ability to talk about theology or to work with actors who can talk theology can make a big difference in achieving human rights goals.