Overcoming Religious Illiteracy

Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education

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  1. Just finishing Diane Moore’s Overcoming Religious Illiteracy and thinking about power and inclusivity/exclusivity.

    Dr. Moore notes that the “secular approach is the strongest philosophical foundation to promote nonrepression and nondiscrimination in the service of democracy: the conscious social reproduction of society in its most inclusive form” (p. 56). For some, might this inclusivity not be preferable to certain exclusivity(ies)? If so, what are the implications of that disparity? Is this just a circular question I have raised, a restating of the starting point that inclusivity is good?

    José Casanova, in his Public Religions in the Modern World (p. 4) notes how religion itself can try to be both inclusive and exclusive, showing its “Janus face” throughout the 1980s, for example, when it served “as the carrier not only of exclusive, particularist, and primordial identities but also of inclusive, universalist, and transcending ones.”

    One poignant example of this in the news recently – of a population intentionally excluded, and even protected in their choice to be excluded – was the drastic case of the last pre-Neolithic tribe of hunter-gatherers in the world, the Sentinelese, on India’s remote North Sentinel Island, one of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, who just this past month killed American missionary John Allen Chau as he was reportedly proselyting on the forbidden island.

    The Amish are another example of a population whose choice to exclude themselves from the general population has been supported (by the Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Yoder).

    And examples of religion being inclusive also abound, including my own Episcopal Christian church community in Ellicott City, MD, which, like many others, starts every service by explicitly and publicly stating that all people are welcome, regardless of belief of lack thereof.

    The entire decade of the 1980s, Casnova notes, was characterized by political conflicts around the world that were religious in nature, involving the major religions the Middle East – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – being fed by old power struggles. The religious revival of the 80s, he goes on to note (p. 3-4), revealed “simultaneously the rise of fundamentalism and of its role in the resistance of the oppressed and the rise of the ‘powerless’”: the Islamic concept of “the disinherited” (the disempowered of the earth) which occupied a central role in the Islamic revolution; the liberation theology notion of “the eruption of the poor”; and the Velvet Revolution’s “the power of the powerless.”

    Indeed, such difficult issues related to power and powerlessness, which are not well addressed by other methods attempting to teach religious literacy, Dr. Moore describes (p. 82), are explicitly addressed by the cultural-studies method in this book, which provides a framework to ask essential questions that promote religious literacy, such as questions pointing to which voices are marginalized or not and why, and which are prominently legitimized over others and what are the resultant consequences of these power disequilibria? Such questions serve within the cultural-studies approach to make important sense of the complexities of the cultural constructs that constitute “religions,” revealing the value claims that always exist, whether the paradigm being considered is a “secular” or a “religious” one.

    Before returning to this important notion of value claims in secular and religious approaches to education, it is worth pointing out a similarity to religious value claims made from a devotional approach versus a religious-studies approach. Focusing just on the two largest religions in the world – Christianity and Islam, both highly relevant in the US – it is not uncommon for a Christian to say of the Westboro Baptist Church, for example, “that is not true Christianity,” or for a Muslim to say of ISIS, for example, that “that is not Islam.” While such value statements may be important, relevant, impactful, and correct from a devotional approach – meaning, essentially, “I reject that interpretation of Islam or Christianity,” – such statements are misguided, distracting, and generally inconsistent with a religious-studies approach such as the cultural-studies approach to religious literacy, because they amount essentially to a dangerous discounting of these movements, which can preclude important questions, such as What is it about ISIS that so powerfully attracts recruits? or What is it about the Westboro Baptist Church and the society that gave rise to it that has allowed it to gain enough social legitimacy to exist? In general, important questions about the factors that give social credibility and influence to some traditions over others, about which dimensions of a given tradition are considered orthodox and which heretical, and by whom, are facilitated from a cultural-studies approach.

    So, returning to the questions raised in the opening paragraph above, and to notion of value claims in secular and religious approaches to education: when Moore advocates for a secular inclusiveness over a devotional exclusiveness in the approach to religious education as the best foundation to promote nonrepression and nondiscrimination in the service of education and the ideals of democracy (tolerance toward minorities, freedom of expression, respect for each human’s dignity and worth, and equal opportunity to develop in a cooperative community), she herself is not advocating for a neutral stance in which inclusivity and exclusivity are both equally valued. Nor should she. Rather, she is herself taking a position and identifying her value claims, viz., that inclusiveness is better, embracing “the subjective nature of all knowledge [and value] claims” (p. 56). While at first glance, the casual observer may see things such that neutrality is best – and sometimes mistaken for a form of good per se – when it comes to navigating the relationship between education and religion in our democracy, Dr. Moore makes the essential point that this “very enterprise is predicated upon assumptions that promote certain religious perspective over others,” viz., the embracing inclusive pluralism over exclusivity (p. 56).

    Importantly, this does not mean that the enterprise is flawed, but rather that what she calls “the pretense of neutrality” must be abandoned so that value claims are transparent and justified. This avoids what Donna Haraway has called the “God trick” of trying to see everything from nowhere. Indeed, one may argue that the other key components of Moore’s cultural-studies approach – that religion is embedded everywhere; that multiple lenses are needed; and that all knowledge/value claims, lenses, and indeed learning itself, are situated – rest on the bedrock of ‘seeing our sight,’ of owning our starting point that inclusivity and pluralism are good, of having a firm understanding of our context in which we negotiate the many power struggles that characterize the relationship between religion and education in our democracy.

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