Last weekend my sister recounted a story of a friend of hers who had been “freaked out” by a seemingly sadistic birthday present she had received from her boyfriend.
“He got me this lovely necklace, but it had some dude hanging from a cross on it,” she said.
“That’s not some dude,” my sister replied, deadpan. “That’s Jesus!”
Although my sister’s friend might appear unique in her ignorance, this vignette actually fits neatly within a wider trend. Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, has recently expressed concern that the UK is so religiously illiterate that he fears audiences would not understand Monty Python’s Life of Brian because of the biblical references.
Of course, if the scale of religious illiteracy meant little more than a failure to understand jewellery and 1970s comedy, there would be no issue. But billions of people around the world are religious, despite the assumptions of secularity.
On top of this, religion also plays an important role in social action and welfare service delivery. The Church of England alone claims to serve 10 million people through its community activities – and that doesn’t factor in the help that people get from their local mosques, temples and syangogues.
Religion also permeates news headlines and world affairs: the Pope’s visit to Asia, tragedies such as 9/11, the murder of Lee Rigby, the persecution of religious minorities, or reports of Britons fighting with Islamic State. All of these are news stories that are informed by religion.
Religious illiteracy is responsible for a failure to understand and appreciate the power of religion. It leads to an anxiety about the role of religion in the public sphere: from fear of terrorism to fear of exclusion and fear of litigation. These fears flared up again during the so-called Trojan horse and gay cake sagas.
In a series of projects over the last decade, we have found, here at the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, that a better understanding of the real religious landscape will result in better public services and culture.
In light of these issues, it is especially worrying, if not surprising, that Ofsted has claimed more than half of schools are failing students on religious education (RE). It is in the context of these issues that we are undertaking a new project called RE for Real. This will explore what school leavers really need to know and understand about religion and belief in the contemporary world.
We need a newly invigorated national conversation around the future of religious education in the UK, one that addresses the lack of clarity about how and where learning about religion and belief should take place, what it should consist of, and what it should be for.
I believe that schools can and should play a crucial role in shaping how young people engage with the presence and diversity of religion and belief in the world around them. But the only way to enable them to do this is if we garner the views of teachers, parents, pupils and employers about what sorts of knowledge and skills school leavers should develop about religion and belief.
This is a real time of religious crisis in the UK. Our children cannot continue to be let down by having a poor religious context. In the UK, where we celebrate the vitality of a diverse life, we need to talk about religion more, and provide our children with the best religious education.
Professor Adam Dinham is Director of the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is Professor of Faith and Public Policy