At a time of increasing concern about religious radicalisation, Tony Blair has issued a call for school children to be taught to respect religion. But he’s got it wrong on all counts: it’s literacy about religion that our children need, not blanket respect for it.
Respect per se cannot provide children with the skills they need to navigate their relationships with each other, or in the wider world outside of the school gates. And in any case, not all ideas are worthy of respect.
There are many different religious beliefs practiced in the UK alone, let alone globally; even interfaith organisations which include more than just the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), or the “top five” religions (adding Hinduism and Buddhism) still exclude some religious groups such as the Druids. If we’re to teach our children to respect religions, we first need to figure out who decides which religions to “respect” with our attention – and which we can afford to overlook.
This isn’t a simple problem to solve, as the UK’s Supreme Court showed in 2013 when it reversed an earlier decision that Scientology chapels were not religious places of worship. Given the level of animosity directed towards Scientologists, we can imagine that the decision to teach their beliefs and the need to respect them in schools would hardly be met with universal approval.
The point is that, seen from the outside, many religious ideas seem strange (so do many political ideas, but no-one is suggesting we should teach children to respect them). And at a time when even the beliefs and values of established religious organisations such as the Roman Catholic Church seem out of touch with even their own believers, we should also ask how we decide what specific beliefs are worthy of respect and which aren’t.
Solving the wrong problem
In his piece, Blair argues that the reason we have to teach children to respect religion is to help tackle the problem of religious, specifically Islamic, extremism. But this starts with a religiously illiterate assumption – that religion is the problem.
Religion is already all around us; people, institutions and cultures are stuffed full of religiously informed values, histories and beliefs. While membership of most religious institutions in the UK has dropped in recent years, this can be seen as a measure of religious change, and not necessarily as a decline.
In most cases those values and beliefs are not a problem; they don’t threaten the fabric of our society, and they are in many cases simply invisible to the major news stories and issues of the day.
But thanks to the well-established secular assumption that religion is an irrational problem which has no place in public debate, we still struggle to seeing it as anything other than a risk. This is compounded when people erroneously assume that religious belief is the primary recruitment engine for groups like Islamic State, something my own research challenges.
By pushing the need to tackle extremism as the main imperative for engaging with religion in schools, Blair is reinforcing the problem: children won’t learn to respect religion, they’ll simply fear it.
Literacy, not respect
Clearly, we do need to teach children more about religion. But rather than a divisive and unproductive conversation about which beliefs and religions are worthy of respect, and instead of assuming that this is an exercise in threat-reduction, we should be helping our children to be more religiously literate.
To be absolutely clear, I’m not suggesting we should teach children to be religious. (Indeed, a growing body of excellent research suggests we need to be more literate about non-religious identities too.) Religious literacy means learning about other religions and engaging with other faith communities – areas in which the Tony Blair Faith Foundation has undertaken some good work – but it also teaches children to be critically engaged with ideologies and ideas, not just aware of their contours.
This gives children the tools to interrogate the value and validity of all kinds of beliefs, including conspiracy theories or violent ideologies, and critical thinking skills have much broader application than just religions. Respect for ideas, where due, may follow but are not assumed.
This approach has a proven track record in the higher education sector with the Religious Literacy Leadership Programme (which I managed for a while). It has also been used to aid some of the sensitive discussions which bodies like the Equality and Human Rights Commission are involved in.
We certainly need to improve education about religion in our schools, and we should be thankful to Tony Blair for raising this issue. But religious literacy is a more productive approach than his counterproductive and reactionary suggestion.