Violent extremism and radicalization have always been associated and correlated to religion in one way or the other depending on the school of thought that one ascribes to. While the jury is still out on the complex role of religion in radicalization and violent extremism, we can all agree that religion plays a part. Religion has a central role in many spheres of our lives, but the average person more often than not only knows something about their own religion and little to nothing of others. The average government official or Kenyan on the street would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a Sunni and Shi’a Muslim or between mainstream Islam and the varied types of Islamically inspired extremism (whether jihadist, Islamist or Salafist). In the current digital information age we live in, it is no longer acceptable to be ignorant about religion simply because in almost every area of society religion lends to shaping various policies and conversations all the while affecting daily communal interactions. It is thus imperative for every citizen to build on their religious literacy to have a basic understanding on how religious issues affect immigration, human rights, national security etc.
Religious literacy can be loosely defined as knowing about world religions and how religion is interwoven with culture and politics. According to the American Academy of Religion “Religious literacy entails the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social/political/cultural life through multiple lenses.” Consequently, religious literacy can therefore be understood to be the ability to reflect, communicate and act in an informed, intelligent and sensitive manner towards the phenomenon of religion as put forth by Professor Andrew Wright, a religious education scholar.
A basic level of religious literacy is something all citizens should cultivate. Outlined below are some simple ways that one can employ as they begin the journey towards building their knowledge.
The first and probably most important step is to be discontent with the prevalent illiteracy about religion. There are many stereotypes about people of different faiths perpetuated by the media and closed social circles. Offsetting ignorance about religion is one step closer to understanding the functions of religion in daily human affairs.
Another step in the course of learning about religion is intentionally and consistently keeping check of our own personal contexts and biases in order guard against prejudice. This can be done through asking questions, suspending judgement and challenging unfounded claims that could create misunderstandings. Meeting new people from different communities and knowing them on a personal level will also do well in expanding the scope of the lens through which we view others.
Recognizing the diversity of religions separately and also within the same religion is also important in dispelling misinformation and increasing religious literacy. For instance, knowing that meeting one Hindu is simply just that, meeting one Hindu. Being cognizant that this experience cannot and should not be generalized to all Hindus because not all Hindu adherents believe and practice the same version of Hinduism. When we embrace the diversity of religion, how regular adherents and radicals experience it, what they value and believe in and how all these things affect their actions we will be one step closer to developing religious literacy that fosters greater understanding and cooperation.
These are just a few of the basic steps one can take towards learning more about religion. A devoted and in-depth look at religious education critically interrogates the good, the bad and the ugly of religion and ultimately it prepares one to be a holistic citizen with the skills necessary to navigate sensitive interactions among secular and religious groupings.