Religious literacy routs Islamophobia



The Harvard Divinity School calls it 'religious literacy' — that is, the knowledge and understanding of the tenets of the world religions and, in their words, 'the roles that religions play in human experience across political, economic, and cultural spheres'.

Man with Islamophobic placardA person with religious literacy has an understanding and appreciation of the teachings of religions in the world, is knowledgeable about the various applications and manifestations of those teachings, and, perhaps most crucially, understands how religious faith forms, informs and enriches contemporary human society.

At the same time, they are able to recognise and critique the shadow side of religious faith, such as theocratic government, forced belief, and other forms of religious fundamentalism.

In a world where Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise, endangering and taking the lives of so many innocent people of faith, it is difficult to overstate the importance of religious literacy. Hatred and fear of Islam or Judaism is often justified by misinformation about what Muslims or Jews believe — for example, that Muslims believe in terrorism or Jews believe in killing Christians.

As an adult my own faith looks more like goddess-centred witchcraft, but I grew up with Catholic religious instruction, which included some serious attention to other religious practices and the possibility of a rich co-existence. Within this, I heard from many adults about how they came to their faith and the history of their articles of faith.

One of the great benefits of such a schooling was exposure to, and education in, the presence and work of belief in the world, for better and for worse.

That is, people of faith believe in things we can't see. Some of us feel spirits on the wind and our ancestors by our side. Some of us believe in a time and space after the death of the body. We tend to worship a power that is bigger than the world, that exerts unseen and unpredictable agency over our lives and the lives of others.

When faith of any kind is attached and amassed through a human institution like an organised religion, its power is extraordinary; capable of both horrifying brutality and life-saving human solidarity. It is always cultural and also always individual.


"Maybe if religious literacy were one of the aims of mass education, it wouldn't be so easy to decide to believe that so many of our fellow humans are plotting against us."


As well as developing my own faith, I believe my religious education generated a certain religious literacy, which helps me to live in a multi-faith world without fear. This means that when I see a person express, for example, their Muslim faith — through dress, or speech, or action — I expect that that person is part of a complex faith tradition, and that I couldn't possibly know at first glance how they personally are situated in it.

Put another way — just like I have known people of the Christian faith who are total jerks, who organise with other total jerks to make Christianity a force in the world that silences women and murders gay people, so too do I count Christians among some of the most vitally kind, loving individuals I will ever be fortunate enough to know, and who organise with other vitally kind and loving people to make Christianity a force for human liberation.

Islamophobia and anti-Semitism reduce people of faith to one-dimensional, malevolent actors. Both practices refuse to appreciate the complexity of faith's manifestation in the world; the myriad ways it is implicated in identity and action, and, particularly in highly secular societies like Australia's, the capacity of people of faith to determine for themselves how they interpret and live the articles of their faith, with others.

Such reduction and refusal is clear when a non-Muslim Australian politician publicly shouts down a young Muslim woman on the subject of that young woman's faith, telling that young woman that her faith is a threat to Australian society. It is clear when over 11,000 other non-Muslim Australians support a call for that young woman to be sacked from her job. It is clear when a young man, unknown to his attackers, is punched in the neck and called a 'fucking Jew' when walking home from synagogue in Melbourne.

Maybe if religious literacy were one of the aims of mass education, it wouldn't be so easy to decide to believe that so many of our fellow humans are plotting against us. Instead, perhaps, we'd see the mystery of faith for the complex thing that it is, and see other things that are rendered opaque and inaccessible (political power, inherited wealth, higher education) as realities we can change.


Ann DeslandesAnn Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher from Sydney. Read her other writing at and tweet her @Ann_dLandes.

Topic tags: Ann Deslandes, religious literacy



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Existing comments

Well said Ann, and amen! I too am grateful for the wisdom of the tradition I was raised in while being very aware of its institutional flaws. Many of us sit in the uncomfortable space between fundamentalism and atheism. I joke that atheists think I am nuts and fundamentalists know I am damned! But in this space I respect and understand many different points of view, including other faith traditions, and I thank my Catholic schools and church community for helping shape my world view.
Michelle Coram | 08 April 2017

A good strong article. You almost lost me at goddess centred whitchcraft but I can take a joke. Many years ago I was challenged about staying in a church when women could not be bishops. I realised it would never change if I left, it might if I stayed. My friendships with Jewish, Muslim and other Christian of other denominations have enriched my faith. Keep writing!
Leigh Mackay | 10 April 2017

Ann, thank you for this thoughtful article. It is normal to fear what you don't know or understand. An understanding of what people of other faith traditions are seeking is important so we can live side by side in a difficult world. Who but the Lord can judge what people hold close to their hearts. It is a great gift to read the work of young writers who are thinking deeply about how to negotiate the world as it is today.
Margaret McDonald | 10 April 2017

Religion is often portrayed analogically as climbing the Mountain of God. There are many paths up the Mountain. Which one appeals to us depends on where we are starting from; what circumstances form our point of view, and at what degree of development we have arrived. There are 2 very important factors to be integrated into our understanding; Traditions, and Transitions. In seemingly stable times, Tradition is invaluable for fast-tracking us to insights that may have taken generations of insights to discover. But life is a series of Transitions. As children we think as children, but as responsible adults we must put aside childish ways and realise that our family, our religion, our ’Way’, is only one of many, ALL of which must be recognised and respected, if all of God’s Children are to harmonise and thrive. In changing times, as now, we must adapt or die. Or we can all Adapt and Thrive. Aggiornamento!
Robert Liddy | 10 April 2017

Brilliant words - amen and thank you - suffering of children is unconscionable we have slipped back into the middle ages with such barbaric cruelty in the name of religion - the birth of an insane world full of hatred and cruelty - thank you for your honest article
Brenda Coughlan | 10 April 2017

Michelle, Leigh and Margaret, thank you for giving voice to what many hold dear. The Spirit is moving.
Patricia Taylor | 10 April 2017

Excellent appraisal and long overdue in the public domain. I too was educated in the Catholic system and left school with an appreciation and knowledge of other religions which I found to exceed that of some of my new found friends and colleagues who were raised in other religious belief systems. My experience of Catholic education for my children and grandchildren is very different, however, where they indeed know more about other faith beliefs than they do about Catholicism's beliefs and apologetics. Like in all things, trends often overshoot the mark and do more harm than good. The present day Catholic education system needs some very serious reform if the Church is to resume or retain a credible place in the world.
john frawley | 10 April 2017

Thank you for your very thought provoking article Ann. I was brought up in a Christian religion which I now do not identify with. Personally I cannot live with a religion which is still patriarchal as I think this patriarchical influence impacts negatively on wider society. But I am not an atheist either. I do think any religious upbringing is extremely important as it provides a moral compass which stays with you even if you later chose to walk away from the actual religious structure. It also provides a sense of history and a story about the moral issues experienced through the ages. We now have a secular society where people are often raised with no religion. Therefore it is largely dependent on the influence of their immediate family and social environment as to whether they even have a sense of what is right and wrong. I think this fact is a contributor to the shocking discriminatory attitudes we see towards those who chose to practice religion especially where signs of participation are externalised by clothes and other rituals.
Margaret J McCarthy | 10 April 2017

Thank you for a very purposeful argument for the study of religions as a necessary part of a true education. To be educated once implied such a well rounded understanding of what is now termed religious literacy. Western Education systems have emphasised the value of the empirical rational approach to life but neglected to address the belief systems that motivate humanity. Why I act, why I bother to care about others, why I bother to enter debate about issues in our society are all worthy of a deeper understanding. For many the answer lies in their religious belief that demands full respect for the rights of others.
Ern Azzopardi | 10 April 2017

"Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise, endangering and taking the lives of so many innocent people of faith..." . Ann, you make some good points, but I don`t think you can blame either of these illogical phobias for the thousands of murders annually of Christians around the world over recent years, including the severe dozen in Cairo on Palm Sunday. Christians are by far the most persecuted religious group in the world, and by several orders of magnitude; unfortunately mainly by people at least claiming to be Muslims and claiming to be acting as Muslims.
Eugene | 10 April 2017

Thank you Ann. I was fortunate to study this MOOC offered by Harvard School of Divinity. It gave me a deeper understanding of the role that culture plays in religious belief and practice, renewed my appreciation for my upbringing where respect and openness for "otherness" was modeled every day by my parents in multi-faith India. My time in multi-faith England (please let it not change with Brexit) and return to Melbourne five years later inspired to join the Interfaith Council of my local Council provides a joyful, nourishing experience and a clear lens with which to view and respond to world situations in which religion plays a major and divisive factor. My hope is to be able to work in my small way in the classroom, to share and nurture religious literacy so that future leaders keep this aspect alongside justice awareness and care of the environment front and centre as their framework for leadership. Once again, thank you for speaking from your earlier experience of faith formation which led you to your current worldview.
Judeline Wadhwani | 10 April 2017

Eugene: "Christians are by far the most persecuted religious group in the world"... Only, of course, if you don't count the Muslims who are persecuted by other Muslims. Persecutions, which result from deifying one's own faulty interpretation of what is right and just, are the equivalent of worshipping a false god. Extremists of all religions are really idolaters if they believe that theirs is the only true faith, even if they don't resort to violence.
Robert Liddy | 10 April 2017

Western religious leaders of churches, whom people have trusted, have abused their parishiners as reported in the child abuse hearings, which results in zero credibility of religious doctrine. Religion is but a point of view and so many wars have started over people legitimizing killing in the name of their faith. ISIL is such, but do we need to be religious ourselves in order to justify killing ISIL?. I think its more about kill or be killed.
Cam BEAR | 10 April 2017

Important article. Christians should support the great work of religion teachers in Catholic & independent schools. In my State, WA, Catholic & other schools use a Year 12 course which requires teaching at least two world religions.
Ted Witham | 10 April 2017

“At the same time, they are able to recognise and critique the shadow side of religious faith, such as theocratic government, forced belief, and other forms of religious fundamentalism.” How? If the ISIS conception of Allah is real, how can you as a mere human know something that he doesn’t? If the conception is false, how do you know that it is? The foundation (and fallacy) of ‘religious literacy’ is the atheistic belief, in the absence of any intellectually-acceptable evidence, that all religions are concocted out of the emotions of humans and only out of them. A belief which exists in the absence of such evidence is, of course, a superstition. It is a prudential working principle for a democratic government which seeks to make evidence-based policy to assess all religions according to imposed secular norms such as equality and fairness. But that is only because the government’s evidence base is limited to what can be sensed on the material plane. 1 Cor. 2:15 “Those who are spiritual can evaluate all things, but they themselves cannot be evaluated by others” is why religions can only be exclusive: each claims superior eyes to see what others can’t.
Roy Chen Yee | 10 April 2017

You declined to mention the other great threatened religion; Christianity. Persecuted in many Muslim countries, persecuted by liberal western governments as society drifts towards a Nietzscherian secular ideal; morality is seen less and less as absolute, but rather something that can be debated and decided by a consensus of like minded thinkers. Orwell must be spinning in his grave. And you are guilty of this; attempting to impute an equivalence between Christianity and Islam through the killing of gays and oppression of women. I'm sorry, but I am not aware of a Church that publicly executes homosexuals and non believers. Can you give an example? And where is Islams version of Mary? The most important human in the whole of salvation history, she did what Abraham, David and all the men up and down the ages could not; adhere to humility and obedience. But not inert, pondering much in her heart, to give her final advice: Do as he says. It is a woman who opens the path to salvation. Patriarchal? Look at the women among the saints. Was their sacrifice valued less? The context of the society the Church arose in is not its nature.
Paul Triggs | 10 April 2017

Great comment Paul Triggs.
john frawley | 11 April 2017

Thank you, Ann, for this timely and thoughtful piece. The lack of religious literacy in public debate is truly deplorable. It is clearly evident in much comment on Islam as you point out but also in discussion on issues such as euthanasia and social policies. We seem to have lost the ability to bring an intelligent and reasonable religious perspective to these conversations.
Kevin Liston | 11 April 2017

Paul Triggs comment(s) also generate 'a certain religious literacy'.
Jack Bowen | 11 April 2017

Roy Chen Yee asserts "The foundation (and fallacy) of ‘religious literacy’ is the atheistic belief, in the absence of any intellectually-acceptable evidence, that all religions are concocted out of the emotions of humans and only out of them." Those of us who have studied religious systems, perhaps under the earlier title, 'comparative religions' are aware that the majority of academics in this field are indeed religious believers, not atheists who regard religious belief as superstition. As a Christian, specifically a Catholic, I study the world's religions for two reasons: 1. to learn how God is understood by people of other faiths; and 2. given the current abuse of religion as a reason for brutality and killing, religious literacy and indeed inter-religious dialogue and companionship is a necessary counter-measure to prevent wholesale enmity between God's people throughout the world.
Ian Fraser | 12 April 2017

Ian Fraser: “I study the world's religions for two reasons:….” And worthy reasons they are, but there is a third. We study other religions to test, and re-test, whether we should stay with our own. Without on-going conversion, we are sacrificing intellect to superstition. Naturally, we stay with our religion because we think it is better than the others, do we not?
Roy Chen Yee | 13 April 2017

Thank you for your response Roy Chen Yee. Actually no; I do not stay as a Catholic Christian because I believe 'my religion' is better than the others. I stay with it because it is the religion I grew up in, in which I matured in my faith in God, the church in which I worship in community because it has been part of my psyche for 70 years. I believe God communicates with all of his people, the world over, giving them a prophet of their own people, their own culture, inviting them all to look toward their Creator. Therein lies the origin of the world's religions, all worthy of respect, all worth staying in as communities for worship, all trying to follow the One God. Conversion is fine, but many of us have found that maturing in faith as we mature in years is equally rewarding.
Ian Fraser | 14 April 2017

Ian Fraser: “….the world's religions, all worthy of respect, all worth staying in as communities for worship….” If by respect you mean courtesy in the way you speak of and to a religion and its adherents, yes, but if by it you mean pretending that it is not a flawed way of thinking compared to your own, how so? Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have said that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. The same would apply to religions as they are only associations of individuals. The way to respect an individual intellectually is to present him or her, by consent, with all the data that is needed to be known in order to reach an informed decision. That is evangelisation. (It’s also how your accountant or lawyer is supposed to help you make a major decision.) Your dignity entitles you not to be told what to do but to decide what to do after you’ve been given all relevant information. Invariably, this information comes from the visible ways in which the various religions are practised. Courtesy respects by forbidding disparagement. Evangelisation respects by widening knowledge of choices.
Roy Chen Yee | 22 April 2017

Paragraph 4. A quibble. Why, apparently, is all anti-Islamic sentiment, etc, dubbed Islamophobia? Or, why is anti-Semitism not deemed phobic, ie, "Semitophobia"?
Warwick | 10 May 2017

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