The UK Bahá'í Community is grateful for the opportunity to contribute towards the enquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education on how Religious Literacy in the UK can be improved. Given the changing landscape of religion and belief in the UK, as highlighted in the recent report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, we feel that this enquiry is very timely.
We recognise that a major source of conflict and estrangement in society is a lack of knowledge and understanding of the different beliefs and religions. We believe that religious literacy could be a means to prevent such conflict, and a tool through which a foundation for a unified society, characterised by mutual understanding and respect, can be set.
In our society today, there is little consensus as to the role of religion in public life, and whether this role is positive or negative. Some see religion as harmless, whilst others regard it a barrier to progress or, worse, a source of prejudice, ignorance and violence. This fragmented perspective indicates that there is a need for members of our society to be given the opportunity to study and reflect on the tenets, laws and practices of different religions, so as to be able to achieve a more informed and cohesive understanding of the role of religion and belief in society.
For the past few decades, the worldwide Bahá'í community - which represents some 2,100 different ethnic, racial and tribal groups, and reflects diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds – has been engaged in an educational process that seeks to explore the role of religion in private and public life, as well as inspire respect for diversity of religion and belief. As this educational process is based on a number of fundamental concepts, including that of religion and education, we would like to begin by offering a few thoughts on the concepts of “religion” and “literacy”, both from the perspective of the Bahá'í teachings, as well as the collective experience in this field.
Bahá'ís believe that the Founders of the world’s great religions can be seen as Divine Educators who have appeared successively to awaken humankind to its capacities and responsibilities. This is not a repetitive or competitive process, but progressive. Religion is viewed as humanity’s attempt to translate revelation revealed by the Divine Educators into social reality.
Some of the truths proclaimed and practices followed in the world religions remain valid with the passage of time, while others speak to specific historical conditions and become not only irrelevant as civilization advances but can, if they persist, impede society’s advancement. According to the Bahá'í Writings, "It is the outward practices of religion that are so different, and it is they that cause disputes and enmity - while the reality is always one and the same. The reality is the Truth, and truth... is God's guidance, it is the light of the world, it is love, it is mercy". Bahá'ís believe that the social teachings, the rituals and observances, which give each religion its distinctive character, can best be understood in the context of the time and place where the religion was revealed. The ability to distinguish between the social instruction specific to a time and place, on the one hand, and the eternal spiritual truths, on the other, makes it possible to appreciate both the unity of religions and their diversity. We would suggest that by enabling students to identify these eternal spiritual truths – which may include the conviction that human existence transcends the physical, the emphasis on developing character and virtue in one’s personal life, and the encouragement of interactions among individuals characterised by love, forgiveness and charity – programmes of religious literacy would contribute towards the construction of harmonious and united communities.
Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, taught that the aim of religion is, “to
effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall
manifest itself, both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external
conditions” A fair analysis of history demonstrates that religion has been the impetus for
extraordinary progress in the world, awakening within whole populations capacities that
contribute to the advancement of civilisation. Religious literacy therefore can identify the
transformative effects of each of the world’s religions, both on individuals and societies.
It needs to be acknowledged that regrettably religion has at times fallen prey to corruption,
fanaticism, superstition, and distortion through the manipulation of self-interested individuals
and leaders. Religious intolerance, conflicts and violence have been an unfortunate feature of
human history and continue to this day. This aspect is very much linked with claims of
supremacy, exclusivity, finality and authority that are all part of how religion has been
perceived and practised in the past. At the same time, religion has been the unfailing voice
raising the call to selflessness, justice, mercy, and perseverance; it has illumined human
understanding and enabled humanity to distinguish between acts that debase human beings
and those that ennoble. According to Bahá’u’lláh, ultimately “the purpose of religion as
revealed from the heaven of God's holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the
peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife”. We would suggest that
religious literacy can empower students to investigate the implications of religion and
religious practices, and weigh for themselves the positive and negative elements associated.
Having shared the Bahá'í perspective on religion, we would like to share some reflections on
the concepts of “literacy” and “education”.
The Bahá'í writings regard each person as “a mine rich in gems of inestimable value”.
Bahá’u’lláh goes on to say that education alone can reveal these treasures and “enable
mankind to benefit therefrom”. The conviction of the inherent nobility of each human being is
intimately connected with the belief that education, both intellectual and moral, has the power
to manifest the potential nobility within each person and most importantly benefit the society.
Such a conviction, we believe, influences significantly the purpose, framework and approach
of any educational curriculum.
From a Bahá'í perspective, for these “gems” to be revealed, educational programmes must
eschew methods or approaches that view students as mere receptacles for information. Thus,
rather than viewing programmes for religious literacy as merely a means through which facts
and figures about different religions can be conveyed, we would suggest that a much deeper
and more extensive view be upheld.
Programmes for religious literacy would naturally seek to develop within students the
capacity to understand the various systems of belief in all their facets and critically evaluate
for themselves their veracity, impact and role in contemporary society. An understanding of
the historical circumstances, and societal needs, at each religion’s inception, along with the
contribution that the religion has made to civilisations would be indispensable in gaining a
complete understanding and avoiding the fragmentary perspective of religions that can often
lead to prejudice and misunderstanding.
The Baha'i teachings call upon Bahá'ís to "consort with the followers of all religions in a
spirit of friendliness and fellowship". For Bahá'ís, engaging in meaningful interaction with
people from all faiths and none is a key component not only of gaining knowledge of
different worldviews, and benefiting from their insights, but of also fostering bonds of
fellowship. Given our perspective that the purpose of religions is to bring about unity, we feel
that no programme of religious literacy can afford to miss out on the benefits of meaningful
dialogue and interaction with followers of different faiths. Understanding the beliefs of
others, what motivates them and what principles they are striving to put into practice in their
lives - not just a collection of customs and practices - can help bridge divides between people
of different faiths and remove feelings of otherness. In this context advancing religious
literacy is key to contributing to a more inclusive and cohesive society.
Finally, we would suggest that religious literacy seeks to instil within all students an
understanding and appreciation of the universal right of freedom to chose and change ones
religion and belief. Not only does this encourage each student to investigate for him or herself
the truths of each religion, but it also inspires students to uphold and protect this right on
behalf of others, which further promotes social cohesion.
Thus, based on the above perspectives, we would suggest that religious literacy entails
knowledge and understanding of the history, tenets and practices of various religions; that it
can cultivate within students the capacities to investigate and determine the social, political
and cultural expressions and implications of religion over time and place; it can enable
students to discern how religious insights and practice might contribute to social cohesion;
and it can uphold and promote the universal freedom of religion and belief.