Despite its recent prominence as a rationale for the academic study of religion, Professor Wolfart shows both that “religious literacy” has been poorly defined and that little evidence has been adduced for its positive effects. Yet the institutional and social pressures that have led some to embrace religious literacy as a positive argument for the academic study of religion persist, and the essay offers no alternative conception of the broad goals towards which collegiate education about religion should be directed. It is worth considering, therefore, whether some of the flaws with religious literacy as an educational approach might be remedied. In particular, this response proposes that the yawning gap between the abstract goal and the fact that in the U.S. most undergraduates will take only a single course in the study poses a challenge of course design. Carefully designing courses for religious literacy might diminish the imprecision in the concept and provide more tangible evidence of what religiously literate students might be able to do.
This is a historical survey of Quakers in the United States and their responses to war during World War I, World War II, and the early Cold War, including the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. It covers the Quaker peace testimony’s social, political, legal, and theological aspects. In these conflicts, Quakers responded in a variety of ways, ranging from pacifism to support for military action. The boundaries and constraints of Quaker beliefs about violent conflict and the meaning of the peace testimony were determined by debates within the Religious Society of Friends. Quakers’ reactions to war in the twentieth-century United States should also be understood as closely related to Quakerism’s relationship to state power. The choice to accommodate or resist government pressure worked alongside internal forces to shape Quakerism in the United States. Ultimately, this work argues that there is no single pattern of Quaker response to modern war.
Wolfart persuasively locates religious literacy advocacy within the reforming, salvific myth of literacies. However, instead of Wolfart’s identification of religious literacy as ex-theological, I argue that a narrowly defined religious literacy is theological and, therefore, Religious Studies faculty should (re)negotiate what it means in relation to what we do as teachers. For this, Religious Studies faculty need to resist the civic soteriology and the seductive allure of claiming authority based on specialness or supposed distinctiveness of something called religious.
This response builds on Wolfart’s observations on the theological underpinnings of the “religious literacy” paradigm in a North American context by reflecting on the situation in the United Kingdom. Here, it is even more apparent that institutional factors are a bigger driver than methodological factors, driven by the neo-liberalisation of the universities and the entrenched institutional dominance of confessional approaches to the study of religion. Yet it also provides a way for social-scientific scholars of religion to explain the instrumental value of the subject to policymakers and funding bodies. I conclude by sketching an approach to religious literacy more in keeping with post-phenomenological Religious Studies.
This text addresses three related aspects of Wolfart’s article on religious literacy: the critique of assumptions on the outcome of increased religious literacy, questions about the purpose of religious education, and the suggestion that religious studies are ex-theological. Although the predictability of the results of certain classroom activities presents a fundamental problem, I argue that the tentative and generic abilities highlighted in the religious literacy discourse may function as a starting point to elaborate on a better definition of religious literacy in religious studies. Moreover, based on Biesta’s educational philosophy, I argue that the religious literacy discourse is about learnification in rhetorical disguise as value-based education. Instead, I suggest that the purpose of religious education should be (re)considered from Biesta’s three dimensions of qualification, socialization, and subjectification. Finally, I problematize Wolfart’s suggestion that religious studies are ex-theological and conclude that, although there are a theological dimension and a genealogy to be observed in the religious literacy discourse, other kinds of scholarly aspects are also worth exploring further.
Johannes Wolfart makes a compelling case that the nebulousness of “religious literacy” belies a complicated history not just of “religion” but of “literacy” in his recent article, “‘Religious Literacy’: Some Considerations and Reservations,” in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion. Wolfart has reservations about religious literacy, its instrumentalization, and specifically the lack of empirical evidence that would support programs that promote religious literacy. He is concerned that “religion,” “literacy,” and of course “religious literacy” are imbricated in theological projects, whether alive or long dead; ultimately, we might characterize his position as deeply concerned with religious literacy as a liberal Protestant project. In this response essay, I suggest that reducing religious literacy to Protestant liberalism prioritizes thought experiments over the survival of minoritized people and communities. It is clear that religious literacy is a framework deployed not for lofty goals of social betterment or a vague sense of liberation, but for survival: survival of academic programs and departments, survival of a body politic, and often the survival of individuals and groups who are targets of hate.