14/11/2012 12:09 GMT | Updated 14/01/2013 05:12 GMT

We Need to Talk More About Religion

I have sat with Muslims who drink alcohol, those who won't be in the same room as alcohol, and those who don't mind having a chat whilst I drink alcohol. But I asked, knowing that there are restrictions to do with alcohol within Islam, and I respected the answer.

Religious debate in the media is all too often followed by a vociferous reaction, including many religiously illiterate comments. Even the 'bigger conversations', played out on the front pages of our newspapers, suffer from the same tendencies: two opposing views shouting at each other.

Here are some facts. Millions of people all over the world are religious. Millions of those religious people live here in the UK. Religion has shaped the institutions and values of the UK and continues to shape the daily lives of many of us - both directly and indirectly. And yet, despite these facts, people are generally poorly equipped to have a civil conversation about religion, belief and the issues and values that they touch on.

We need to have a better quality of conversation about religion in this country. Too often such conversations are either antagonistic, as mentioned above, or, in some cases, swapped for legal deliberation. These legal judgements come about because there is now a requirement in law to take the beliefs of service users seriously and not to discriminate against them. Further problems arise when these requirements come into conflict with other protected characteristics, such as sexuality, which results in ill-tempered debate.

Greater literacy about religion cannot, and should not, replace the law. However, it could help reduce the negative emotion generated around discussions of religion and even reduce the need for the law to be invoked. Recognising that religion is important to many people is an important starting point and respecting their right to their beliefs another, but being religiously literate brings these together and starts to enable a positive public conversation about religion.

But what is 'religious literacy'? Let's dispel the negative assumptions: First, it is not the promotion of religion. Religious literacy is about a better quality conversation about religion, not creating more religion. Second, it is not about an encyclopaedic knowledge of religion - which would be rarely attainable and not necessarily conducive to better conversations. Third, it is not just about religion - understanding the multiple identities that non-believers have and the complex ways this affects their actions and beliefs is also important.

Someone who is religiously literate has a basic knowledge of religion, knows where to look for more information, knows what questions to ask and how to ask them and, through all this, can confidently discuss religion and religious issues.

Whether religion should be taught in schools, and whether we should have faith schools, is one area where many of the louder debates about religion in the UK can be found. Whether we choose to teach it or not, religion will still continue to be deeply relevant to a great many people. For example, Christianity is important to how the values and morals of our modern society were shaped - arguments about marriage and homosexuality make no sense if we don't understand this. Likewise, the beliefs of Deobandi Muslims came about, in part, due to the effects of British colonial rule in India. Understanding what each other believe and why can help us make sense of the actions and reactions to public events and debates.

That said, while basic religious knowledge is necessary, in a society where most people can't remember all of the ten commandments, it would be too much to expect people to recall all of the regulations for ritual purity within Orthodox Judaism, nor should it be necessary. Even on the headline items, people within the same religious traditions disagree, as, for example, on the subject of Christianity and homosexuality. So while a basic understanding is useful, it has to be accompanied by a confidence to ask questions, in a way that demonstrates openness and understanding.

I have sat with Muslims who drink alcohol, those who won't be in the same room as alcohol, and those who don't mind having a chat whilst I drink alcohol. But I asked, knowing that there are restrictions to do with alcohol within Islam, and I respected the answer. Core to this understanding is remembering that religion is lived, and that while there may be a book, or central authority somewhere, there are as many beliefs as there are followers.

Of course, we should also be clear about the limitations of this knowledge - and why it should be coupled with understanding and openness. Knowing more about religion may enable people to better converse with each other about religious issues, but as Bhikhu Parekh has commented, sometimes knowing each other better helps us only to kill each other better. The openness to engage and understand (even in difference) is also necessary.

Religious literacy can be demonstrated not just by individuals but also by the organisations and institutions they work in. The Religious Literacy Leadership Programme (RLLP), based in the based in the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London has been working with UK universities for three years, helping them support the best experience for students of all faith backgrounds and none and considering how faith and belief can play a positive role on campus and in better informed responses to faith in wider society. This work has been funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and has resulted in original research, free workshops and resources. But it has also been clear that the lessons learned from this work can also be applied beyond the Higher Education sector, and so the RLLP will also soon be working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to deliver a series of dialogues exploring the place and role of religious literacy within their work.

The work with the EHRC will be delivered by a partnership between the RLLP and the Cambridge Coexist Programme.