Guest Blog: Vicki Michela Garlock, Ph.D., Editor, Religion Matters
Review of Teaching Religious Literacy to Combat Religious Bullying: Insights from North American Secondary Schools by W.Y. Alice Chan (Routledge, 2021)
We’ve read about increased antisemitism in the U.S. (Shveda/CNN, 2023). We might have heard that the majority of Sikh school students are harassed and ridiculed at some point, with even higher percentages for boys wearing a patka (The Sikh Coalition, 2014). We may even know that almost one-fourth of Muslim school students in California have heard a teacher, administrator or other adult make offensive comments about Muslims, especially when teaching about world events like the anniversary of 9/11 (CAIR-CA, 2021). Or, that many American adults struggle to answer even the most basic questions about the world’s religions (Pew Research, 2019). Or, that Sikhs are often incorrectly identified as Muslims (MacPherson/AFP/Business Insider, 2015). The question is: what can we do about it?
Alice Chan, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Centre for Civic Religious Literacy (CCRL), takes an important step in answering that question by investigating the potential role of religious literacy classes in public schools. While her data collection centered on school systems in Quebec, Canada and Modesto, California, this volume offers a wide-ranging and much-needed framework for exploring this topic in the years to come.
In each chapter, Chan delves into one or more aspects of her research question. Chapter 1 begins with a quick review of Chan’s personal journey – educationally, religiously, and professionally. Chapter 2 then moves on to an in-depth discussion of her overarching framework: Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). In addition to outlining the theory, itself, she also merges it with prominent theoretical constructs, research findings, and global documents specific to the world of religion. It’s an incredibly powerful model, and I found her summaries both succinct and helpful. Most importantly moving forward, I now have a resource with all those references in one place.
In chapters 3 and 4, Chan provides thorough literature reviews of religious bullying and religious literacy, respectively – another set of important resources to have on my bookshelf. Chapter 5 moves on with a fascinating history of public-school education in both Quebec and California. This may have been my favorite chapter. Yes, it is super-informative, but it also provides historical perspective. The truth is that North Americans have always struggled with the overlapping interests of religious institutions, governmental entities, and individual wishes. Given this level of complexity, it’s no wonder we haven’t figured it out yet!
In chapters 6-8, Chan shares her methodology (chapter 6) and results (Modesto, CA in Chapter 7 and Quebec in chapter 8). Over the course of her study, she surveyed over 100 students in the two locations and then interviewed over 30 participants of various ages and walks of life. During those interviews, Chan used a critical communicative methodology (Gómez, Puigvert, & Flecha, 2011) that is designed to be dialogic, egalitarian, and emancipatory. Throughout these chapters, I was continually struck by the incredible effort needed just to complete data collection. Difficult logistics were made even more so by several events that happened during the 2015-2017 time period (e.g., the 2015 terrorist attack by Islamic extremists in San Bernardino, the divisive rhetoric around the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the rise of the Black Lives Movement in 2016), and I appreciated Chan’s inclusion of them in her research analysis.
Finally, in chapters 9 and 10, Chan discusses her results, outlining the specific ways in which religious literacy courses can be either beneficial or detrimental, depending on course content, pedagogical approaches, and the teachers’ ability to relate to the students sitting in the classroom.
Praises and Concerns
One strength of this book lies in Chan’s development of a broad-based, religiously-minded theoretical framework. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory and its later revisions are widely regarded by educators and developmental psychologists as a powerful way to view the numerous factors that influence human development, including the family, the school, and society as a whole. Moreover, the theory envisioned the notion of intersectionality almost a decade before that term was even coined. This comprehensive approach, as Chan’s research shows, makes Bronfenbrenner’s theory a powerful rubric for future investigations in any number of disciplines, including religious literacy and religious bullying.
A second strength of this book lies in Chan’s rather long list of research questions that remain to be addressed. These include a better understanding of religious bullying (e.g., what it looks like, how it might be operationalized, how everyday people perceive it), the factors that should be considered when designing religious literacy resources (e.g., student age, range of religions, types of materials, instructor training), and pinpointing how individuals, communities, and cultures influence both constructs.
If I had to identify weaknesses, I would say that Chan’s book failed to lift up the many religious literacy resources currently available for kids of all ages. Clearly, her focus was on religious literacy theories and the unique standardized public-school offerings in the Quebec and Modesto school districts. But, there are many practical tools and educational resources accessible at no, or almost-no, cost to interested educators. Many of these are religion-specific, developed by faith-based non-profits, but they are non-devotional and constitutionally-appropriate for classroom use. And many resources cross traditional religious divides (e.g. Garlock, 2021; Lumbard & Sadeghian, 2014; Reuben & Pelham, 2011).
I also think there are some specific issues related to Chan’s use of a critical communicative methodology. Most studies utilize only one methodology, so this is almost always an issue for published research, but future investigations clearly need to incorporate additional data collection techniques.
In summary, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in academic research centered on religious bullying or religious literacy regardless of religious affiliation (and that includes religious “nones” and those who adhere to Indigenous worldviews). Chan’s book is not a how-to book, nor is it written for the general public, but her research provides an excellent model for thinking about these issues now and in the future.
In addition, many of her findings will resonate with global educators and activists struggling to walk their own path in bridging religious divides. Chan’s book, along with a handful of other powerful academic resources like it (e.g., Fraser, 2016; Haynes, 2019; Moore, 2007; Wielzen & Ter Avest, 2017), offer much-needed guidance about how we might go about moving forward. I firmly believe we need to teach students about the world’s religions, beginning in elementary school, at the latest. The impact of religion on history, politics, art, music, current events, and the development of civilization, is simply too great to be ignored. However, if we leave religious education to the whims of modern-day culture and/or wait until adulthood to encourage faith explorations beyond one’s home religion, we will continue to live in a religiously-compartmentalized world. We are seeing, almost daily, the negative results of that approach. Clearly, something needs to change, and this book is destined to be helpful in that process.
About the Author
Rev. Vicki Garlock, Ph.D. is the founder of World Religions for Kids, a company dedicated to improving religious literacy in children and their adults. She is the author of Embracing Peace: Stories from the World’s Faith Traditions and the award-winning We All Have Sacred Spaces. Both books, geared to kids age 5-10, offer insights into numerous religious traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Sikhism.
Over the years, Vicki has written extensively for both The Interfaith Observer and Multicultural Kid Blogs, and she currently serves as the editor for the Religion Matters blog. She regularly works with educators, parents, and faith communities around the country, and her next kids’ book, ABCs of the World’s Religions will be out in the fall. Vicki and her husband live in Asheville and have two almost-grown children. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok (@learnreligions).
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
CAIR-CA (2021, October 29). Examining Islamophobia in California Schools: 2021 Bullying Report. Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Washington, D.C.
Fraser, J.W. (2016). Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in Multicultural America. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Garlock, V.M. (2021). Embracing Peace: Stories from the World’s Faith Traditions. Eaton Press.
Gómez, A., Puigvert, L. and Flecha, R. (2011). Critical Communicative Methodology: Informing Real Social Transformation Through Research. Qualitative Inquiry, 17(3), 235-245. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800410397802
Haynes, C.C. (Ed.) (2019). Teaching About Religion in the Social Studies Classroom. NCSS Bulletin (117). National Council for the Social Studies.
Lumbard, A.Y. and Sadeghian, A. (2014). Everyone Prays: Celebrating Faith Around the World. Wisdom Tales.
Moore, D.L. (2007). Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education. Palgrave MacMillan.
Reuben, S. and Pelham, S. (2011). Food and Faith. Francis Lincoln.
Shveda, K./CNN (2023, March 23). Antisemitic Incidents in the U.S. Are at the Highest Level Recorded Since the 1970s.
Wielzen, D. and Ter Avest, I. (Eds.) (2017). Interfaith Education for All: Theoretical Perspectives and Best Practices for Transformative Education. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishing.