The very notion of Religious Knowledge is, for many, an oxymoron (a combination of mutually contradictory terms) or at best a category mistake (something described in terms of a conceptual category it does not belong to). Be that as it may, the IB introduced Religious Knowledge Systems into the new TOK syllabus in 2014 and it deserves serious attention for at least two reasons. In my experience the academic exploration of religion in schools is far too often neglected, distorted by biases of all kinds as well as ignorance, incompetence or a lack of training. Moreover, many students find this Area of Knowledge of great interest and often wish to use it in the context of writing their TOK essay. What constitutes knowledge in Religious Systems and what it might look like, are the questions we will address presently. We will start by making a simple distinction between knowledge about religion and knowledge from religion, our attention will be firstly on the former.
Knowledge about religion is simply a set of facts about the key elements which make up religious traditions. This would include basic facts about the generally acknowledged seven dimensions of religion (after Ninian Smart). Namely what the average member of a particular religion believes and the ways in which they practice their religion, the texts and stories which form the basis of the latter, the physical and structural expressions of the religion (e.g. buildings/hierarchy/organisation…), the philosophical concepts and ethical values which are predominant and so on and so forth. Admittedly, whilst this is knowledge of a fairly basic kind it should form the starting point in one’s exploration of a particular religious tradition. Moreover, one should also keep in mind the bewildering variety which exists between religions as well as within them. There are thus clear facts about religions and religious people, but is there anything that could be accepted as religion’s contribution to Knowledge itself?
Can religion contribute to our understanding of the nature of Knowledge? Most would say that epistemology (the branch of philosophy which explores knowledge) is primarily a philosophical issue and that religion has little or nothing to contribute to the question of what it means to know. This would not be entirely accurate or fair for one of history’s most famous models of knowledge is René Descartes’. In his Meditations on the First Philosophy (1641) he ascerts that without God there can be no certain or true knowledge since only He can be the source and guarantor of knowledge whether it comes from reason or the senses. Descartes also created arguably the most stringent test for assessing what qualifies as genuine knowledge, he famously argued that whatever can be doubted cannot be described as something I can claim to know. Whatever the merits of Descartes’ epistemology, the concept of God is at its centre and its influence continues to be felt to this day.
Can religion produce knowledge either by itself or in collaboration with other disciplines? Given the way in which religion has been part of the fabric of the majority of civilizations, it would be easy to argue that it has played some kind of role in the production of knowledge although it will not always be easy to identify the specific role it has played. In Indigenous traditions spiritual beliefs and their role are certainly not easy to separate from other factors in the production of knowledge; what is clear is that Native cultures’ strongly holistic worldview certainly does not distinguish between religious and secular factors in the production of knowledge. In addition, many scientists through the ages have clearly been motivated to pursue knowledge of the natural world as they saw it as an exploration of the wonders of Creation and an attempt to more deeply understand the mind of the Creator. A contemporary example is Francis Collins the former director of the Human Genome Project for whom studying DNA is to literally explore ‘God’s language.’
Learning, or the acquisition of knowledge seems at first glance to have very little to do with religion but once again, there is maybe more to be said on the issue. To begin with, the inclusion of Faith as an additional Way of Knowing in the 2014 revision of the TOK syllabus, signaled a recognition that faith plays an important part in some aspects of the way we learn, although I think the term belief would be better. Indeed, this is by no means a new idea, in the fifth century AD the Bishop of Hippo, St Augustine argued that true understanding only comes as a result of belief (credo, ut intellegam). Whilst the original concept has quite a narrowly religious context, it is now recognized that belief plays an essential role in why we seek knowledge in the first place but also in deepening our understanding of some accepted fact. Furthermore, one can also point to the role religious organisations the world over played in providing for the education of ordinary people, and this a very long time before secular institutions became interested in doing so.
Lastly, can anyone possibly argue that religious knowledge is of any use? The militant atheist-scientist Richard Dawkins once berated theologians for not being of any practical use to anyone. It is indeed correct to point out that religious doctrines are not used for building bridges, designing the latest smart phone and sending people into space but, it would be wholly incorrect to claim that it makes no difference to people’s lives. The application of religious knowledge and its results may not be obviously tangible or easily quantifiable but from its positive impact on people’s health (see the WHO’s reports) to its importance in many people’s daily lives, there are a multitude of ways in which religious knowledge makes an impact. It is also possible to argue that many significant events and movements in human history have been the result of exceptional individuals putting their religious faith into action. From the great religious figures of the past to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and many others religious knowledge has changed the world, and not always for the worst.
Religion, whether one wants it or not, has been and continues to be a significant contributor to human knowledge. The knowledge it produces is often strongly personal and it is also the glue that holds many communities together, it is also sometimes not easy to categorize, measure or evaluate. Much prejudice comes from ignorance and there is as much prejudice about religions as there is within them, but to fail to understand religion is a failure to understand human cultures and history, as well as a failure to understand humanity itself.