Consortium of:

Religious Literacy in the Sea of Conservatism


  February 24th 2021

ICRS' religious literacy training for religious councelors (September 2018)

Indonesia is known to be very proud of itself as a plural society. However, this pride is often inversely proportional to the fact that people also do not know enough about other religious and cultural groups. One example that proves this is Indonesia's mono-religious education. The subject of religion that is studied in the education system in Indonesia only allows students to study their religion so that there is almost no room for studying other religions. Muslims are only taught about Islam, Protestants about Protestantism, Catholics about Catholicism, Hindus about Hinduism, and so on. Unfortunately, this not only happens in elementary school, junior high school, and senior high school but even at the university level, although it may be taught in a more sophisticated manner. The substance, however, remains focused on tradition, rituals, and religious laws, without regard for critical thinking or progressive thought. This condition is somewhat ironic, because as expressed in the ancient Indonesian proverb which reads “Tak kenal, maka tak sayang” (to not know is to not love). The essence of the adage perfectly summarizes the problem, wherein education functions as a separator rather than unifying the nation, which in itself contradicts the third principle of Pancasila on "Unity of Indonesia". The problem becomes even more serious when Indonesia also faces the transnational religious movement. Furthermore, with a deliberate policy of systematic segregation, it is not surprising how conservatism and religious exclusivism began to develop in Indonesia, resulting in deep social polarization.

This problem was explored and explained by Dicky Sofjan, Ph.D. a Core Doctoral Faculty in the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) based in the UGM Graduate School, in his presentation at the Wednesday Forum, a weekly presentation and discussion forum held by ICRS and CRCS on February 17, 2021. Regarding that problem, Sofjan argued about the importance of religious literacy to reduce radicalism. Parts of his presentation are based on his recently published article entitled “Learning about Religions: An Indonesian Religious Literacy Program as a Multi-faith Site for Mutual Learning”. This paper is part of the academic documentation of the "Religious Literacy for Promoting Social Justice, Religious Harmony and Multiculturalism" program initiated by the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) in collaboration with the British Council (BC) and the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MoRA). Therefore, the main objective of this program is "to increase awareness, understanding, and interaction between religious communities, and to increase the capacity of local stakeholders to build a social justice agenda and advocate for policy reforms to ensure harmonious life and human well-being."

According to Dr. Sofjan, Indonesia’s “religious literacy” program as a multi-faith site for mutual learning among religious communities is expected to offer a mechanism to moderate the religious fervor that is currently engulfing the nation and to serve as a buffer against radicalism. Collaboration between university-based academics and the Ministry of Religious Affairs is expected to promote social justice, religious harmony, and multiculturalism. The religious literacy program mainly targets the Ministry’s religious extension officers (Penyuluh Agama), religion teachers, and representatives of various so-called “strategic groups” in six provinces in Indonesia. Findings suggest that the religious literacy program has helped the front-liners to get to know each other, share their tacit knowledge, insights, and experiences, making the program into a multi-faith site for mutual learning. Mutual learning can be applied between and among religious extension officers and between religious extension officers with other 'strategic groups such as teachers, NGO activist.

Furthermore, according to Sofjan, the term “literacy” has been mostly applied in the context of language, mathematical, and cultural abilities as a basic competency in life and social interaction. Thus, competence in reading, writing, and math subjects, as well as cultural training, are perceived to be the definition of literacy found in many societies around the world. Moreover, Dr. Sofjan also argues that religious literacy is not to learn religion but study about religion. Meaning that participants are not studying religion from the doctrinal and normative or theological aspect of religion but concerned mostly about learning the diversity within religion. Therefore, it is rather about teaching and learning about religion and its interconnections with other social, political, cultural, and economic issues and phenomena. Therefore, the program does not necessarily refer to the orthodox teachings and doctrines of any religion. Rather, it emphasizes the diverse nature of religious manifestations and multidimensional expressions. It also highlights the importance of religion concerning many other social, political and cultural phenomena. (Dicky Sofjan, 2020:4). Moreover, according to Dr. Sofjan, religious literacy builds stronger democratic citizenship and serves as an effective buffer against the rising tide of conservatism and exclusivism.