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Journal of Beliefs & Values
Studies in Religion & Education
ISSN: 1361-7672 (Print) 1469-9362 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cjbv20
Recognition of context and experience: a civic-
based Canadian conception of religious literacy
W. Y. Alice Chan, Hiren Mistry, Erin Reid, Arzina Zaver & Sabrina Jafralie
To cite this article: W. Y. Alice Chan, Hiren Mistry, Erin Reid, Arzina Zaver & Sabrina Jafralie
(2019): Recognition of context and experience: a civic-based Canadian conception of religious
literacy, Journal of Beliefs & Values
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13617672.2019.1587902
Published online: 25 Mar 2019.
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Recognition of context and experience: a civic-based
Canadian conception of religious literacy
W. Y. Alice Chan
, Hiren Mistry
, Erin Reid
, Arzina Zaver
and Sabrina Jafralie
Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University, Montreal, Canada;
Ontario Institute for
Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada;
Independent Researcher, Canada
Several conceptions of religious literacy exist globally and are
informed by the contextual nuances of the scholars who devel-
oped them in the UK, US and Australia. As ﬁve Canadian scholar-
educators across British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec,
we analyse the well-known religious literacy conceptions of
Jackson, Nesbitt, Dinham, Moore and Crisp through a framework
based on the recognition of context and experience. In doing so,
we propose a Canadian-speciﬁc conception that considers the
contextual nuances in these four provinces and relates to
Canada as a nation and the individual experiences of each author,
and recognises the diversity across Canada. We posit that our
conception addresses the social and political dynamics and shifts
in Canada, namely the changing demography of religious, spiritual
and non-religious individuals and the response to the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission report that calls Canadians and its
institutions to respond to the wrong towards First Nations, Metis
and Inuit people.
Introduction and context
Religious literacy (RL) is generally understood as topical knowledge about the major
world religions and the ability to understand that each religion is internally diverse.
However, many speciﬁc conceptions of RL exist. As ﬁve Canadian scholar-educators
immersed in conversations regarding RL, we recognise that there is no Canadian
conception of RL to date. Scholars and conceptions of RL are based mainly in
Western Europe and the US, such as that of Jackson (1997) and Moore (2007). We
recognise their tremendous contributions to the ﬁeld and ﬁnd ease in adopting many
aspects of these conceptions based on Canada’s socio-historical connection with both
milieus. Yet Canada remains a unique context, and we realise that a context-speciﬁc
conception related to Canada’s political and social demands is needed to guide a local,
civic-based response to its contemporary changes.
Canada has always been a country of rich diversity, varied in its religious and
spiritual representations, including diﬀering forms of Indigenous spirituality, and non-
religious beliefs. However, it is also changing socially and politically. To understand this
CONTACT W. Y. Alice Chan firstname.lastname@example.org Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill
University, 3700 rue McTavish, Montreal H3A 1Y2, Canada
JOURNAL OF BELIEFS & VALUES
© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
changing demography within its political climate and educational system, we oﬀer
a Canadian-speciﬁc framework of RL to approach these diversities that is civic-based
and inclusive of the peoples in Canada. In doing so, we address the needs of Canada
and consider RL in the provincial contexts where we live and work, thereby oﬀering
a discussion that is focused on the recognition of context and experience. Our concep-
tion includes explicit recognition of Indigenous spirituality, the non-static, non-
homogeneous expression of all beliefs, and the need to learn about the nuances of
a tradition from its own lens. This conception responds to the social and political
changes in Canada, and is unpacked throughout this paper.
Socially, the representation of diﬀerent religious, spiritual and non-religious groups
is changing across Canada. From 1971 to 2001, self-identiﬁed Protestants decreased
from 41% to 27% of the population, and Catholics decreased from 47% to 39%, while
those self-identifying with other religions increased from 4% to 11% (Pew Research
Center 2013). Concurrently, self-identified religiously unaﬃliated Canadians (including
spiritual but not religious individuals who are theist or not) increased by 600%, from
4% to 24% of the total population. More recently, from 2006 to 2016, Canada’s
Indigenous population grew by 42.5%, over four times the rate of population growth
among non-Indigenous people, due to increased life expectancy, high fertility rates and
increased self-identiﬁcation (Statistics Canada 2018). Predictions suggest that in 2036
approximately 15% of religiously aﬃliated Canadians will be non-Christian and 30%
will be unaﬃliated (‘Study: A Look at’2017). These changes create an impetus to go
beyond a historical emphasis in schools on content-knowledge about world religions
alone to see how religious individuals and communities inﬂuence Canadian society and
vice versa, and how Indigenous spirituality and other spiritualities and non-religious
worldviews are part of the Canadian conversation.
Politically, Canada is confronting the legacy of the Indian Residential School (IRS)
System that began before Canadian confederacy in 1867, and was used by the Canadian
government and many Christian clergy for over 125 years to indoctrinate and eliminate
the cultures, languages, identities and spirituality of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit
Indigenous peoples (Indian Act 1876). The Canadian government instituted this system
upon confederation (Indian Act 1876), updated it in 1969 (‘The White Paper’n.d.), and
continued it until 1996 when it was ﬁnally declared abusive (TRC 2015). In 2006,
former IRS students indicted the Canadian government for their mistreatment by the
schools, resulting in the largest class action settlement in Canadian history. In 2008, the
Canadian Prime Minister presented a formal apology on behalf of the Canadian
government (Government of Canada 2008). The settlement and apology led to the
federal commissioning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), to under-
stand the experiences of former IRS students and oﬀer recommendations towards
reconciliation. Although the Indigenous population is small in Canada (4.8%),
political conversation marks a historical shift across many Canadian institutions,
including education, to acknowledge their long omission of and bias against
Indigenous communities and culture. We see our responsibility as Canadian scholar-
educators to be a part of this change, which we can contribute to by proposing
a conception of RL that articulates an explicit inclusion of Indigenous spirituality.
Additionally, as religious leaders partook in the exclusionary practices at the IRS, it is
paramount for Canadian discussions about RL to include Indigenous spirituality.
2W. Y. A. CHAN ET AL.
At ﬁrst glance, a Canadian conception appears diﬃcult as each of the 10 distinct
provincial systems and three northern territories governs its version of Canadian
education separately. A national civic-based conception also seems inaccessible as
each province has its own legal code and oﬃcial languages, such as Quebec which is
an oﬃcially French-speaking province. However, provincial commonalities exceed their
diﬀerences in language and form.
In Canada, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) constitutes the
rights and freedoms for all Canadians. First among four fundamental freedoms is
the freedom of conscience and religion. Of the four provinces we discuss in this
paper, the Human Rights Code of British Columbia (RSBC 1996, Chapter 210)
supplements the Charter and prohibits discrimination towards individuals based
on religion, among other aspects of one’s identity. British Columbia (BC) laws do
not reference the rights or prohibition of discrimination towards Indigenous peoples
or people of diﬀerent spiritual traditions, but race-based prohibitions include those
towards Indigenous peoples –akin to the laws in Alberta. The Alberta Human
Rights Act (RSA 2000, c A-25.5) includes the same prohibitory actions as in the BC
laws and oﬀers an explanation on the provincial understanding of religious beliefs,
one that includes native spirituality. The Ontario Human Rights Code’sPolicy on
Preventing Discrimination Based on Creed (2015) uniquely prohibits such discrimi-
nation. Creed ‘includesreligionsaswellasnon-religiousbeliefsthathaveamajor
inﬂuenceonaperson’s identity, their worldview or their way of life. And protec-
tions under the ground of creed also apply to people who have no creed belief or
practice’. Quebec, having never signed the Charter,isgovernedviatheQuebec
Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (RSQ, Chapter 12, as amended 1985) as
a distinct nation. It notes that ‘Every person is the possessor of the fundamental
freedoms, including freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion,
freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association’
(1975, c. 6, s. 3). Evidently, despite diﬀering terminology, these ﬁve legal concep-
tions all protect one’s religious, spiritual and non-religious belief in Canada.
However, no one has yet articulated an RL conception that each of the provinces
can use to simultaneously recognise its uniqueness, but also its part of the whole
that is Canada. To recognise these provincial civic regulations and foster inclusive
education across Canada, we review the RL conceptions we have found most helpful
from ﬁve established RL scholars. We ground our discussion of how we Canadianise
them in a theoretical framework based on the explicit recognition of the diversity
within varied religious, spiritual and non-religious beliefs across Canada, and the
need to recognise the lived experience of individuals in their own terms.
In 1992, philosopher Charles Taylor discussed the power play that exists when an
individual recognises, misrecognises or fails to recognise another based on certain
characteristics one may have. An understanding about oneself is informed by this
power play, and the misrecognition or non-recognition one receives can ‘imprison
someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being’(25), leading to a form of
oppression and harm based on a particular characteristic. Misrecognition or a lack of
JOURNAL OF BELIEFS & VALUES 3
recognition is problematic in terms of religion and spirituality, as the beliefs and values
within the beliefs are a fundamental aspect of most cultures (Fraser 1999). Additionally,
as a Canadian, Taylor’s perspective includes the complexities that consider the inter-
sectionality of language, ethnicity, race, gender and belief, among other markers of
identity, especially the politics of recognition between English and French speakers, and
tension between conservative and more liberal religious groups. Thus, we employ
Taylor’s politics of recognition to formulate a conception of RL that recognises the
regional and cultural nuances within diﬀering belief groups across Canada, one that
correlates to the historical, legal and social variances across the country. This recogni-
tion of the provincial context, as well as individual and communal experience, struc-
tures a cohesive RL conception for Canada amidst its regional nuances and national
Through this framework, we consider diﬀering conceptions of RL within the four
provinces of BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, where we live and work. Each province
is matched with an RL scholar whose contextual milieu corresponds best to it. As
such, BC is discussed in relation to Crisp (2017), Alberta with Moore (2007), Ontario
with Nesbitt (1993) and Dinham (2017), and Quebec with Jackson (1997). The ﬁve
conceptions include some of the most well-known scholars in each of their contexts and
much of the world. Although the conceptions may be individually relevant for aspects
of Canada, we need an adapted version of them that is suitable across Canada based on
the similarities across the provinces, despite their diﬀerences. For example, Crisp’s focus
on Indigenous spirituality is surely important across the provinces, but it is insuﬃcient
on its own because it does not delve into the nuances and inﬂuences of beliefs. Each
conception leaves something wanting. So, to oﬀer a cohesive conception that includes
all majority and minority groups across the provinces noted in Table 1, the following
sections review the strengths of each conception in its most relevant context in Canada
to show that there remain aspects that a more Canadian conception of RL could cover.
We summarise these strengths in the discussion section to propose a conception that
Table 1. Percentage of religious, spiritual and non-religious populations in British Columbia, Alberta,
Ontario and Quebec, 2011 (National Household Survey, 2011).
British Columbia % Alberta % Ontario % Quebec %
Total population 4,324,455 100 3,567,975 100 12,651,795 100 7,732,520 100
Buddhist 90,620 2.10 44,410 1.24 163,750 1.29 52,390 0.68
Hindu 45,795 1.06 36,845 1.03 366,720 2.90 33,540 0.43
Jewish 23,130 0.53 10,900 0.31 195,540 1.55 85,100 1.10
Muslim 79,310 1.83 113,445 3.18 581,950 4.60 243,430 3.15
Sikh 201,110 4.65 52,335 1.47 179,765 1.42 9,275 0.12
10,295 0.24 15,100 0.42 15,905 0.13 2,025 0.03
Other religions 35,500 0.82 16,605 0.47 53,080 0.42 12,340 0.16
No religious aﬃliation 1,908,285 44.13 1,126,130 31.56 2,927,790 23.14 937,545 12.12
Christian 1,930,420 44.64 3,278,340 60.32 8,167,285 64.55 6,356,885 82.21
Anglican 213,975 4.95 140,665 3.94 774,560 6.12 73,550 0.95
Baptist 91,575 2.12 66,635 1.87 244,650 1.93 36,615 0.47
Catholic 650,360 15.04 866,305 24.28 3,976,610 31.43 5,775,740 74.69
Christian Orthodox 39,845 0.92 51,340 1.44 297,710 2.35 129,780 1.68
Lutheran 71,470 1.65 119,345 3.34 163,460 1.29 7,200 0.09
Pentecostal 58,300 1.35 60,960 1.71 213,945 1.69 41,070 0.53
Presbyterian 44,635 1.03 36,765 1.03 319,585 2.53 11,440 0.15
United Church 222,230 5.14 268,675 7.53 952,465 7.53 32,930 0.43
Other Christian 538,030 12.44 541,520 15.18 1,224,300 9.68 248,560 3.21
4W. Y. A. CHAN ET AL.
can be considered for Canada as a whole. Additionally, an author who lives and works
in each province discusses the relevant context, ensuring a local perspective that is
framed in personal experience, teaching and living within the province. We begin by
looking at BC alongside Beth Crisp’s conception of religious literacy.
The 2011 National Household survey (Table 1) notes that BC has the largest proportion
of non-religious (44.13%) and Sikh (4.65%) individuals in its provincial population
(Statistics Canada 2013). In 2016, the Indigenous population comprised 6% of the
population (Statistics Canada 2018a). Due to the social and political shifts in Canada,
the BC Ministry of Education introduced a new curriculum across Kindergarten to
Grade 6 in the 2016/2017 school year. The three core competencies of the curriculum
are communication, thinking, and personal and social. The personal and social compe-
tency ‘encompasses the abilities students need to thrive as individuals, to understand
and care about themselves and others, and to ﬁnd and achieve their purposes in the
world'. Within this competency, there is a focus on positive personal and cultural
identity, including ‘awareness and understanding of one’s family background, heritage-
(s), language(s), beliefs, and perspectives in a pluralistic society’(Government of British
Columbia n.d.). While the terminology of religion or spirituality is not used, the focus is
on understanding the characteristics of a pluralistic society.
This curriculum change
shows that BC is striving to provide opportunities for students to learn about
and other aspects of a diverse Canadian society through focused
attention on the cultural identities of its citizens. Concurrently, district-level Aboriginal
Enhancement Agreements are dedicated to helping teachers bring Aboriginal knowl-
edge into their teaching practice (British Columbia Aboriginal Enhancement
Religious literacy in BC
With BC’seﬀorts for reconciliation with the First Nations Leadership Council in 2005,
we see parallels with Australian Beth Crisp’s (Professor, Faculty of Health, Deakin
University) conception of RL from when Australian organisations began initiatives
towards reconciliation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in
the 1990s. Recognising that the Australian education system neglects to discuss religion,
Crisp (2008) argues for the need to incorporate ‘spirituality’into secular education as
spirituality encompasses many beliefs. She draws upon Furman et al.’s(2005)deﬁnition
that considers spirituality a ‘search for meaning, purpose and morally fulﬁlling relations
with self, other people, the encompassing universe, and ultimate reality however
a person understands it’(819). Thus, at the core of spirituality is an authentic and
meaningful connection with other human beings.
Crisp’s approach (2017) stems from her work in social work that promotes respect for
individuals’lived experiences, including their religion and spirituality. She encourages
social workers to become aware of their own spiritual and religious experiences as
a necessary part of working towards wholeness when working with their clients, in order
to understand the places of signiﬁcance in their clients’lives also, a familiar approach in
JOURNAL OF BELIEFS & VALUES 5
schools here as Canadian educators are also tasked to teach the holistic student. Through
this work, Crisp found that minority communities were acutely aware of the diﬃculties in
being heard and practising their religion at times, and particularly around reactions to the
physical expression of their faith through clothes and appearance.
As a result, Crisp (2017) notes that a ‘curriculum of omission’exists in society, which
limits youth from comfortably expressing their narratives in educational settings. This
curriculum of omission implicitly reinforces stereotypes and misinformation; if there is
no counter-narrative or opposing facts, then students see the curricular narrative as
truth. Additionally, religion is often ignored unless it is exotic or problematic.
Therefore, teaching about the diversity within and inﬂuences of religion and spirituality
in curriculum can challenge stereotypes, if appropriately embedded to avoid tokenism.
As both Crisp and the BC curriculum use the terminology of spirituality, we propose
a Canadian RL conception that explicitly includes the notion of spirituality, and native
spirituality in particular due to the omission of this belief in Canadian history. As
Crisp’s conception does not delve into the nuances and inﬂuences of beliefs, it cannot
stand on its own for Canada but it could inform a Canadian conception overall.
Like its neighbour BC, Alberta is more religiously diverse than it was a decade ago
(Statistics Canada 2018b). Muslims and Hindus were the largest non-Christian religious
groups in 2011 (see Table 1), and Alberta’s Indigenous populations grew by 37.1% from
2006 to 2016 (Statistics Canada 2018b). These recent demographic shifts highlight the
need for citizens to be better educated about issues of the religious diversity that
a culturally diverse citizenry brings. The Alberta government is attempting to address
these issues through a variety of measures, including signing the Joint Commitment to
Action (June 2016), and updating K–12 curricula to reﬂect a greater emphasis on First
Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) contributions, values and ways of knowing across
levels and subjects to promote greater awareness of FNMI cultures in Alberta (Alberta
Education 2018). However, as of October 2018, the current curriculum draft for K–4
Social Studies includes no mention of the terms ‘spiritual’or ‘religion’, although it does
mention ‘worldview’once in relation to FNMI cultures. Yet, within Alberta’s
eight Métis settlements and 48 First Nations communities (Government of Alberta
2018), race, culture and spirituality are intertwined, and discrimination imposes
a multi-faceted harm (Alberta Hate Crimes Committee: Community Conversations
2016). Considering the current political and social needs of Alberta within the broader
context of Canada, an explicit focus on these terms is warranted. Here, we undertake an
examination of Alberta’s curricular responses to these challenges by framing it through
Diane Moore’s lens of RL.
Religious literacy in Alberta
Diane Moore (Director, Religious Literacy Project, Harvard Divinity School) is perhaps
the scholar most closely linked to the term ‘religious literacy’. Her conception is
considerably relevant in Alberta because of its economic prosperity as the world’s
third largest oil producer, predominantly socially conservative Christian-based values,
6W. Y. A. CHAN ET AL.
and long history of populist governance are features shared by the current US landscape
in which Moore grounds her conception (Harrison 2015). The American Association of
Religion (AAR) adopted Moore’s RL conception which highlights the intersection of
socio-cultural, historic and political dimensions of religion, with an emphasis on
developing an awareness of how religious traditions are dynamic and internally diverse
(Moore 2007, 56). A strength of this conception is that it requires an understanding of
shifting internal tensions among religious traditions that inﬂuence religious expression
across time and place. Moore’s rich conception of RL can equip Albertan educators and
policymakers with a tool for understanding the complexities of these macro levels of
religious traditions, enabling a deep engagement with religious diversity on a societal
scale. Despite such applicability, Moore’s approach needs to be expanded for the
Albertan context in two ways.
First, although Moore’s cultural studies framework for RL serves as a robust model
to increase one’s awareness of major religious traditions, it focuses primarily on the
macro level of social, political and cultural expressions of religion. However, this macro
focus risks undermining the micro expressions of religious beliefs and lived experiences
of individuals, even if this focus is implied in Moore’s conception. Meaningful engage-
ment with religiously diverse students requires educators to extend Taylor’s‘recogni-
tion’of students’religious identities, personal beliefs or worldviews (1992). This
demanding task of micro-recognition calls on educators to develop a level of RL across
Canada (Beaman, Beyer, and Cusack 2017) and in Alberta (Patrick, Gulayets, and Peck
2017) that is largely missing at this point. Thus, it is vital for educators and policy-
makers to encourage critical RL because misrecognition or non-recognition of indivi-
duals’religious or spiritual identities may constitute a serious harm (Taylor 1992, 26),
including religious stereotyping, religious bullying (Chan 2016; Michaelson et al. 2018),
or religiously motivated hate crimes, as demonstrated by the 2018 arson attack on a
mosque in Edson, Alberta (CBC Edmonton, 18 June 2018).
The second area of expansion for Moore’s RL conception relates to the need to
recognise Indigenous spirituality explicitly, as per the BC discussion. Thus, our
Canadian conception heavily includes aspects of Moore’s macro-level observations,
but adjusts it to account for the micro, and combines it with Crisp to account for
Like BC and Alberta, Ontario has a diversity of religion, spirituality and creed, but it is
home to the largest Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist populations in Canada (Table 1).
Additionally, it reﬂects increasing individualised expressions of religious identity and
eclectic dispositions towards religion. Recent data sets by the Angus Reid Institute
(2015) and Beyer et al. (2018) show that a growing number of Ontarians neither
embrace nor reject religion completely in their lives, often in the form of unique
practices, beliefs and dispositions. The Ontario human rights and public education
policies align with the above demographic trends.
When the Ontario Human Rights Code became law in 1962, creed was one of the
original grounds of discrimination, but its social meaning and interpretation in case law
have changed over time (OHRC 2012). In 1996, the OHRC Policy on Creed and the
JOURNAL OF BELIEFS & VALUES 7
Accommodation of Religious Observances interpreted the word ‘creed’to mean ‘religious
creed’or ‘religion’and speciﬁcally excluded non-religious or political beliefs. Since then,
public understanding of what religion can mean has broadened to include more secular
or ethical worldviews where ‘religion’shifted from the group or communal context to
greater emphasis on the agency of the individual to live by their subjective experience of
religion or creed (Beaman 2011). The updated OHRC 2015 Policy on the Prevention of
Discrimination Based on Creed reﬂects this change.
Since 1992, the Ontario Ministry of Education policy statements also reﬂect commit-
ments to protect and nurture the holistic individual through inclusive curriculum and
teaching (Segeren and Kutsyuruba 2012). This includes the cognitive development of
every student, and their emotional, physical and social well-being (csee Ontario
Ministry of Children and Youth Services 2012). In support of this goal, teachers are
expected to identify and overcome the ‘Eurocentric biases’in curricular content
(Ontario Ministry of Education 2013). In the context of increasing ethnocultural
diversity, these educational commitments to inclusion are aimed to help students
make informed decisions, accurately synthesise information, communicate and navigate
meaningfully in an ever-changing global community. Our review of Nesbitt and
Dinham considers these legislative and curricular commitments in contemporary
Religious literacy in Ontario
The RL frameworks and methodologies developed by Eleanor Nesbitt (Professor
Emeritus, Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick) and Adam Dinham
(Professor of Faith & Public Policy and Director of the Faiths and Civil Society Unit,
Goldsmiths, University of London) speak to the demographic complexity and trends in
Ontario society and schools. Nesbitt’s approach to RL represents an original way to
access and aﬃrm the inner religious and creed worlds of South Asian, speciﬁcally
Hindu, youth. Dinham’s RL framework can be understood as a useful tool to engage
and assess the complex landscape of multiculturalism, secularism and human rights in
Ontario. Their work together presents opportunities and challenges for RL in Ontario’s
Nesbitt’s research (1993) aimed to close the gap between the diasporic experiences of
Hindus in Britain and the curricular and pedagogical frames employed by teachers to
educate British adolescents about Hindu traditions, a gap that led to ‘Hindu confusion’
in the classroom, arguably a common concern in some Ontario classrooms. In doing so,
Nesbitt’s research sought homologies or family resemblances amongst the reported
rituals, beliefs and reﬂections of Hindu, Sikh and Jain children in order to identify
meaningful patterns about the Hindu, Sikh and Jain ‘worlds’their families construct in
the diaspora. The research focused on capturing the voice of South Asian youth in their
‘everyday’involvement with their traditions as it focused on traditional modalities of
religious life, such as temple worship or the experience of Hindu children during
festivals. Nesbitt’s work was attentive to the fact that religion and culture, tradition
and modernity, intermingle in the South Asian tradition, and that rituals and traditions
in the domestic sphere are of equal signiﬁcance to experiences mediated at oﬃcial
places of worship (see Jackson and Nesbitt 1993). However, while the homological
8W. Y. A. CHAN ET AL.
framework helped resolve some Hindu confusion in the British classroom, it presented
the lives and experiences of the children as part of a variegated ‘Hindu whole’and did
not strive to recognize the individual experiences in each context, a key criterion in our
Staal (1993) warns of the mistakes that can happen when researchers fail to consider
the suitability of universal concepts of religion for Asian traditions and practices. He
The inapplicability of Western notions of religion to the traditions of Asia has not only led
to piecemeal errors of labeling, identiﬁcation, and classiﬁcation, to conceptual confusion
and to some name calling. It is also responsible for something more extraordinary: the
creation of so-called religions. [Scholars] seize upon labels used for indigenous categories,
rent them from their original context, and use them for subsequent identiﬁcation of what
is now called a 'religious' tradition. Thus, there arises a host of religions: Vedic,
Brahmanical, Hindu, Buddhist, Bon-po, Tantric, Taoist, Confucian, Shinto, etc. In Asia,
such groupings are not only uninteresting and uninformative, but tinged with the unreal.
What counts instead are ancestors and teachers –hence lineages, traditions, aﬃliations,
cults, eligibility, and initiation –concepts with ritual rather than truth-functional over-
tones. (Staal 1993, 393)
Staal introduces the element of ‘experience’to the classic Durkheimian conception of
religion as ‘belief’and ‘practice’to account for the fact that in many Asian traditions,
experience and practice do not necessarily emanate from belief. This is particularly
important in Ontario as it has the largest Buddhist and Hindu populations among the
Aspects of Nesbitt’s work are relevant for Ontario and parts of Canada as it aims to
understand the construct of traditions in a diaspora through the voices of local com-
munity members; however, whether such constructs accurately capture the complexity
of experiences for most Hindu, Sikh or Jain students in Ontario remains to be seen. Not
all South Asian Ontarians or Canadians are part of an active diaspora community
where creed or religious reconstruction is active or obvious. Recognising local experi-
ences of a community is important, but a Canadian conception of RL also seeks to
recognise the experiences on the terms and perspectives of the community itself,
especially as traditional RL terminology cannot appraise Hindu traditions through
Dinham, also in the UK, advocates a sociologically centred, ‘situated’approach to the
notion and practice of RL. Like Nesbitt, he advances the concept and use of the term
'religious literacy' as a skill to counter the reproduction of knowledge that religions are
static and monolithic. Also similarly to Nesbitt, Dinham recognises that diﬀerent
groups, in diﬀerent contexts, take up nuanced and historically speciﬁc understandings
of what religion is and is not. Dinham’s praxis-oriented work focuses on RL in
institutional settings, such as higher education leadership, health care, social service
and public schools. His research aims to show how RL does not entail mastery of
detailed and abstract knowledge about religion, but rather the ways people, policy and
practice in speciﬁc settings in turn shape expressions of and knowledge about religion,
akin to Staal’s‘experience’.
Dinham’s RL framework (2015) involves four components: category, disposition,
knowledge and skill. Category refers to the ‘discursive’aspect of RL. As ‘religion’is often
JOURNAL OF BELIEFS & VALUES 9
conceptualised at odds with ‘the real’landscape of religion (beyond spaces in which
religion is conventionally thought to exist, such as in places of worship and homes, and
beyond the idealised forms of religion in people’s ideals and imaginations), Dinham
(2015) developed tools to problematise this discourse, including ways secularity is
understood. Disposition refers to an emotional and psychological inheritance that
informs how individuals approach, respond and react to religion. While knowledge
refers to the substantial information that can be known about any particular religious,
spiritual or creed tradition, Dinham notes that is impossible to know everything about
a religion as objective knowledge. Rather, Dinham emphasises an ethnographic
approach to understanding religion and identity, as it is embodied, expressed and
relationally understood. Lastly, skill refers to translating knowledge into skill sets that
help individuals or organisations meet the site-speciﬁc needs of their organisation.
Dinham’s approach is relevant to conceptualising the experiences of Ontarians who
report increasingly as ‘religious nones’, or individuals who are ‘spiritual but not
religious’. Additionally, Dinham’s work is helpful for Ontario organisations where
there is a growing religiously and spiritually diverse workforce on one hand (Ontario
Public Service 2017), but normative institutional conditions which might limit the
engagement with religion in such institutions on the other. Yet, despite their strengths,
and upon reﬂection on the Ontario landscape and the framework of recognition, we
seek an explicit recognition of Indigenous spirituality and reference to creed in both
Nesbitt and Dinham’s approaches.
Quebec is unique among the provinces due to its historical context in which Roman
Catholicism and the French language were promoted among the majority to encourage
social cohesion. It has been and remains the only oﬃcially French-speaking province,
with the largest Roman Catholic population (Table 1). However, parts of Quebec are
religiously diverse. In 2011, the provincial population of Muslims was the second
highest among the four provinces discussed here (Table 1), religious groups in
Quebec are from multi-ethnic backgrounds (Meintel 2015), and it is rare to see mono-
ethnic gatherings of people from any religious group (Mossière, Meintel, and Fortin
2006). At the same time, many Quebecois prefer to speak about their religious belief
from a perspective of spirituality (Meintel 2015, 179) and some are secular, notwith-
standing their diversity.
Secularism is often translated in French to laïcité, and conjures ideas of France’s
closed secularism where religious symbols are banned from public spaces. However,
Quebec practises open secularism where the state has no religious aﬃliation and
welcomes the expression of religious symbols in public space (Meintel 2015). With
this understanding, some Quebec scholars, such as Meintel (2015), prefer to use the
term sécularisme to distinguish the practice in Quebec from that of France. Groups,
such as Mouvement laïque québécois, prefer laïcité.
In this multi-belief province, then, an understanding of social cohesion, or vivre
ensemble (‘to live together’), has changed throughout Quebec history, and Saillant
(2015, 3) calls for an ampliﬁcation and update of Quebec’s approach to vivre
10 W. Y. A. CHAN ET AL.
La notion de vivre ensemble a sans doute l’intérêt de n’appartenir à aucun des cadres
politiques les plus discutés lorsqu’il est question de pluralisme, en même temps qu’elle
rassemble à la fois l’un et le multiple, la singularité et la diversité.
Stemming from philosophy, the idea does not align with any particular political
agenda, and Saillant invites a discussion that expands from one of diversity to ‘penser
ensemble pluralité et monde commun’(2015, 18), one that surpasses linguistic inter-
pretations. This call for continual understanding and updating of vivre ensemble to
reﬂect Quebec’s changing face and sentiments parallels the trajectory of Quebec’s
Quebec is also the only Canadian province with mandatory religious education in
both public and private schools across Canada. Due to its colonial history, between the
largely Catholic French and Protestant English settlers, all schools in Quebec were
organised under Catholic and Protestant school boards that determined the nature of
religious education (RE) to respect both majorities and maintain social cohesion. In
2000, school boards were reorganised linguistically, serving French-speaking and
English-speaking students, rather than confessionally. In 2005, the Ministry of
Education decided to replace all confessional religious instruction courses, along with
the non-confessional course in moral education, with a single civic-based and secular
course called Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC).
Then, in 2008, the Quebec Ministry
of Education established the ERC programme, marking a historical change in Quebec
education and a reﬂection of its changing society.
Religious literacy in Quebec
Due to Quebec and England’slongstanding history of mandatory RE, we reviewed
Robert Jackson’s (Professor Emeritus, Centre for Education Studies, University of
Warwick) conception of RL from England in Quebec. For Jackson, one of the driving
purposes of RL is social cohesion, which he believes is fostered by focusing on the
personal, despite not using the term ‘religious literacy’itself. His interpretive approach
considers representation, interpretation and reﬂection. Representation takes into
account the individual and group representations of religious traditions within the
context of their aﬃliated religious groups. Interpretation promotes a critique of an
interpreter’s lens towards a belief. Reﬂection consists of three distinct parts: student
religious self-awareness, which demands that students think and reﬂect on how one’s
religious or non-religious worldviews are shaped; empathy, which Jackson argues is
a crucial element to correctly fulﬁl the approach; and ediﬁcation, a product of self-
awareness and empathy as students learn about themselves and attain a better under-
standing of the religions and cultures around them.
Jackson argues that students need RE that focuses on social cohesion, and he is
committed to the view that education should cover all areas of human knowledge and
experience including the arts and religion, humanities, natural, social sciences and
physical education. Jackson’s approach towards social cohesion seems to align closely
with Quebec and its ERC curriculum that promotes vivre ensemble. Its focus on
addressing the diversity within the multiple and the singular simultaneously relates to
ideas from Saillant’s broadening of vivre ensemble and the multi-ethnic make-up of
JOURNAL OF BELIEFS & VALUES 11
Quebec religious groups as well. In many respects, Jackson’s approach is
considerably appropriate for Quebec. However, as with the other conceptions,
Jackson’s does not explicitly recognise Indigenous spirituality. Furthermore, with
a focus on spirituality rather than religion for some groups in Quebec, an explicit
mention of the diversity within spiritualities is needed.
Thus far, we have presented our analysis of each scholar in the context of the four
speciﬁc provinces where we live and work. With a focus on the recognition of context
and experience within Canada’s social and political state, we noted that Crisp’s con-
ception encouraged teaching about the diversity within and inﬂuences of religion and
spirituality in order to avoid the tokenism of communities based on stereotypes. With
the diverse expressions and beliefs across Canada, Moore’s conception of religious
literacy oﬀered a strong framework to go beyond content knowledge to understand
the complexity within beliefs and how beliefs inﬂuence and are inﬂuenced by society
throughout history. Nesbitt’s conception encourages attention to the sites of knowledge
production about religion, and the importance for researchers to pay attention to the
situatedness of religion and spirituality in the domestic sphere for communities where
belief is not the dominant expression of religion or spirituality. Dinham’s conception of
RL demonstrates that for RL to translate into public policy, the ways in which institu-
tions engage with religion need to be better understood. Jackson’s conception aligned
closely with a focus on social cohesion and a desire to recognise individual and
communal representation of beliefs. Yet all of these conceptions omit explicit mention
of Indigenous spirituality, a pivotal aspect of political discussion and consideration in
religious literacy in Canada today. Nevertheless, in considering the strengths of each
conception and its applicability to Canada, we oﬀer this conception of RL based on our
analysis in the four provinces. Religious literacy in Canada refers to:
(1) Understanding the diversity in and between religious, spiritual, non-religious,
moral and other worldviews among individuals, groups and traditions; that these
terms are used interchangeably for individuals to refer to the same or diﬀerent
tradition as some are overlapping. This is to recognise the terminology, focus,
belief or practice as deﬁned by the individuals themselves;
(2) Recognising the non-static nature of religious, spiritual, non-religious, moral and
other worldview traditions as they are inﬂuenced by social, economic, political
and cultural spheres of society across time and geography;
(3) Understanding each religious, spiritual, non-religious, moral and other world-
view traditionfrom its own distinct worldview and not through the lens of
another tradition, and that each tradition consists of several representations of
(4) Recognising Indigenous spirituality within a discussion of spirituality overall,
and that an understanding of it is based on the terms and perspectives of speciﬁc
Indigenous communities in Canada.
12 W. Y. A. CHAN ET AL.
As educational scholars, we set out to ﬁndaconceptionofRLthatisframedin
recognition, and responds to the social and political needs of the country, with the
aim of promoting inclusion and civic well-being from a Canadian understanding of
vivre ensemble. From these multiple aspects of religious literacy, we encourage
educators to understand and teach about religion based on individual student
narratives and perspectives instead of teaching about a worldview group as a static
homogeneous entity. In doing so, we hope that students can learn about the nuances
within each group in addition to learning about the macro-level diﬀerences across
and within groups. As the framework can be taught to inform about a macro-
representation of a group, the nuances in the knowledge of RL require regional
and local representation so that people of diﬀering worldviews may be more com-
fortable to commune together.
One goal of religious literacy is to provide conceptual frames that reﬂect the complex
relationships individuals can have vis-à-vis phenomena of religion. To address this over-
arching concern, we reviewed ﬁve conceptions of religious literacy to develop a conception
that includes Indigenous spirituality and other forms of religious diversity across Canada,
and oﬀers an inclusive civic-based framework of religious literacy. While the governance of
Canadian educational systems falls under provincial jurisdiction, under provincial codes,
we oﬀered a concerted conception of religious literacy that is speciﬁc to the Canadian
context and provincial dynamics. In this endeavour, we presented a conception of religious
literacy for Canada and explained why and how it was developed.
Jackson and Nesbitt’s(1993) work raised important questions about the suitability of
an ethnographic, hermeneutical approach to meaningfully lend voice to the experiences
and identities of South Asian youth without researchers ﬁrst interrogating the assumed
universality and applicability of the concept of creed or religion to Indian cultural
traditions. Researchers connected to the Comparative Science of Cultures at the
University of Ghent (see Balagangadhara 1994,2012; Shah 2015) have rigorously
taken up this debate. For RL work in Canada these questions cannot be ignored for
any tradition. For this reason, we have co-founded a Canadian non-proﬁt, the Centre
for Civic Religious Literacy
(CCRL), in an eﬀort to recognize individual and group
needs and identities.
Today, CCRL and civic religious literacy reforms, such as the revised BC curriculum,
take heed in recognising Taylor’s politics of recognition (1992). Though in its initial phase,
this is a step forward in achieving a ‘discourse in recognition and identity’(Taylor 1992,2)
and, in tandem with the establishment of the CCRL in Canada, is a positive movement
towards achieving the kind of authenticity and dignity that comes with recognition,
particularly for belief and creed groups who have previously been silenced or excluded.
1. Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population.
2. This table summarizes Statistics Canada (2013)data from four separate tables in the 2011
National Household Survey. This is the most recent government data with religious
JOURNAL OF BELIEFS & VALUES 13
demographic detail. Data can be referenced in the following links: Ontario (Code 35)
3. Although it is referenced, there is no formal deﬁnition of a ‘pluralistic society’in the BC
curriculum documents on that site.
4. ‘Aboriginal’is the institutionally preferred terminology in BC opposed to ‘Indigenous'.
5. See https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/governments/indigenous-people/new-relationship
6. This is the Éthique et culture religieuse (ECR) course in French. The subject matter is the
same in both languages.
7. Newer publications from Jackson, such as Signposts (2014), oﬀer a clear focus to expand
one’s teaching to include teaching about spirituality and non-religious worldviews.
However, we reviewed the overall framework of his approach in order to oﬀer a fair
comparison to the work of the other scholars. Hence, Signposts and other works by Jackson
are not discussed in this article.
8. See www.ccrl-clrc.ca
The authors would like to thank Donetta M. Hines, Helal Dhali, Janet Amos, Jing Xiaoli, Karen
Paul, Kristin Franseen, Sakiko Yamaguchi and Yann Zoldan for reviewing earlier versions of this
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
Notes on contributors
W. Y. Alice Chan (Ph. D. Candidate, McGill University) is a teacher-researcher and evaluation
consultant based in Canada. She works on issues related to religious bullying, religious literacy,
and violent extremism. She is also the executive director and co-founder of the Centre for Civic
Hiren Mistry (Ed.D. Candidate, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of
Toronto) is an educator and researcher whose work synthesizes commitments to equity, cultural
& religious/creed diversity, policy and pedagogy. Hiren has over 15 years of experience connect-
ing human rights theory to practice in public & higher education, with community groups and
non-proﬁt organizations. He is a former seconded lecturer at York University (Faculty of
Education), and is currently completing his doctorate in Higher Education and Leadership
focusing on the intersection of policy, religious diversity and leadership.
Erin Reid (Ph.D. Candidate, McGill University) is an educator and researcher who thinks a great
deal about religious diversity, equity, and education. In particular, she is deeply curious about
how religion intersects with other facets of identity, including language and LGBTQ2S+ iden-
tities. Her doctoral research at McGill University investigates the role of religious literacy as an
educational aim in teacher education programs in Canada. This academic work is deeply
informed by her 15+ years of experience as an educator, curriculum developer, and teacher
educator in adult education and higher education contexts. In 2015, she received the Award for
Distinguished Teaching in McGill University’s School of Continuing Studies.
Arzina Zaver, Ph.D., is a Training and Development Specialist and Educator. Arzina has over a
decade of teaching experience at the primary, secondary and post-secondary levels. She has held
teaching, mentorship and leadership positions in Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and
Trinidad and Tobago. Her scholarly interests and contributions are in the ﬁeld of teacher
14 W. Y. A. CHAN ET AL.
education, the politics of teacher identity, and multicultural education. She currently serves as
the Regional Director of the Centre for Civic Religious Literacy for British Columbia and works
in the ﬁeld of training and development, speciﬁcally supporting preservice and in-service
teachers in their teaching practice for various educational institutions and non-proﬁt
Sabrina Jafralie, Ph.D., is a recognized specialist on the Quebec Ethics and Religious Culture
course and has over 16 years of teaching experience at the secondary and university levels with
experience in the Canadian and British educational systems. This teaching experience and her
research on teachers’challenges in teaching religious literacy bring a wealth of knowledge into
her roles at the Centre. In 2018, she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Teaching Award of
W. Y. Alice Chan http://orcid.org/0000-0001-5678-7605
Hiren Mistry http://orcid.org/0000-0003-0335-4974
Erin Reid http://orcid.org/0000-0003-4222-6115
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