Posted by The RE Guru on 22.06.20 in Guest Blogs

Previously Secondary School Head of RE in Central London

RE (Part 2) The Importance of Being Religiously Literate

An understanding of the differences and similarities between faiths helps develop empathy with those who are different. It also makes it much more difficult for extremists- who want to cause division and mistrust in our society, to get a foothold in the minds of our young people.

Extremism can lead to terrorism. Whilst the vast majority of extremists will never progress to terrorism, it’s worth remembering that all terrorists are extremists. Terrorist organisations like ISIS try to recruit young people to their cause using the guise of religion. Whilst our threat level has been downgraded to Substantial (which still means an attack is likely) for the first time since 2011, we should be under no illusion that this twisted ideology still exists and is still being propagated. Unfortunately, we will feel the repercussions from this death cult for at least years, but more likely decades- just as Al Qaida still exist; still try to recruit; and certainly, still influence to this day.

To me, it’s not surprising that the young people who flocked to join ISIS were largely religiously illiterate. If a child is brought up to see that all the Abrahamic faiths (for example) come from the same source and share beliefs and practices, then it’s much more difficult to conclude that anyone with differing views to yours can legitimately be considered an enemy, and especially one deserving of a violent death.

However, it’s not the sole responsibility of the RE staff to help develop critical literacy. They can give expert advice on religious teachings and explain context and interpretations. But if we really want to tackle extremism, and prevent extremist views from becoming entrenched, then we need to work with all educators in a school setting. I’ll touch briefly on a couple of subjects below:

  • History is a hugely beneficial subject. For example, we can look at how propaganda has been used historically and can draw parallels between what is happening today. The Nazis and the indoctrination of the Hitler youth demonstrated radicalisation on an industrial scale. We hold teaching WWII in such high regard to reinforce the idea that we must remember the lessons from History. Terrorist organizations like; ISIS, Al Qaida, National Action; as well as extremist organizations such as Britain First, the EDL, and Hizb ut Tahrir; all use the same sort of grievance narrative used by the Nazis to recruit impressionable young people. If we can learn from how extremists successfully indoctrinated and recruited in the past, we can build resilience in our young people to it now.


  • English is another subject that can help counter extremist ideology. When young people study persuasive writing and speeches, they can understand the techniques used to whip people into a fervour and thus abandon their critical faculties.
  • In English and the Arts studying texts or works from different cultural viewpoints can build empathy through identifying with characters or art. It can help students develop an understanding of the broad cultural influences in modern Britain.
  • In ICT we teach young people about techniques like phishing and echo-chambers. Again, this helps build their resilience and means they are less likely to be duped.
  • The Sciences teach us the importance of evidence. The need to check things and not blindly follow- let’s not fall into the disastrous trap of not ‘trusting the experts’.

It would be remiss of me here, on a Citizenship website, to extol the virtue of Citizenship teaching.  We know why it’s important. If it’s given the space in the curriculum it needs and the gravitas it deserves, then just like RE it can be an invaluable tool in helping our students make sense of what can seem an increasingly confused, and polarised world.

Almost every subject, and certainly every educator, has their part to play in this. It’s about building critical literacy and therefore resilience. Resilience not only regarding young people being drawn into supporting violent extremism, but those same skills also help increase the resilience of our children with regards to being groomed for gang membership, Child Sexual Exploitation, or any other form of exploitative harm.  

RE is not the answer- it’s part of it. To ensure our children are safe and not susceptible to exploitation, we need to ensure that they can critically evaluate the information that they are exposed to and, crucially, that they know they can talk to trusted people- like teachers- to help them try to make sense of things they don’t yet understand.


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