Religious Literacy

Aaqil Ahmed’s claim that we have become a nation of religious illiterates should come as no surprise. Even among those who claim to be Christian, knowledge and understanding of scripture and doctrine has been in decline for years. As regards knowledge of other religions, that tends to be even more sketchy. We may know the names of some important Hindu or Muslim festivals; we may be vaguely aware of how the Jewish calendar unfolds; but, for the most part, we rely on having a neat little summary of the main facts given to us in a call-out on the web page or in a sidebox of the newspaper column. I think, however, that it is not just religious illiteracy about which we need to be concerned. There is a cultural illiteracy that includes religious illiteracy and is becoming more and more pervasive in the west.

Literary types argue about the existence or otherwise of a western canon, a body of thought and literature that every educated person can be expected to have some acquaintance with. In a plural, multicultural society such a canon becomes less and less identifiable. Add to that our increasing reliance on the internet for our grasp of ideas, and it is easy to see why one cannot take much for granted. We are not alone, for example, in prescribing a course in Christian doctrine for new entrants. We cannot assume that well-educated, well-motivated people will necessarily have the intellectual grounding in faith of previous generations.

Should we worry about this? Personally, I think there are two aspects to consider. There is a cultural impoverishment when we no longer understand the story of our past—when literary references are not understood and the art and artefacts that embody the story are no longer recognized for what they are. There is also an emotional impoverishment when we no longer relate to the story of our past in a personal way. When we cease to be moved by the holiness of places where our forebears worshiped, or have no real sense of the values by which they lived, we are cut adrift. We become existentially lonely. That is, of course, quite the opposite of what Christianity is about: incorporation into Christ and so into fellowship with all the living and the dead. As we journey towards All Saints and All Souls, it is worth thinking about these things. ‘No man is an island, entire of himself’— not even the religious illiterate.

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5 thoughts on “Religious Literacy”

  1. I wonder if the perception of religious, cultural or even emotional illiteracy is in fact due to a quite narrow perspective held by the media, where serious commentary on such matters is normally reserved to the broadsheets, while the tabloids seem to suspect that their target market are in fact illiterate and that they need to descend to that level for their news and commentary.

    I found that my horizons have been widened considerably bu internet use since I came back to Christianity. I’ve engaged widely and it has been formative, in that process, I’ve relearned a lot about my own religious and cultural heritage, which I had absorbed, but discarded in favour of perhaps the need of the world and life and even the quick and easy over the more in depth analysis that is necessary to get to the underlying trends, traits or truths inherent in any story.

    An example was being sent on a university short course over a year to engage in Christian Ethics. The first thing I had to do was to engage in the philosophical background to all ethics and the ideas of people who’ve I’ve either never heard of, or had ignored as being nothing to do with me. Engaging in philosophy, even at this basic level challenges so much of what we know and understand about ourselves and human motivations and behaviour leads to more engagement in much wider spheres.

    Something about engagement such as this, develops a thirst for more and more engagement through reading and actually going to places like museums and galleries to engage with culture and our history as well.

    Before this process started, I wasn’t a religious illiterate, just blind to the riches that religion and our history holds for us – I’d never engaged in any substantial way, and once I abandoned religion, I probably learned how to condemn it in ignorance because that suited the views that I held at the time.

    God has given me that gift of inquiry and insight and questioning, which before was deployed on worldly matters, and the opportunity to explore, to learn and to grow within the framework of a world where access to information to aid that process is now readily available, albeit, needing to be treated with care, because there are still lots of false prophets out there.

    I come here daily and am fortunately able to engage in real discussion of real life issues that inform my views with ideas and thoughts and facts that encourage, not discourage growth in both knowledge and faith at the same time. A bonus of engagement in a safe space, rather than the wider internet which can be a dangerous place.

    So thank you for just being here.

  2. As just a footnote to your closing paragraph, I’ve recently been discovering the riches of David Jones, as a poet, and as the essayist of Epoch and Artist. There’s so much of what you say that preoccupied him too. (He’s apt reading for the Welsh Marches — and well beyond those borders !)

  3. I have three thoughts to share on this topic, quite unrelated and not particularly well thought through.
    Firstly there is considerable interest in religion of all kinds within our society, and It’s almost impossible to go through the day without being confronted by some controversial religious issue being reported in the media, whether it be about same sex marriage, ethical debates about abortion,Coptic Christians being massacred etc. It is almost impossible to understand our own culture or any other culture without having some knowledge of our or their religion. Not withstanding this there is a failure in our Education System to properly educate children about religion(s). Politicians are reluctant to give sufficient weight to this important subject in the School Curriculam.
    Secondly the most important media in our time radio & television gives insufficient time to responsibly inform and educate the listening and watching public about religions. Given the number of channels on free view it is surprising that not one is devoted exclusively to world religion. I’m sure that it would be well subscribed if there was
    Finally, spiritually I believe that there is an empty ache in the heart of all people. Men and women of every tribe and race hunger after God. This drive is so powerful that people find no rest until the deep questions within them are answered. As a Christian I believe that ‘the word made flesh’ speaking the language of love , peace and forgiveness makes literate people of us all.

  4. Thank you for opening up this topic. It is close to my heart. I remember a dinner party 20 years ago when a teacher colleague told me it was no longer possible to teach Milton as students had neither the classical nor the Biblical references. Then 10 years ago mentoring at an art college I realised that neither ‘religious’ paintings nor the references to them in modern art were accessible to students. Just this month I was invited to a museum event where a harvest festival service would be ‘re-enacted’. Oh and I had such high hopes when divinity was replaced by comparative religion in the school curriculum and imagined that a world with wider cross-cultural or multi cultural references would emerge.

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