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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