religious literacy

We need to focus on religious literacy – before it’s too late

“For religion to be taken seriously there needs to be an improvement in religious literacy across the media,” wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby last year. The context was the BBC Charter renewal and debates around the ownership and purpose of Channel 4 – the State’s broadcasters. “Commissioners, editors and producers are essential in this respect. Religion is about the stuff of life. It’s about people and communities, and what drives them. And, as has been argued before now, religion needs to be treated with the same seriousness as other genres like sport or politics, economics or drama. If anything, they should make an articulate case for more.”

The BBC turned a deaf ear to the Archbishop’s entreaties, instead shutting down its Religion & Ethics Department (“This page is no longer updated”), ostensibly to increase competition, but everyone knows that it was really to dump the otiose and syrupy ‘God slot’ so they could focus on the real stuff of life, like the imperative of the European Union, indispensable sport chat, inescapable Gay Britannia, or the mandatory inculcation of a liberal-progressive worldview and the perpetual tolerance of everything except that which may be prefixed with ‘right’ (morally, politically and religiously). There’s nothing more offensive to British state broadcasting than the rightists’ reasoned articulation of the rightful inheritance of right-wing philosophy and moral righteousness.

Religion had been given a cursory glance in the BBC White Paper, which perhaps reflected the rise in irreligion and unbelief over recent decades. But no-one was really ever happy with the BBC’s religious output, whether it was led by an agnostic, a Methodist or a Muslim. Sometimes it was judged to be too Christian (the clappy-chorus or pappy-hymn type of Christianity: never the morally ‘robust’ type); and then it was too ecumenical, and then too multifaith, and then too Islamic. For every content complaint there was an equal and opposite content complaint: far easier to talk blandly about ethics and reduce everything to variations on a theme of ‘love thy neighbour’.

And let’s not forget the humanist-atheist-secularist contingent: the sceptics would rather ditch the ‘God slot’ altogether. Why on earth would an enlightened and progressive institution want to propagate ancient and regressive belief systems which darken minds and bind human behaviour? Are we not free from the Medieval oppressions of myopic monotheism to apply intellectual reason and to bring our liberating experience to the big questions of meaning and life? How can such questions possibly be addressed in shallow studio discussions dominated by the arid soundbites of religious types, each eager to proclaim that their fact-free belief is better than yours. No one really wants to watch that.

And so ratings fall, quality suffers, budgets are cut and prominence diminishes. ‘Religion’ becomes bland and boring, dull and predictable, devoid of all robust and reasoned debate, ill-equipped to navigate moral quagmires or articulate theological complexities. Paralysed by the fear of offending some minority, the decision to broadcast priests dancing a jig to a chorus of guitars and drums becomes the Religion & Ethics risk of the month. And even that elicits complaints. Religious literacy goes out of the window, and religiously-literate producers and journalists become scarce. Why not dump the depthless ‘God-slot’ onto non-specialist journalists who will at least make a competent milk-and-water job of it?

We are producing a postmodern generation of headless tadpoles; millions of slimy squirming spiritual tails, steeped in swampy moral relativism, completely unequipped and totally incapable of differentiating, discerning and divining global truth, universal light and eternal salvation.

This a national tragedy. Religious literacy is a ‘public interest’ imperative which should be at the forefront of public service broadcasting. How else might people learn the difference between the need for cross-cultural sensitivity and the right to express a robust theological truth? How might people begin to discern between orthodox religious belief and cultural history which has become tradition? What does the white man’s grey-bearded God have to say to the oppressed people of Africa? Where might we begin to distinguish subjective opinion from objective truth? How do white women feel about the chronically dominant heartbeat of patriarchy? What passion might change people to love and care more? What force can change the course of history and transform the world?

Religious literacy isn’t an ivory-tower luxury or an optional understanding: it is for something. It provides the building blocks of how we study and begin to understand what motivates individuals, communities and countries. It is about the meaning of life and the nature and doctrine of God. It is about how we peacefully coexist with our kaleidoscopic differences and intractable divergences. It allows us to perceive that the extraordinary man who split history in two to bring salvation to the world is different from the one who penned the Qur’an and spread his word with a sword. To be literate in religious history and contextual theology; to be mindful of scriptural criticism, scholarship and Sitz im Leben is to be better able and equipped to debate differences and discern deeper meanings.

Religious literacy ought to inform our politics. If it did, we would know that you can’t just march into Iraq or Libya, free the oppressed and then sit back and watch democracy flourish. Nor can you change fundamental definitions like ‘marriage’ or introduce the ‘self-identification’ of gender and then lecture the Church on the need to ‘keep up with modern society’. Religious literacy should cause deeper reflection of consequences and then enlighten our discourse, not just for academic, metaphysical or theological purposes, but for the enhancement of the pragmatic and prosaic human interactions of everyday life; for the practical realities; to nurture a better understanding of liberation, suffering and injustices of the human condition.

Religious literacy lays the groundwork of life: it is about finding coherence and clarity in a morass of experiences and motivations. It is about understanding human impetus and community rationale. It is a layer of bedrock by which we may discern the lessons of history and their relevance to the present. It equips us to operate more effectively, to think globally and act locally; to deepen spirituality, correct wrong attitudes and intensify the adventure of life.

Religious literacy won’t hinder political progress or hijack the secular enlightenment: it is for something. If we don’t soon recognise that, we will lose the fourth dimension of our entire future.