It would be hard not to draw attention to the unsurprising but embarrassing outcome of the YouGov poll commissioned by the Exploring Islam Foundation. Apparently, 58% of respondents linked Islam with extremism while 69% believed it encouraged the repression of women. 40% disagreed that Muslims had a positive impact on British society.

Not really suprising, though. Islam is represented negatively in the media and with an ignorance that would be deemed embarrasing in any other discipline. See Bishop Alan Wilson’s blog today for just one example – and it doesn’t even come from the nightmare Daily Mail. Alan remind sus of the ninth Commandment:

You will not bear false witness against (lie about/misrepresent) your neighbour…

However, this is simply a symptom of a wider religious illiteracy in our society… and perpetuated in the media (with some exceptions). Perhaps it isn’t coincidental that yesterday saw a further report of the ineffectiveness of some Religious Education teaching in British schools. According to this research, the problem lies with teachers who don’t understand Christianity in particular and can (for example) tell the Nativity story, but can’t say what it means.

The response in some quarters was predictable. For them the problem lies with the requirement to teach anything religious in the first place. But, that misses the point completely. This is not about believing or defending the content of any particular faith (which would demand commitment of some sort), but, at the very least, understanding it.

This harks back to a long discussion last year about the (then) Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s argument that people need to understand the Bible if they are to stand any chance of understanding art, literature or music. He was not saying that people have to believe it or live by it, but simply to be familiar with it and understand something of it.

The same goes for religion in general. Whether the secularists or so-called New Atheists (they are hardly new…) like it or not, religion is a phenomenon without which politics, economics and culture cannot be understood.

  • If, as they attest, religion is purely dangerous fantasy, then it needs to be understood if only to be countered.
  • If, as they attest, religion is a loaded worldview whose followers sit somewhere up the loony scale (away from their assumed ‘neutral’ space), then it is all the more vital that it be explored in order to be rubbished intelligently.

It is shocking to encounter some of the popular ignorance in the media and government. All religious groups are lumped into a single misleading category called ‘faith’ and seen as a minority interest for inadequates. Ignorance of finance, business economics, etc on such a scale would not be tolerated and would be a source of some shame. But, when it comes to religion in general – and Christianity in particular – the usual informed, intelligent and curious mind turns to incomprehending blancmange.

I don’t believe for one moment that Hindus have got it right, but I do need to understand Hinduism if I am to understand the politics, culture and societal shapes of countries where Hinduism shapes not only what a large number of people believe, but also how they live, vote, fight, etc.

Islam needs to be taught with integrity (as seen through the eyes of a good Muslim). Christianity needs to be taught with integrity (as seen through the eyes of a good Christian). And the truth claims of these faiths need to be taught – not as commanding inevitable allegiance, of course, but in order that people know (a) what they are dealing with and (b) how such believers are to be understood.

This is an appeal for intelligent and informed understanding – prior to any thought of commitment. The appeal to commitment is the job of the church – those Christians who can do no other than commend and defend their faith. The church has to be evangelistic; schools should be informative. And the media should pay attention to reporting religion accurately and intelligently – unlike the examples given by Alan Wilson and a myriad of others across recent years.

During an interview last Saturday one of the candidates quoted someone as saying

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Unfortunately, we should care (deeply) how much we all know – shoddy understanding, reporting or commentary simply means we don’t care a toss about those with whom we are trying to communicate.

Which is also why I keep urging my clergy and churches to renew their commitment to learning, understanding and growing in confidence in the content of the Bible and Christian faith… which we don’t usually learn by means of (what I like to call) liturgical osmosis.