Religious Literacy—Another Dead End?

“Religious literacy.” Nerds say it is a “critical dimension of understanding human affairs.” In some cases, it might be a question of life and death. Even your humble editor makes a plea for it in his new book. But as we’ve seen from other fields, it might just be a waste of time.

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The deadly consequences of angry ignorance.

The latest call came from Peter Feuerherd in the pages of JSTOR Daily. He made a strong case that poorly informed religious antagonisms fueled the deadly government assault on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, c. 1993. Seventy-six people died. With a little more “religious literacy” on the part of the government forces, Feuerherd argues, the death toll could have been avoided.

As Feuerherd put it,

with a little more patience and understanding of biblical theology, the massive loss of life could have been avoided. . . . Religion scholars argued that the FBI’s impatience at Waco grew out of theological ignorance and unquestioned assumptions. . . . Waiting longer, by offering Koresh the attention he felt his theological views deserved, would have averted the tragedy, said religion scholars who spoke out in its aftermath.

We might dispute Feuerherd’s conclusion, but it seems likely that a soldier who views his enemy as a “desperate apocalyptic cult” is probably going to be more aggressive than one who views his enemy as a “church meeting.”

As the Religious Literacy Project of Harvard Divinity School argues, religious illiteracy is a significant human problem: “it fuels conflict and antagonisms and hinders cooperative endeavors in all arenas of human experience.”

As I work on my new book about American creationism, I too fall into a sort of “religious literacy” argument. People need to understand creationist religion as it really is, I argue, not as some sort of Creation-Museum, Jesus-on-a-dinosaur cartoon.

But are all these arguments about “religious literacy” doomed from the start?

After all, in the field of creation/evolution debates, we’ve seen that notions of “scientific literacy” miss the point. Creationism is not simply an “illiteracy.” Creationists don’t yearn for knowledge of mainstream science. Rather, creationism is a strong and internally coherent alternative science.

If we want to change people’s minds about evolutionary science, thinking about them as “illiterate” won’t help. If we do, we will fall into Bill Nye’s ineffective brand of “save-the-world” missionary endeavor. As Nye sees it, creationism represents one facet of America’s “striking science illiteracy.” Nye’s answer is to go on TV and go to the Creation Museum and explain, explain, explain.

It won’t work. Bill Nye won’t save the world. Why not? Because the notion of “science literacy” is at heart naïve. As science-communication guru Dan Kahan might say, “literacy” is not a helpful concept in this case.

Bill Nye will not save the world by explaining science to it. Creationism, climate-change denialism, and other zombie sciences do not merely reflect an absence of knowledge about science. They do not suffer from “illiteracy.” Rather, they are obstreperous and lively alternative sciences. If we want to convince their adherents of anything, we need to do more than just tell them about better science.

Is the same true with “religious literacy?” I agree wholeheartedly that people can and should be better educated about all religions, especially ones that we tend to think of as threatening or hostile. But precisely because people think of many religions as threatening and hostile, I think we need to do more than just spread information around. We need to think of this as something other than “illiteracy.”

People KNOW things about religion in most cases, but those things can be false and those falsehoods can be dangerous, even deadly. Talking about “literacy” obfuscates this crucial point. So what would be better?

We could copy Dan Kahan and toss out “religious literacy” in favor of “religion communication.” Or, as many activists do, we could switch from talking about “literacy” to talking about “toleration.” Or even “appreciation.”

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Is THIS the goal?

None of those options feels right. We don’t want to imply that we are trying to convert people from one religion to another. We don’t want to fall into the go-nowhere liberal trap of calling on people from different religions to merely “co-exist.” To my mind, anyway, that approach downplays the vital universal claims of many of the religions themselves.

What are we really after? Informed understanding about religious traditions besides our own…right? That’s more than “literacy,” and “literacy” implies that the knowledge is coveted by all and value-neutral. We need another term to describe this important goal.

What is it?

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