Is Religious Literacy a Thing of the Past?

August 26, 2011

Interestingly, there have been several recent stories in mainstream newspapers pointing to the supposed correlation between higher education and religious involvement. USA Today ran their story–“Education Liberalizes Religious Views”–with the primary point that while many assume that those with College degrees are more likely to become unaffiliated with organized religion, in fact college graduates are more likely than their less educated peers to have attended a religious service in the past month and to be involved with a church, albeit a liberal one. CNN’s recent piece–“Less Educated Americans are losing Religion”–focuses on the same fact from the other angle, that the largest decrease in religious affiliation in recent years comes from the working class and lower, that educated and middle class folks are rather consistently religious in America but their poorer neighbors are becoming less and less so.

These stories are interesting, though they obviously overlook many contributing factors to their results. CNN’s piece cites observations from critics who believe the working class is less likely to attend church because of the church’s support of traditional middle-class values (like marriage, family, social mobility) that they are missing and isolated from; this is certainly not indicative of all or agruably even most churches, but the aspect of class that is most certainly affecting lack of church involvement by the working class overlooked in the story is that many working class people have to work on the Sunday’s their more fortunate peers are in church. USA Today‘s piece focuses primarily on what many would deem “superficial” details of church involvement, that what drives the educated to liberal churches is the liberal church’s acceptance of wide groups of people, people like the ones these educated liberals met in school and want to include under their umbrella of grace or salvation. Both pieces ignore much consideration on belief, practice, or application of religion, and of course such things are harder to pinpoint and document than attendance. Church is and always has been a communal event, so there are always those who attend for fellowship and networking without any real consideration of what they are involved in religiously, and this seems easily applicable even in 2011 to the educated middle class. But regardless, it is interesting to see news that counters assumptions that many secularists and “new atheists” have held and asserted for years, that education removes the need for (and even the ability to maintain) religious beliefs and practices. These stories back up what many corners of the religious world have stressed for years, that education is no threat to faith or spirituality, that indeed education can broaden, deepen, and strengthen genuine religious convictions and practices. However, what these stories on education’s relationship to religious involvement negate to cover is religious education.

Which brings me to another news story. In pondering GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry’s recent statements in which he denies evolution and praises the public school system of Texas for teaching Creationism, Paula Kirby (writing in the Washington Post) insists that Perry is right, “Evolution Threatens Christianity.”  Kirby begins her article articulately and correctly, asserting that it is the failure of the education system to let the denial of such an established scientific theory such as evolution become so widespread, that denying evolution in its entirety is equivalent to sticking ones fingers in one’s ears in childish refusal to face facts. Yet Kirby follows the path forged by the influence she obviously follows (and points to for recommended reading), that of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is exemplary of the argument Kirby weaves through the second half of her article and of all others who stringently follow his new-atheism doctrines as fanatically as any fundamentalists. Dawkins is a brilliant scientist who is a complete religious illiterate. By applying his scientific arguments to theology and religious history which he obviously knows so little about, Dawkins and his ilk (including Kirby in her article) can only dismantle a simplistic caricature of theism–a god who is a patriarchal, anthropomorphic deity with changing whims and prejudices–and a religion–blind allegiance to a literal and rigid interpretation of scriptures and traditions and a fixed and closed worldview. Kirby goes on “prove” in her article that evolution does indeed dismantle Christianity–she sees Christianity “like a big, chunky sweater,” one that evolution pulls the thread from and the whole thing falls apart except for those who refuse to see it. Kirby claims evolution removes a literal interpretation of Genesis and thereby the “historical” Adam and Eve: thus “no fall, no need for redemption, no need for a redeemer.” What Kirby fails to recognize, like her hero Dawkins fails at is well, is that she is attacking one very specific and unique interpretation, one specific variation of Christianity; the Christianity she is attacking is one that runs through post-Enlightenment Western Protestantism that owes as much to “rationalism” and its faults as does many of her same attacks. As historian and theologian Karen Armstrong wonderfully details in her classic “The History of God” and her recent “The Case for God,” the type of theism the new-atheists attack is a theism that major thinkers and figures in every branch of monotheism–Judaism, Islam, and Christianity–have attacked and “disproven” for hundreds of years. A literal interpretation of scriptures, a creation myth not recoginzed as symbolic, a deity just like us but bigger and stronger, a spirituality that is threatened by science–all of these are things foreign to many prominent Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologians, philosophers, activists, ethicists, preachers, scholars and laypersons alike  throughout history and around the world.

The loss of religious literacy is a failure of society and educational systems; knowledge is so fractured that it is hard for many to participate in any debate that crosses from one field to another, especially when dealing with the fields of religion and science. Renowned religious scholar Huston Smith has bemoaned the new-atheists for their lack of even attempting to familiarize themselves with serious religious scholars and concepts. Smith may read science regularly to keep abreast of both fields, but it is a favor Dawkins and Kirby do not return. The targets these figures attack are easy targets, like Rick Perry. As long as we allow the conversation to be dominated by the religiously illiterate on both sides of the science-religion divide, as Perry and Kirby both illustrate, we only dumb down the dialogue for the entire world.


3 Responses to “Is Religious Literacy a Thing of the Past?”

  1. Hi

    Your piece centres on a vital concern. I have on my to do list to write something about spiritual literacy. The Brussats have a book, a compilation, about spiritual literacy – worth a look – I got a cheap used copy –

    I share many of your interests including perennial philosophy, and these spiritual teachers;

    Terry Eagleton published a book at the same time as The Case for God – I wrote a little piece which I have updated on my blog today.

    Delighted to hear you are going to do PhD. If I can be of any help let me know – mine was on Spiritualizing Pedagogy: education as the art of working with the human spirit – it includes an answer to the most important of all questions ‘What is it to be wholly and positively human?’ – there’s a link in today’s post.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.


  2. […] are both more religious than we are led to believe yet also less spiritual than we claim to be. A recent post I made on this site commented on a few recent news-items that reported that contrary to belief more, not less, […]

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