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The Need for Religious Literacy... For Everyone

Jesuit Father James Martin posted this article on his Facebook page yesterday:

Academics and Journalists Unite Against Fake News

This article from America magazine (the Jesuit news magazine for which Fr. Martin is an editor and contributor) focused primarily on this latest craze of "fake news."  No, not the type of "fake news" that Jon Stewart raised to high art on The Daily Show, but rather how people are now digesting "news" from outlets of questionable repute, and how even major news outlets are using these same questionable sources without the necessary fact-checking and analysis which was a hallmark of journalism for decades.  What this discussion on "fake news" also revealed is how many journalists, and journalism itself, is so poorly informed on religion and the key elements of different religious faith traditions.

This isn't just a problem for journalism, its a problem for our whole society.

To be fair, misinformation about religious traditions other than one's own is as old as human society.  In most cases, this wasn't much of an issue because the vast majority of communities shared (or at least participated in) the same religious traditions.  And because these communities were relatively small and closely knit, catechesis (for lack of a better word) was successfully accomplished among families in these communities.  But when one of these communities came into conflict with a neighboring community, most likely with different religious practices, this would play into the conflict.

Now at this point many historians will tell you that "religion" has played into many a bloody conflict.  But we need to be careful how we understand this.  Yes, differences in religious tradition have played into many wars, but as any good junior high or high school history class will teach you, wars and conflicts are created for a variety of reasons of which religion is only one catalyst.  Very few conflicts are solely due to religious differences.  Even the Crusades, which could mistakenly be seen as purely religious, had any number of other issues including control of the economy, land, resources, and politics of the disputed regions.  In these cases "religion" serves more as a communal battle cry and recruitment tool for each side.  But I digress...

Even as the world has grown and populations migrated, religious traditions and catechesis remained community based.  Even in the great migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries we saw these immigrants gathering in communities of similar geographic and religious experience, and for the most part, keeping to themselves.  Mind you, that didn't eliminate suspicions between these different communities, particularly between American Protestants and (largely immigrant) Catholics.  But even in those days of mistrust and misunderstanding (again, not entirely motivated by religious differences), these individual ethnic and religious communities managed to keep their own enclaves well catechized as to what they themselves believed.

But then the world changed.

It started after World War II, with massive reallocation of resources and the people who went with them.  Economic prosperity and opportunity broke apart these once tight knit communities and families.  The "neighborhood" became the suburbs, with an increasingly diverse population moving in all around.  Church, in large part, retreated from the "neighborhood," with their large tracts of suburban housing and their designated plots for new churches, and into the home.  It became rare for your next door neighbor to also be one of your fellow parishioners.

This kind of diversity wasn't all bad.  In fact, it can be an opportunity to learn from each other, and grow in some knowledge and appreciation of each other's religious traditions.  But at the same time, with catechesis moving from the neighborhood into the home, individual families were now more dependent on each other for that catechesis.  And in a world that continued to grow more complex and diversified, more of the burden was placed on families that were not as sufficiently prepared to bring in and maintain Church in the home.  Where in past generations the grandparents, extended family, and other neighbors would supply much of the needed catechesis, the new "nuclear family" was left without those resources it needed to keep Church alive in the home.  Catechesis was outsourced... left in the lap of "CCD" and "religious education" classes at the same time the changing economics of Catholic Education pushed more families to public schools.  What was left was a large number of Catholics that were less catechized and less invested in the parish community.

If that were not enough, now add in the social revolution that started in the late 20th century (and is still unfolding today) where many people and families don't even associate themselves with a particular religious tradition.  And worse those that do align themselves religiously, not only lack a fundamental understanding of their own faith, but are completely ignorant when it comes to other faith traditions and religions.

Now add in the Internet.  Here's a tool that allows instant access to knowledge and information, including about the world's religions.  You would think this should serve as a great library or university for everyone to learn about these other religions, and for some, it does.  Unfortunately, for the vast majority of others, it has devolved into a community of individual "clubhouses" where only those of like mind (informed or not) tend to gather.  Not only is this increasing isolation, but it spreads and breeds misinformation.  This is where we find ourselves today.  Divided and ill-informed.  Need proof?  Have a look at the PBS Newshour report on a 2010 Pew Research survey (What Americans Do and Don't Know about Religion). 

When I was in high school, an all boys Catholic high school run by Capuchin Franciscans, I had the absolute pleasure of taking a comparative religions course.  It was a required class for all juniors.  After 10 years of teaching us the Catholic faith, the school felt is it was time to broaden our knowledge.  And contrary to some pre-Vatican II thinking, being exposed to other faiths did not serve as a recruiting tool for those faiths.  Rather, as I have seen over and over again, the more we learn about other faith traditions the stronger we become in our own Catholic faith.  While this class was only able to give us the very basics of Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, and Islam, it did open us to a wider world of understanding, not only better preparing us for college, but for living in a world that was becoming more diverse.  It is but one of the many things for which I am eternally grateful for my Franciscan education (even if it took me years to acknowledge my inner Jesuit).

So what are we to do?  There was a time when main stream journalists and journalism were able to provide readers with informed, non-biased reporting on religion with an accurate understanding of certain religious beliefs.  Sadly, however, the state of journalism has devolved as journalists themselves have grown increasingly ignorant of religion and religious traditions.  In a certain way this whole situation makes sense... writers must lean heavily on their own knowledge and experience.  In days past when newsrooms were filled with men (and a too few women) of various religious faiths, they could serve as informed and accurate sources of information.  Today, as newsrooms have gotten a lot smaller, and reporters less educated and experienced in religion, reporting has become, well, an intellectual embarrassment.  Nothing stirs the wrath of my pen more than when some article purports to tell me what Catholics believe when they have absolutely no idea what they're talking about, not only because they're not Catholic themselves, but they are relying on sources that are less reputable than others to "learn" what they need in order to prepare their reports.  It's one of the reasons I remind our catechumens and adult learners regularly to be wary of what the secular media reports when it comes to Catholicism.  There are any number of good Catholic news outlets available, in print and online, to get a more accurate, more nuanced report of current events in the Catholic realm.

Besides making use of Catholic media to better educate ourselves about our Catholic faith, we also need to broaden our knowledge and understanding of other faiths.  That starts by understanding how our Catholic tradition is unique among the worlds religions.  We Catholics take for granted that we have an established leadership and hierarchy.  No other major faith tradition in the world can point to one person and say this is our leader.  We take for granted the nature and the structure of the Magisterium and we tend to project that understanding onto other religious traditions when in reality no such continuity exists.  Religion is sectarian... with all variety of flavors and leaders all professing to be Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, etc.  Many would argue that Christianity is the same, with its many Protestant sects, but our Catholic experience tends to gloss over that fact.

The sectarian nature of religion isn't anything new.  In fact, it's as old as religion itself.  The Gospels themselves are rife with the conflicts between the various sects that make up the Sanhedrin.  Once we acknowledge this sectarian nature, we go back to the basic truths... those elements of the faith they all agree upon.  It's how we Christians approach all ecumenical discussions... start with what we share, and then work our way closer to those issues where we have disagreements.

Use credible sources.  Believe it or not, Wikipedia is probably one of the best places to start.  There are also any number of Catholic publishers that have material on comparative religion and other religious traditions.  St Mary's Press offers some good selections.  Our own offers a guide for Catholic educators on "understanding Islam."  In the secular press there's also a lot of reputable resources like the Idiot's Guide... series to help you learn more (the Idiot's Guide to Catholicism is a masterpiece).

So after all this, what is my point.  It's this:  We all need to be better informed.  Not only do we need to become more literate about our own Catholic faith, but we need to gain some understanding of world's other major faith traditions.  We need to leverage the many legitimate sources of information to become better acquainted with the world around us.  We need to find the courage to step outside of our personal comfort zones and be willing to learn something new.

Only when we open our minds can we truly open our hearts.


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