Should we be better informed about religion?

Things is afoot with my real life, so this is going to be a short update.  But last week, Bill Keller of the New York Times suggested ‘tougher’ questions to ask candidates, in particular the wide field of current potential GOP candidates, about their religion.  Ed Morrissey of the blog Hot Air was then driven to ask why is the media so ignorant about religion?

I promise this blog is not going to become political – indeed, with the presidential campaign gearing up, I’m going to try very hard to avoid politics, which is going to be hard because I really like politics.  But that’s not why I have this thing.  I have this thing because I’m easily entertained.  And also because I really like religion.  Which is what makes Ed Morrissey’s question a bit strange for me – as someone who has spent nearly a decade studying religions, I think most people are ignorant about religion.  I’ve known many people who had taught themselves about religion, both their own and others, but those people are easily in the minority.  Indeed, this is a large part of why I started this here blog[1].

But I find it interesting that the articles by Morrissey and Keller, if taken together, demonstrate pretty well the two sides of being well-educated or well-informed about religion.  Morrissey is asking for individuals, specifically those in media, to be better informed about the history and nature of other peoples’ religions; Keller is asking individuals how well informed they are about the history and traditions of their own religion.

I’ve said before that I honestly do think people should learn about religion in school, and not just because it would give me and my friends something to do.  But it will always be the case that it’s easier to talk about other peoples’ religions, because you don’t run the risk of being contradicted.

The problem is that, as scholars, we need definitions, preferably consistent ones.  We set up limitations and demarcate divisions between religious traditions based on their doctrines, traditions and history.  But those aren’t necessarily the reasons people participate in religious traditions – they might be, but they also participate in religious traditions because of their sense of community, the experience of their rituals, family connections, or just because it feels right to them.  As scholars, we find it difficult to calculate or catalog those kinds of experiences, but that doesn’t make them any less valid or important.

But that means that Keller and Morrissey are talking about two different things.  Keller and other members of the media could all get PhDs in religious studies to satisfy Morrissey’s request, but they would still have questions about how individual public officials understand and practice their own religion, as those things can vary tremendously from person to person, even within a single congregation.

[1] I’m probably moving back in Arizona in a month, so I feel I should get used to saying ‘this here’.  Also ‘howdy’ and ‘yehaw’.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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2 Responses to Should we be better informed about religion?

  1. ataralas says:

    I’m also on the side of more education about the history and beliefs of religion, especially since I find it impossible to understand the history of…pretty much anything, without an understanding of the contextual religious beliefs (among, of course, other things). Not to mention art, literature, and so on.

    But even more, I think there needs to be a better public understanding of how we are all biased by our experiences and how that relates to religion—no one comes in bias-neutral to a discussion about religion. No one. I think that needs to be the starting place.

    • I definitely agree – it certainly seems relevant for the current discussion of whether atheism should be treated as a religious community or not, as well. Our conception of religion does tend to be shaped by Christianity, and Western post-Reformation Christianity, at that.

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