Varieties of Religious Inexperience

Religious literacy is more than the catechism of the classroom.

A recent piece on Vox by a professor of religion, Alan Levinovitz, invites reply. Responding to conservative criticisms that culturally liberal people in media are religiously illiterate, he suggests instead that the shoe is on the other foot. Religious literacy, he argues, means knowing about more than just your own.

Every year I teach students who are surprised to learn that Jesus and Mary appear in the Quran; that Buddhism is historically descended from Hinduism; that virgin birth narratives and flood myths appear in many traditions; that believers in the same religion will exhibit dramatic variation in their beliefs and practices depending on historical and cultural context. Most have never thought to analyze religiosity using psychology or economics…the majority of my students — most of whom are white, Protestant Christians from Virginia and the East Coast — are familiar only with the thin slice of modern Christian religion they’ve been exposed to, and are often baffled by religious ways of life that differ from their own.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that people come to college explicitly to learn about things that are outside of their experience growing up, I will first concede that he is right about most people not knowing much about other religions. I too was dismayed (for different reasons than his) as a high school history teacher to learn that most of my Catholic students did not know they were also Christians.

But the point of conservative criticism of media which, I contend, is largely justified isn’t really about breadth but depth. Complaints about religious illiteracy stems from the fact that that media tends to be staffed by people who are not very religious. What conservatives actually want is someone who can speak intelligently from the perspective of commitment to a religion’s truth claim. This professor’s perspective tells us why there aren’t more of these: his running assumption is that growing up inside a religious tradition only makes one “blinkered” & “narrow.” For him, it would be much better for the nation’s children to be catechized in the classroom, as though one loses nothing by existing perpetually in the space between religious truth claims.

And lo, that is just where most in media/academia place themselves. There are shining exceptions. Sarah Pulliam Bailey at the Washington Post and Ruth Graham who has written for Slate and Time Magazine both attended Wheaton College. Elizabeth Bruenig and Ross Douthat are devout Catholics who are trusted to write editorials on economics and culture as well as religion. But in the main, the typical scribbler for a major media outlet may count herself a cultural member of a major faith tradition but her personal perspective is, at most, “spiritual but not religious.”

Levinovitz writes as though you are at a disadvantage if you encounter other faith traditions while also believing fervently in your own. But this isn’t true. The most fruitful and memorable conversations I have had with those outside my religion have always been with those who hold strongly to another faith, not educated seculars. When German missionaries were captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, they reported having much more fruitful and scintillating conversations with their captors than with their fellow German seculars back home. This is because, even though their faith traditions were alien to one another, they still shared the common experience of religious devotion and regular observance. Both the conservative Muslims and the conservative Christians lived shaped their lives in the light of a higher truth. Comparing religious experiences and facts from the “objective” safety of the classroom isn’t the same thing.

What if regular church, mosque, or temple attendance was seen as an important condition for achieving religious literacy instead of regular classroom attendance? What if agnostics spent as much time in church as believers are required to in the classroom? If that sounds like too tall an order, then major media outlets could at least ramp up their hiring for articulate believers (for more than just the religion beat) and college professors could treat their evangelical undergraduates as unformed and inexperienced, but still in possession of an important component of religious knowledge–devotion.

Levinovitz contends: “Religious illiteracy is not a liberal problem. It is a function of two key factors: insularity and lack of education.” I submit that this is primarily why religious illiteracy is a liberal problem. Too many liberals, especially those who work for major media outlets (and even a few college professors) are insular and narrow in their mentality and movements. They socialize primarily with those who also hold their loose, noncommittal attitude toward religious truth claims and observance. They are uneducated because they lack the practical education of regular observance and prayer.

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