Bloomsbury Speech on the Importance of Religious Literacy


London Conference on the Benefits of Religious Education: Bloomsbury, November 6th 2014.

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When young people used to ask me what they needed to study if they were interested in entering political or public life I used to say that a grasp of economics and current affairs would serve them well. Read political biography, understand some basic concepts of philosophy, grapple with competing ideas and ideologies.

Today, I would unhesitatingly say that the first thing which you need to understand if you have an interest in politics or public life, is religion and theology.

Whether you survey the domestic or the international agenda, without a grasp of the ideas which underpin our Judaeo-Christian tradition, and without a knowledge of other faiths and of secular humanism, it is impossible to have a coherent view of geo-political issues or of the profound ethical and moral questions which constantly emerge on the legislative agenda. So, on a number of counts, those who try to relegate the importance of teaching about religion are simply wrong. Furthermore, religious illiteracy, especially amongst commentators, policy makers and those interested in conflict prevention, represents an extremely dangerous aberration. Governments simply cannot tackle the challenges and crises besetting the world with only a poor grasp of the religious dimension.

The problem is that although many are realising that religion does matter, very few actually understand how it matters and what positive and negative effects religion may have. Understanding the religious and faith dimensions of any single issue, region or country might be the difference between violence and peace, unity or division, success or failure.

It isn’t long ago that the death of religious belief and observance was widely predicted. The high priests of secularism prophesied that industrialization, science and technological progress would end all religious belief. Yet, the reality of the 21st century suggests something rather different.

The percentage of the world’s population claiming to follow Christianity, Islam or Hinduism has gone from 50% in 1900 to 64% in 2000. Look at today’s conflicts across Africa, the Middle East and Asia: religion is relevant.

On Tuesday I chaired the launch of a new document, detailing the rise of religious persecution. We were supported with a personal message from HRH the Prince of Wales.

Compiled by journalists, academics and commentators, the report reveals worrying concerns for people of faith in 116 of the world’s 196 countries (nearly 60 percent of all countries).

• global religious freedom has declined around the world in the last two years, including in western countries with a Christian heritage;
• religious freedom has changed in 61 countries but has improved in just six of them;
• in the remaining 55 that underwent change the situation of religious minorities deteriorated;
• “high” levels of religious persecution were discovered in 20 countries, with 14 linked to extremist Islam and six to authoritarian regimes;
• Christians remain by far the most persecuted minority, although Muslims and Jews in some countries are also facing discrimination and persecution.

The report indicates that many of those in authority – governments and religious leaders – have continually failed to stand up for religious freedom and hence Article 18 of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights has become an orphaned right.

Serial human rights abuses – from the threat of massacres in the Middle East and discrimination in the workplace in Western countries – are the direct result of religious freedom violations.

The report also notes other trends, including:

• The rise of religious intolerance and “aggressive atheism” in Western Europe.
• Large population displacements due to religious persecution, especially in the Middle East.

• A growing “religious illiteracy” among Western policy makes, leading to misunderstandings in foreign policy areas.

• A worrying growth of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe

• Even as the report was being launched we learnt of a young Christian couple who were burnt alive in Pakistan – a country which has sentenced a Christian woman, Asia Bibbi, to death on so called charges of blasphemy. We think of the 200 abducted school girls in Nigeria, some raped, some forced to marry, some forced to convert, or the gulags of North Korea, where 200,000 people are incarcerated, many for their religious beliefs.

On the positive side, the report found a number of examples of religious co-operation; however these were often the result of local initiatives rather than progress at the level of national governments.

But if we need to understand the role of faith – from Syria and Gaza to Nigeria and North Korea, from its impact in mid-term elections in the United States to its role in all the events which have flowed from the Arab Spring – we also need to understand the role of faith in shaping attitudes, values, and the legislation which flows form it.

Take this week in Parliament.

Tomorrow in the House of Lords we will reach the Committee Stage of the Falconer Bill on Assisted Dying/Euthanasia.

The question which politicians are wrestling with is “Is it possible to allow assisted suicide for a determined few, without putting much larger numbers of others at risk?” The Guardian newspaper said that the Bill,

“would create a new moral landscape. It is also, potentially, open to abuse”.

It concluded:
“Reshaping the moral landscape is no alternative to cherishing life and the living”.

The Daily Telegraph said:
“The more assisted dying is discussed, the more its risks will become apparent”.

Politicians have to navigate between principles and popular opinion. For instance a poll recently published by ComRes showed that support for assisted suicide has been at 73%, but as soon as the question is asked, “Would you support it if it jeopardized public safety?” that falls to 43%, which, of course, means that it is entirely evenly matched on both sides. As we know, the actual questions that are asked in those polls are the issue. Prudential judgement is required by Parliament; and how do you exercise prudential judgement if you have not been given any formation.

As a young Member of the House of Commons I was constantly told that I ought to support, on the basis of polling evidence, legislation against immigrants, to leave the European Union, and to reintroduce capital punishment, none of which I supported, because prudential judgement is ultimately more important than polls. That was what Mark Studdock famously learnt in C.S.Lewis’ novel, “That Hideous Strength.”
Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, on Tuesday, MPs debated whether it should be legal to permit the abortion of little girls on the basis of their gender.

Of course, if you accept the proposition that “it is my right to choose” there is no logical reason why you shouldn’t end the life of a little girl merely because she is a girl.
Gendercide is perfectly acceptable if choice trumps the very right to life itself.

That the three celebratory words “it’s a girl” have become a death sentence, and the three most lethal and dangerous words in the world, is neither here nor there.

If it’s just down to choice and, in time, a test is discovered which reveals our likely sexual orientation, why not abort for that too?

Is it just a matter of choice to take the life of a baby because it is mixed race or will be a colour which you don’t care for? It is, after all legal, to abort for “social grounds” (under which 98% of all abortions are done) and on grounds of “imperfection” – we end the lives of 90% of all babies with Down’s Syndrome and have aborted for things like cleft palate.

In wrestling with these complex ethical issues, Whether it’s the right to life; the use of capital punishment; the decision to go to war; the balance to be struck between national interests and international obligations; the priortising of resources; the treatment of the poor; the pursuit of justice and fairness; the responsibility to be good stewards of that with which have been entrusted; religious literacy is a sine qua non, a given.

Some people say that religion should be a purely private affair but, for instance, anyone who knows the story of William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade, knows that it was Christian ideals, and men and women formed in the Christian faith, which led to this, the first human rights campaign in our parliamentary history – led by William Wilberforce.

Religious faith can bring great benefits to society in so many respects.

I conclude by reflecting briefly on the blessings which I have received through the teachers who helped to form my own beliefs.

Last year I attended a celebration marking the half century of the existence of the Catholic grammar school where I was educated; and this year I spoke at the 50th anniversary of the College in Liverpool where I trained to teach and where I combined the study of history with the study of divinity – also obtaining the necessary qualification to teach religion..
As you walk through the door of my school fifty years later you still experience the same sense of community and the same commitment to providing a first class education for children from many diverse backgrounds which was there at its inception.
In common with many of my classmates I came off a council estate, my family having been rehoused from the East End. Mother was an Irish immigrant, my father a factory worker. It was a mixed marriage and no-one, from either side of the family, had ever entered higher education.
My own parents left school at 14 and came from backgrounds of acute poverty – but both knew the importance of a positive approach to learning at home; to encouraging the education of their children; to improving their own qualifications; and that, despite the vicissitudes of living in poor housing and in a flat on an overspill council estate, money alone was not the key to transforming the life chances of the next generation. I saw this same trump card used by many families in the inner city neighbourhoods of Liverpool that I represented for 25 years as a City Councillor or Member of Parliament.
My excellent primary school education was provided by Sisters of Mercy and along with all the rudiments of elementary education I was taught the basics of the Christian faith. Parochial life and school life were completely interwoven – and whether it was May or Corpus Christi Processions, preparing for first holy Communion or Confirmation, helping at church bazaars, joining the parish cub and scout packs, serving Sunday Mass, or raising money for children in the Congo, it was all part of the web and weave of that identity and culture.
We talk about the 3 Rs of reading writing and arithmetic, but for me the 4th R – of religious formation was more important than the other three combined.
As a nervous scholarship boy arriving for his first day in the first year of a brand new school planted by the Jesuits on the edge of east London and named for St. Edmund Campion – and confronted with subjects and discipline, mud, rugby and sport, in few of which I excelled – the school’s religious ethos provided the scaffold for my life – and, one day, for my death.
It was a Benedictine monk who offered the wry observation that, in the end, the real purpose of a Christian education is about teaching a person how to face death.
But, meanwhile, in facing life, the belief that every pupil is loved by God – even if they have been wounded by rejection or broken relationships; the cultivation of a respect for authority and ideals; the knowledge that when you fall short or make mistakes, it’s not the end – these should lie at the heart of faith based education.
We can take our cue from Thomas a Kempis who told us to put our love into action, not to throw in the towel at the first obstacle, but to persist in what we do: “At the Day of Judgment we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done…..Those who love stay awake when duty calls, wake up from sleep when someone needs help; those who love keep burning, no matter what, like a lighted torch. Those who love take on anything, complete goals, bring plans to fruition … But those who do not love faint and lie down on the job.”
Christian education must not deliver Gradgrind facts about History and English, Geography and Science with a bolt-on called religious study. The rich Christian seam must run through the whole curriculum, informing the whole spirit of teaching and subject, combining fides et ratio – faith and reason. Christianity is not about irrationality and as faith needs reason, so reason needs faith.

CS Lewis was right when he warned against educators become conditioners. In “The Abolition of Man” he rails against educators who have become “the conditioners” because they “make men without chests.” In a characteristically blunt turn of phrase he says that we treat our children like “geldings. We bid them be fruitful only to neuter them.” Lewis goes on to remark that “The task of modern education is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.”.” Lewis was right and we must be vigilant in guarding guard against the conditioners and the men without chests.

So, beyond the SATs and Contextual Added Value scores lies a more profound reason for wanting a Christian education for your children – it is the desire to know God, to know the man made in His image, to know how to live and how to die. We must always educate for our relationships with one another, with God and for the never ending struggle between vice and virtue.

Secular rationality and religious belief need one another and they must temper and civilise one another.

This creates the unity of life.

It is where the transcendent meets man. The challenge is to restore to the educational process the unity which saves it from dispersion amid the meandering of knowledge and acquired facts, and focuses on the human person in his or her integral, transcendent, historical identity. It’s where the Mystery of the Word made flesh and the mystery of man, his purpose and destiny, become clear.

Let me end by reminding you of the context in which religious education is taking place today.

According to the Children’s Society, 100,000 children run away from home every year. Save the Children says that 3.9 million children are living in poverty and that a staggering 1.7 million children are living in severe, persistent poverty in the UK-which is, after all, one of the richest countries in the world. Every day 4,000 children call Childline. Since it was founded in 1986, it has counselled more than a million children. 800,000 children have no contact with their fathers.

In 2005, Professor Mary Ann Glendon coined the pithy phrase ‘Traditions in Turmoil’ as the title for her analysis of the jettisoning of the ties which bind and the abandonment of duties. Consider for a moment the consequences of discarding values and virtues once taught by parents and re-enforced by educationalist and by civil society.
A faithless society has become an atomised, lonely, and selfish society; a faithless society has become a culturally diminished society; a faithless society has become a fatherless society and a broken family society. What has been done in the name of freedom has created a world of CCTV cameras; to high streets which have become no go areas after dark; and to binge drinking and shelves full of anti-depressants.

In 2006 a report by University College, London stated that ‘The UK has the worst problem with anti-social behaviour in Europe’. It has increasingly felt like a world rapidly going to hell in a basket. Are we truly freer or happier?

The Jewish sage Hillel was right when he said: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

Are we only for ourselves? Do we find the face of God in each person we encounter; do we believe in the sanctity of each God-given life?

In 1830, Alex De Tocqueville visited America and he remarked that this highly motivated and successful society was animated by its religious belief and character. Without religion you can have a Big State but not a Big Society.
Without vibrant faith communities and the transmission of religious faith I doubt that you can have a functioning society at all.

Thank you for inviting me to address you conference.  Religious literacy and religious education has a huge role to play in forming tomorrow’s citizens and in combatting the tide of religious intolerance which we face in confronting the world today.

David Alton - 2014

David Alton – 2014