Shaping debate on religion in public life.

The Media Misunderstands Religion When It is Doesn’t Go Beyond Belief

9 Jun 2016

I’ve recently returned from a visit to Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, a town where preparations for the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation are bordering on frantic. I brought home with me a pair of famous Luther socks – “here I stand I can do no other”- their popular appeal second only to the Luther Playmobil figure, the fastest selling German toy of all time!

The Governmental office of Luther2017 responsible for the civic commemorations says it wants to “show the effects of the Reformation on art, culture, education, language, society and politics.” The word “religion” howls its absence. Partly that’s because – in a country with a self-conscious separation between Church and State –  the Government is wary of treading on Church toes. But it’s also because it wants this anniversary to mean something for people without a religious interest or vocabulary.

In a poll a few years ago Martin Luther emerged as the second greatest German of all time. Yet the theologians and pastors I met here told me that people’s knowledge about him is superficial at best. Wittenberg, a 40 minute train journey from Berlin, belonged to the former East Germany. Church membership here (measured according to payment of a church tax) stands at less than 15%. In the former West Germany it’s closer to 50%, although declining. According to Hans Kasch of the Lutheran World Federation, East Germany is the most secularised part of the world after North Korea and the Czech Republic. A generation grew up in a society where religion was not discussed and therefore, what we have come to call religious literacy is low, not just in that generation but in that of their children too.

When I got home, my blog feeds were all pointing me to recent research from Stephen Bullivant at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, showing that in England and Wales, people who identify as having no religion (known as Nones) now outnumber Christians. Not having a religious belief does not, of course, mean that people are religiously illiterate. There are also plenty of people confessing faith who manage to restrict their understanding to one particular cultural expression of religion. But it does mean that we have to pay attention to where people get their information and understanding of religion from.

We know that Europe is what sociologist Grace Davie calls “the exceptional case” and that the world beyond European borders is becoming more religious, not less. The movement of peoples across continents means that the religious complexion of Europe is changing too. Young people will be ill-equipped to function in the global community if they don’t understand the roles that faith plays in the lives of most of the world’s people.

The authors of Blind Spot – When Journalists Don’t Get Religion write persuasively about the critical role played by the media in informing people about religion, and the problems that occur when they fail to appreciate its impact in human, social and political affairs. Jenny Taylor, founder of Lapido Media, put the point dramatically to the newly formed All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on religious literacy in the media: “The West has become a menace to the whole world because of its secularist blinkers. The world is full of religion and we meddle with it at our peril.”

I remember my own steep learning curve after the events of 9/11, which stimulated a desire to learn about Islam and the reading of it that could possibly have lead the terrorists to act as they did. It wasn’t something my own journalist training had prepared me for ten years earlier. Any suggestion it might have done would have been met with incredulity. It can be fairly argued that a journalistic training which teaches the rigour of identifying the story, checking facts and sources and ensuring balance and impartiality means that students should be equipped to tell any story, whether religious or not. Acting on the suggestion put to the APPG that there should be a religious expert in every newsroom runs the risk that ignorance about religion can continue to be worn as a badge of honour by everyone else. Still, it’s worth noting that a couple of national newspapers which decided they could do without religion specialists a couple of years ago are now reemploying them.

The US has been ahead of the UK in developing religion courses for its journalism students, although a number of university and charitable bodies here are now doing so. A course at the University of Alaska Fairbanks requires its students to critique of a piece of religious journalism every week and find and report on their own religious stories. But before they do that, students simply have to spend time with people from places of worship or faith activities who they would not normally come across. It is one thing to have the head knowledge of the basic tenets of the world’s faiths (and of the variety of expressions and beliefs within them), but it is quite another to understand what that means in the lives of individual people. Along with clergy, religious educators, and Home Office staff assessing asylum claims, journalists can get hung up on what people believe, but it is more often the lived experience of faith that they will need to communicate to their audiences; and that is much harder to do.

You can’t “get” religion if you don’t get that. In the same way, you won’t begin to fathom Luther and all that followed if you don’t appreciate that his starting point was a burning existential question about how a person could get right with God and be saved.

Rosie Dawson is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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