Press: This is no time to lose religious understanding

05 April 2019

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I SUPPOSE that it is fitting that the Sunday Times report on the closure of theology departments and the loss of RE courses had itself rather obviously been cut down by the subs.

It read: “The number of first-year university students studying religion has fallen by a third over the past six years, according to research to be published this year.

“Several theology departments are closing or becoming smaller. The report, from the British Academy, reveals that there were about 6500 fewer students on theology and religious studies degree courses in 2017-18 than in 2011-12.”

This is an extraordinary loss, at a time when understanding religion, or at least the non-material and symbolic aspects of life, has never been more important, since so many people now see their own symbolic frames as both incontestable and under threat.

“Good disagreement” requires, first of all, the capacity to understand a conflict as a disagreement and not just a struggle for power. Religious conflicts are, of course, both, simultaneously; I think that this is true of all political conflicts, as well.

But, if I am right, what is needed is not a superficial understanding of all traditions, viewed from a neutral position, but for people to study their own tradition in depth, and to understand it as only one of the possible ways to be in the world.

Since most students today have as their default position some kind of secular humanism, that is the tradition whose scriptures, such as they are, they should be trying to understand in their historical context.

We are quite right to mock biblical and Qur’anic extremists for taking their own texts as timeless. But believers in the American constitution, or the modern human-rights regime, need to understand this about their own beliefs, as well.

This is not true just for instrumental reasons: I don’t think that a profound understanding of one’s own tradition makes it impossible to wage brutal war against the followers of another: Japanese history in the first half of the 20th century tends to suggest the opposite. But understanding your own tradition and its history is a good in itself, and education ought to be concerned with cultivating those for their own sake as well as all the other reasons.

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JUST how secular the world has got appeared from the annual Easter outrage story, which came early this year, and in an unusual form: the Advertising Standards Authority censured a sex shop for emailing out an advertisement for a device that would ensure “a res-erection”. One hopes no nails were involved. . .

YET still the religious aspects of life squish out like mud between the toes of secularity, in some of the oddest places.

The Guardian was running a series on health care, and David Harrison, an NHS chaplain, wrote about near-death experiences: “So many people have told me about seeing a dead relative as they were going for an operation or were close to death, and feeling reassured that things would be OK.

“Relatives have told me how the dying person behaved as if they could see someone else in the room. It wasn’t a look of fear, but of curiosity or even recognition and pleasure.

“I have met a lot of people who tell me they have seen angels. They generally have wings and quite often look like something from a Renaissance religious painting, but not always. The type of experience I have heard most often is the glimpse of an afterlife.”

These are not always comforting. “There can be delight and joy, light and a feeling of being loved, or there can be threat, darkness and deep malevolence.”

This makes them all the more convincing, to me at least: the new-age cult of Hallmark angels has them comforting everyone without exception; yet an afterlife in which no one has regrets or understands his or her own life as a vehicle for cruelty and waste seems to me no more than wish-fulfilment and sentimentality.

HELL certainly played a part in the conversion of Shamima Begum, the East End girl who ran away to join Islamic State at the age of 15, and was stripped of her British citizenship last month when she tried to come home with her newborn baby, who died, aged three weeks (News and Comment, 22 February). She told Anthony Lloyd of The Times: “At the time I was slightly depressed. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I wasn’t really connected with my family.

“I couldn’t speak about any problems I had, so it was easy to manipulate me, and the people online they were telling me, ‘oh your family don’t pray, they don’t listen to you, they won’t listen to you if you tell them to pray and start practising properly. They’ll take you to hellfire if you stay with them’. A lot of it was based on the fear of going to hellfire.”

Fear of hell has to count as one of the most ironic reasons possible for uprooting yourself to go and live in IS territory as the cult was being bombed out of existence.

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