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Press: Religious illiteracy in the media laid bare

06 August 2021


IT IS August, and there is no news; so I thought that I would look back at some of the things that there was no time to write about when they happened — in particular, the report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religion in the Media on religious literacy in the media, Learning to Listen, published in April. This was rather better than one might have hoped.

Religious illiteracy should be distinguished from religious ignorance. There is plenty of both around, and the group’s report picked up some wonderful examples of the ignorance: “A Daily Mail Online article [which] described Pentecost ‘as the entire 50 days of Passover’ and claimed that ‘Christ descended to earth in flames’. Similarly, an article on INews described how ‘Many Muslims take the time to fast as they would on Eid ul Fitr’.This contains a basic misunderstanding; it is forbidden to fast on Eid ul Fitr. The author appears to have confused Eid with Ramadan.”

Then there is the wider question of religious illiteracy, which is not just getting the facts about religious belief and practice wrong, but misunderstanding what they do, and what part they play in the lives both of individuals and societies. A borderline case was supplied by the example of Downton Abbey, a television serial so concerned to remove the taint of religion that the director of television considered renaming it to remove the word “Abbey”, according to the APPG’s report.

All these things are an example of the fundamental cause of religious illiteracy in the media, which is that religion is commonly understood as a thing that other people do. This is true, in general, in white British society, and in particular in the metropolitan media. The possible and partial exception is The Daily Telegraph, which takes a keen and sometimes well-informed interest in the Church of England. It is the last national paper to believe that a significant portion of its readership goes to church, or feels at least that it ought to.

Of course, religion is not unique in this. Every specialised subject, and all foreign coverage, is subject to the same distortions of ignorance and illiteracy. Politics is a partial exception, because a significant sliver of the readership — the people who give you the stories — are in a position to punish both vices. But otherwise, it is only sport, finance, and the “lifestyle”, or women’s sections, which are about what readers actually do, which don’t suffer from subject illiteracy.

If you object that religious questions matter to everyone, the obvious answer is that they don’t. “Religious” questions are, in today’s usage, those that don’t matter to anyone sane. This is a loss. The problems that religions attempt to solve in life, and the questions that they attempt to answer in philosophy, are those raised by the conditions of human life. No amount of progress could abolish them. But they are now understood in a framework of humanism — a word that appears only once in the report, and, at that, in a quote from my evidence to the APPG.

So, the kind of sacralised humanism that now fulfils most of the functions of the Established Church for the English middle classes simply isn’t treated or understood as a religious phenomenon. This is a huge failure of religious literacy, which the APPG entirely missed.


I APOLOGISE for returning to the story of the outing of Mgr Jeffrey Burrill, of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an article published on the RC news website The Pillar (Press, 30 July). But it is significant. A Substack article by Antonio García Martínez, a smart and well-informed veteran of the adtech industry, laid out the technical side in detail. This makes it clear that this was a sophisticated, expensive, and targeted operation. Outing Mgr Burrill was the aim from the beginning.

“Just about every time you load a web page on a browser, or click to a new experience inside an app, there’s code being run that sends your data to an ad exchange,” García Martínez writes.

“For every click of yours, picture a dense bundle of data going into the cloud and instantly duplicating into hundreds of copies to thousands of servers, each one accessing millions of rows of data to figure out who you are.”

This data is, of course, pseudonymised: it’s attached to a number, not a name. But it includes, crucially, information about your location and the program you’re using. As García Martínez goes on to say: “The real world is where digital anonymity goes to die.”

Given enough money and time, the hard part must have been fitting names to the identifying numbers. In a footnote, García Martínez suggests a truly diabolical technique to get round this. The attacker creates a dummy account on the gay dating app Grindr, with an attractive picture and the location set temptingly close to the target. Then, he himself swipes on the target’s profile. If there is a response, you have the ID, and can destroy him.

RC priests are uniquely vulnerable to an attack through Grindr. But they are not the only people hated to the point of derangement by their political opponents. Practically everyone in politics is. This may be another case where religion leads the world in the adoption of new technology.

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