(Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What does “religious literacy” mean for free speech?

The APPG on Religion in the Media’s report into “religious literacy” in the media is deeply flawed in its understanding of Islam in particular

One of the most curious and least noticed features of the last decade in British politics has been the proliferation of All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG). We are all familiar with the change in the role and importance of Select Committees over the last few decades. Freed from many of the shackles of government patronage, they have become fearsome inquisitorial bodies that discomfit both ministers and officials and hold them to account in a way the House of Commons even in full session usually cannot.

I’m not confident the report’s authors are as religiously literate as they might like to believe

Not to be outdone, the less formally constituted APPGs now also compete to hold hearings, invite submissions, summon witnesses, write reports and generally act as an alternative stage on which ambitious and issue-driven MPs can posture and attract attention. This is not an entirely benign development. Anyone who has followed Policy Exchange’s work over the last three years will already know of our profound concern with one of these APPGs, namely that on British Muslims, and its attempt to produce a dangerously wide definition of Islamophobia that would almost certainly have chilled free debate.

Last month the APPG on Religion in the Media decided to issue its own report on another topic intimately related to freedom of speech. Entitled Learning to Listen, it is billed as an “Inquiry into Religious Literacy in Print and Broadcast Media”.

I am all in favour of religious literacy – in the media and elsewhere. I spent too many years in the Middle East and South East Asia seeing my own faith misunderstood, caricatured and insulted to have any doubts about the importance or difficulty of the issue. But I’m not sure this report has the answers. To start with, I’m not confident that its authors are themselves as religiously literate as they might like to believe.

Their main focus seems to be Islam, which a rough wordcount reveals is mentioned in its various forms around four times as often as Judaism or Christianity. Yet their brief and dismissive discussion of the highly contested concepts of “jihad” and “tawhid” (on pages 30 and 78 respectively) suggests either credulity or ignorance about the interpretations of different jurisprudential, theological and doctrinal schools within Islam, the instrumentalization of both ideas by radical Islamist movements and the vast amount of modern scholarship in Arabic, English, French, German and doubtless other languages which would have helped them critically examine and contextualise the evidence.

Literacy does not necessarily entail recognition or respect

The authors of the report also seem to be vague about the meaning of “balance” and “fairness”. They use both words from time to time in order to gesture towards some ideal state of affairs which they hope to promote, without defining any ground for deciding where such balance and fairness lie. They talk about the importance of the press finding “the best representative” of a faith group rather than “the most controversial”. But who is to judge? A spokesman for the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Ayatollah Khamenei or the Muslim Brotherhood will probably each believe himself to be the best representative. Do we take them at face value or make further enquiries? If the latter, who might best do so and with whom?

The report recommends that communities and groups should have a collective and third-party right to complain. IPSO has been under pressure on this point for quite some time. But how are these “communities” and “groups” supposed to be constituted? And who represents them – those who shout loudest or those of whom we most approve? In the case of Islam, is it the MCB, MEND, CAGE, the influential Jordanian jihadi scholar, Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Ayatollah Khamenei, President Erdogan, Al Azhar, the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars, the OIC, or Sunni and Shia critics of Islamist extremism in Europe and beyond such as Ed Husain, Maajid Nawaz, Ahmad Mansour, Mohammad Arkoun, Hakim el Karoui, Abdolkarim Soroush or Saïda Keller-Messahli?

Is it the supporters of Pope Francis who speak for the Catholic Church or his opponents? Is Judaism Orthodox or Reform, Haredi, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, the Board of Deputies or Jewish Voice for Labour? Is the authentic voice of Anglicanism the Archbishop of Canterbury, the General Synod, US Episcopalians or the African bishops? Is Buddhism Mahayana or Theravada? Is Hinduism defined by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or by the austere and ascetic scholars of the Vedas?

As matters stand, if an individual wishes to complain about discriminatory reporting or bigoted misrepresentation in an IPSO-affiliated publication, then he or she already has a guaranteed right of redress under the Editors’ Code. Making that right collective would simply give campaigners and activists an incentive to flood newsrooms and editors with complaints not on their own behalf but on that of others whom they claim to represent. And this raises a further question: in what sense can groups or communities claim to have the same or similar “lived experience” (a favourite and insidious phrase of the report’s authors) as individuals? If they can, then it follows that some sort of undifferentiated group subjectivity must exist and can be securely identified, located and have rights in law. Have the APPG really thought this through?

There is a final problem. Following an earlier suggestion that religion should be “recognised as a legitimate source of knowledge and teaching”, on page 87 the authors write: “In practice, we think that religious literacy also incorporates respect for religion and belief as a valid source of guidance and knowledge to the majority of the world’s inhabitants.”

Are atheist critics to be re-educated or cancelled simply because they refuse to concede the truth claims of religion?

First, this smuggles into a definition of religious literacy something else entirely: the idea of deference. Some religious and anti-religious polemicists are indeed objectionable: I can think of many from my own experience in the Islamic world. But literacy does not necessarily entail recognition or respect. If it did, then most of the Early Church Fathers would be cancelled. So would serious modern critics of Islamic historiography or Christian hagiography, other often equally scholarly polemicists of all other religions and none, and many ordinary believers. Are atheist critics of religious belief, Richard Dawkins and others (who themselves deserve religious literacy), also to be re-educated or cancelled simply because they refuse to concede the truth claims of religion?

More disturbing is the claim about knowledge. I have no problem with religion providing guidance, teaching or comfort, hope and indeed meaning. As we know from the formative socio-anthropological work of Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Erwin Rohde, Jane Harrison, Rudolf Otto, Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, Ernest Gellner and others, religion has given fundamental form to all human societies. It has been a guarantor of morality and a shaper of ends, even for those suspicious of its claims. Nietzsche, after all, was the son of a Lutheran pastor. Heidegger trained as a theologian and briefly as a Jesuit. Wittgenstein had his mystical moments. Even Dawkins recognises the cultural significance of Anglicanism.

But knowledge is another matter entirely. You would never guess from this report that the problem of knowledge has been one of the central concerns of Western and other philosophical traditions for two and a half millennia. Heraclitus thought knowledge mapped the mutability of the world. Plato distinguished between opinion, belief and true understanding and deduced knowledge from ideal forms. Aristotle proposed induction as a better starting point. Descartes sought a foundation for knowledge in subjectivity. David Hume kicked that crutch away. In response, Immanuel Kant defined the task of philosophy in three questions (what can I know, what should I do and what can I hope?), corresponding to epistemology, deontology and teleology. He distinguished between reality and concept, what we perceive and how we make sense of it, a priori and a posteriori, analytic and synthetic propositions. Hegel linked knowledge to the dialectic. Marx made it an emanation of the material.

Wittgenstein famously wrote, “Of that which we cannot speak, we must remain silent” – meaning not that nothing but facts constitute true knowledge but that some matters we might hold true or claim to know are not capable of being known or expressed in the same way as factual propositions. Foreshadowing Wittgenstein from his study on the Hagley Road, Cardinal Newman in his Grammar of Assent proposed an “illative sense” in humans which lead them to affirm certain beliefs that are not directly derived from cognition, otherwise testable or capable of rational exegesis.

This is alien to the post-Enlightenment world of privatised religion

In all of this we see a distinction between those matters which can be tested for cognitive and functional validity and those which cannot. We tend to call the former “knowledge” and the latter “opinion”, “belief” or “faith”. I am a Catholic, raised and educated in Newman’s shadow in Birmingham. When I pay suitably devout attention to a hymn such as “I know that my Redeemer liveth” or recite the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed at Mass, I am assenting to certain untestable propositions. I am not claiming that I know them in the way I know that I have a headache, Harry Kane — for the moment at least — plays for Spurs, France lies across the Channel or E=mc2.

Yet here we have the APPG on Religion in the Media apparently telling us that the truths certain religions claim to hold or generate constitute “knowledge” and that this assertion needs to be backed with regulation. Once we go down that path and make the absolute truth claims of any religion — particularly those rooted in revelation and with strongly contested views about the proper conduct of all human life — equal to the provisional truth claims of science or the rational decision making of political communities, then we are in trouble.

Not only are we privileging the “lived experience” of individual believers, something that can lead only to epistemological aporia and more social division, we are also suggesting that any truths they might claim to hold or derive from their faith are rival and equal to those that by experiment and negotiation actually make the modern world work and human society bearable. And this just adds to the risk that we shall seek to avoid any judgement at all when passionate believers tell us that their interpretation of a particular faith is beyond criticism.

Once we take that step, it is only a short distance to accepting that we should allow them to do everything that their faith commands not simply as a matter of private devotion or practice but as public policy. This is alien not just to the post-Enlightenment world of privatised and socially differentiated religion but to a far longer tradition within Europe — and indeed within historic Islamic polities — of separate spheres for religion and statecraft and the autonomy of secular intellectual enquiry.

Sir John Jenkins is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover