Comment Comment and Features

How religious is ISIS?

A protester at a rally against ISIS organised by Muslims in Edinburgh (PA)

The failure of catechesis evident in the result of the Irish referendum is a symptom of a wider failure in the Western education system. Religious literacy is at a low ebb. Education in “spirituality”, while a useful corrective to a tendency towards utilitarianism verging on the Gradgrindian, does not fill the gap left by the ebb of faith in our society.

What Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism” is relativistic about everything except itself. It seeks to dissolve the organic fabric of established order and replace it with its own, appropriating Orwell’s insight that you cannot express things you do not have words for – which is why it tries so hard to change the language. A world in which a man can be a “mother” and priests can wonder whether the Holy Spirit is feminine, without asking what it then means to say that Our Lord was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, is one in which Christian anthropology has vanished from the public square.

The effects of this go wider than the Church. A state department or a Foreign Office full of political science graduates will tend to analyse things through certain lenses, which is why they will advise politicians to say of ISIS that it is not “Islamic”, and instead, use the language of terrorism and national security. This plays well to an agenda of not upsetting an abstraction called “Muslim opinion”, but is it true? We deal with terrorists, in part, by isolating their political demands and seeing what deal can be struck.

But if, as history suggests, ISIS shares many characteristics which inspired the initial Islamic conquests, its demands are not likely to be ones to which we can agree. If we do not understand this, and if we insist on a reductionist approach to religion, which sees it as an adjunct to secularist definitions of quality and inclusion, then, unable even to ask the right questions, we are unlikely to get close to the right answers.

Any attempt to do this is further hindered by other manifestations of this mindset. Not one of our national broadsheets any longer has a full-time religious affairs correspondent – the splendid Ruth Gledhill of The Times was the last of the breed. The Catholic Herald, The Spectator and Standpoint cannot, by themselves, dispel a religious illiteracy which is both embarrassing and dangerous.

Does the Church have a part to play here? Blessed John Henry Newman wrote that “the Gospel requires the reception of definite and positive Articles” and the reverent acceptance of the “doctrinal Truths which have come down to us”. It is even more the fashion of our age than it was of his to ignore this wisdom in favour of a vague belief in personal spirituality; recovery of his ideal is essential both to good catechesis and a wider religious literacy. The idea of a received truth, which cannot be changed at the whim of fashion or a majority, is at the heart of the faith once received – and of other faiths too. As Newman wrote: “Faith is a state of mind, it is a particular mode of thinking and acting, which is exercised, always indeed towards God, in very various ways.” This non-reductionist way of thinking about faith is one way in which the Church could help fill the gaps in our public discourse.

Catholics believe in the Church as a visible community of the faithful, one of the functions of which is to provide catechesis. Its failings here have long been a cause for concern, but there are encouraging signs at Maryvale in Birmingham, and elsewhere, including the new School of the Annunciation at Buckfast. With such initiatives, our bishops are setting a course towards better religious literacy from which both the faithful – and the wider society they inhabit – will benefit.

None of this is to say that only people of faith can understand other religious people, but it is to suggest that they can bring to the study of such things a language, and an understanding, not readily available from an education system which studies the many epiphenomena of religion without understanding the phenomenon itself.

Professor John Charmley is head of the Interdisciplinary Institute at the University of East Anglia, Norwich

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (3/7/15).

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