How to write about Religion

Written evidence to the APPG on religion and the media

This is the written evidence I submitted to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religion in answer to a questionnaire they sent me [which I will also post some time.


APPG submission on religious literacy

I write in a personal capacity. My name is Andrew Brown; I have been a journalist covering religion for most of the last thirty years, first for the Independent where I was Religious Affairs correspondent for 10 years (and won the Templeton Journalism prize as the best religious correspondent in Europe) later for the Guardian, where I was a leader writer and started and edited the CiF Belief site; I have written a regular column on press coverage of religion for the Church Times since 1996. In these years I have thought a great deal about the shifting nature of religious literacy in contemporary Britain and the structural difficulties of promoting it within the media.

The great change in my professional lifetime has been in the understanding of “religion”. At the beginning of the period, some form of Christianity, however vague, was still understood as a natural or constituent part of Englishness, with which most of the readers would have a familiarity. On the broadsheets, you could expect people to recognise bible stories or echoes of prayer book language. But today “Religion” is by and large understood as something that other people do and cultural allusions to religious terms or practices have to be spelled out explicitly. This applies to Islam, obviously, but I think it is also true of Christianity. “Religion”, in the phrase of my friend and collaborator Professor Linda Woodhead (with whom I wrote a book on the collapse of the Church of England, That was the Church, that Was) “has become a toxic brand”.

In consequence, what’s meant by religious literacy has also changed a great deal. The tendency for religious professionals is to define it much as the RE syllabus approaches the subject – as a collection of different belief systems, which can be abstracted and taught as philosophical or pseudo-scientific explanations of life. But this entirely misses the way that religion is actually lived. What keeps religions alive is not conscious and articulate beliefs, but shared, only partially conscious, assumptions, collective practices and common stories. The religious believer or participant is not a wholly autonomous consumer, choosing freely among available identities, but someone who finds their choices are always constrained by their birth or their upbringing.

Some examples may illustrate what I mean. The first, which I owe to Eileen Barker at the LSE, is that the difference between a “religion” and a “cult” is not that the doctrines are different, but that the relationship of those doctrines to the surrounding society has changed. If you worship cows in Varanasi, you are a respectable member of society. If you do so in Hertfordshire, you are a Hare Krishna cultist.

The second was a remark made by a Muslim colleague about the workings of Sharia law, during one of the periodic panics on the subject. The question people asked, she said, was not “what does the Imam say?”, but “How does our family do this?” – even if the answers were usually the same. The point being that these structures were kept alive not by edicts from the pulpit, but by their lived observance within extended families. It wasn’t the jurisdiction of some tribunal that mattered so much as the opinion of the grannies.

Finally, there is the point made forcefully by two such different thinkers as Tom Holland and John Gray, that the assumptions of our present conventional humanism that human rights are real and important, or that inequality is a self-evident wrong, are just that – assumptions – and that they are entirely dependent on a Christian past and on an understanding of human nature derived from the Abrahamic religions.

Nihilistic fascism is always an alternative religious stance.

The failure to recognise that we ourselves live inside large mythic patterns stops us from understanding or even seeing the patterns that other people live inside, too.

From this conception of what religion is, or how it works, the answers to your next three questions flow naturally

2) the lack of religious literacy prevents both broadcast and print media from understanding both the explicitly “religious” minority faiths – and in this Christianity should now be included as well – and the kind of generalised humanist agnosticism which does most of the work of religion for the majority. The narrow conception of religion as propositional belief about essentially unknowable and unscientific questions blinds us both to the ways in which religion is actually lived and from seeing how much of the work that religion does in “religious” societies is done by other social forms and collective beliefs in our, secular, age.

3) Religious literacy is learnt like any other language, by relating its concepts to those we already have. This takes place in families, in schools, and in peer groups. But it is schools and to some extent families which can teach people to recognise and to examine their own values and assumptions. This is the prerequisite for recognising and respecting them in others.

4) Religious illiteracy is all-pervasive in the media. This is especially true at the decision-making level between editors and reporters: the newsdesks and commissioning editors who make the day to day decisions about what is or is not a story. I can’t speak to the culture of the broadcast media but on all the newspapers I have worked for religious coverage has been ghettoised, and when religious differences have led to open conflict, the story has been treated as a political one, for political specialists to deal with. To put it another way, the religion reporter gets to cover the General Synod, whose deliberations affect practically no one, but faith schools, whose workings matter to millions of parents, are covered by the education correspondent.

At the level of individual journalists there is or can be quite a lot of religious literacy. I have done a fair bit of science reporting and I know that the degree and distribution of scientific literacy and illiteracy among journalists is no better than that of religious literacy and illiteracy. Very few religious journalists are practising, but very few science journalists have worked as scientists, even to doctoral level, either. The difference is that newsdesks believe that scientific authority exists, and that its pronouncements matter. They don’t think this about religion. They think science deals with truth and facts and that religion doesn’t.

5) I don’t think that covering faith groups sensitively is essentially different from covering any other groups that way. Our trade notoriously reflects and amplifies popular prejudices. “How do you cover Muslims sensitively?” is a question similar to “How do you cover Germans sensitively?” and just as difficult for the press to answer. You need to recognise the diversities and class differences within any faith label. You need to listen to people and have conversations with them, not just quote extraction. You need a genuine interest in the story and the people for their own sakes. None of this is easy, especially in today’s ever more pressurised media environment. But there are few shortcuts. You try to avoid stereotypes, but need to recognise that completely ignoring or treating as unspeakable the half-truths behind most stereotypes is a self-defeating strategy, especially in the age of social media.

It’s very much easier to find bad examples here than good ones. The experience of the Swedish mainstream media, which for years felt it was its patriotic duty to downplay or ignore any stories about immigrant criminality, is a terrible example here. The result was that the nationalist and xenophobic Sweden Democrat party was able to exploit the resulting credibility gap and is now one of the largest parties in the country.

A similar dynamic played out in this country over the Rotherham child abuse scandal, and the same reporter’s later, disgraceful mishandling of a child custody case in Tower Hamlets. Had it not been widely believed – and with good evidence – that there was a conspiracy of silence in Rotherham and similar places, I don’t think anyone would have been fooled for a minute by the Tower Hamlets story.

It is absolutely essential to print stories which reflect badly on faith communities, and indeed on secular ones. But that’s also where we need to pay attention to the diversity of voices within faith communities and not just between them. Just as the strongest voices criticising child abuse scandals within the Christian churches have been members of those same churches, so have some of the strongest voices in the Rotherham scandal been Muslim ones. The media presence of Nazir Afzal, the Muslim prosecutor, is worth any number of pious opinion pieces pointing out that most Muslims abhor this behaviour.

In a related way, no bishop has done half as much damage to the reputation of atheism as Richard Dawkins has managed in the last few years.

6) I suspect that the answer to this question is to spoon feed them. What non-journalists, and especially faith groups, can do is above all to supply people to talk to. Most of this work needs be done at local level. If any local papers survive the pandemic, they will be desperate for stories, and faith groups should make it their business to supply stories of all the ways they are making things better for their local communities. On a national level, from a Christian perspective, the most successful communicators have been slightly eccentric “Vicar” figures like Richard Coles and Kate Bottley who show faith as fitting into an acceptably human pattern of strangeness. The nearest Muslim equivalents would be sporting figures sportsmen like Mo Salah in Liverpool.

7) I think it has slightly improved. I would like to believe that the Guardian’s CiF Belief site had something to do with this; at any rate we attempted to provide a place for grownup discussions of religions in the national media at a time when there was nothing similar. Until about 2000, the standard of religious literacy, at least about Christianity, was maintained by the generation which then ran the media, and had been brought up in a cultural background where Christianity was salient. They faded. The nadir was the early part of this century when Richard Dawkins was taken seriously as an authority on religion. But there is in general greater understanding of the importance of religions in the world, and a greater sense, perhaps, that they can be positive as well as negative factors in society.

8)

  1. I have no idea what universities can do except more generally to deepen the philosophical background to what are otherwise very vocational studies. The problem is not so much that there are too few theology or religious studies graduates, though that may also be the case: it’s that these subjects are considered niche and unimportant.

  2. Journalists can just do their jobs better, but see what I also said above

  3. Publishers live in a market. You can’t expect them to publish books for which there is no demand. They might, however, look out for books that – at least to some extent – detoxified “religion” as a brand by showing how it grows from the essentials of human life.

  4. Broadcasters could help by showing faith lives as as much a part of common human experience as sex lives. “What are your values? What do you care about, and why?”, are questions to bear in mind, if not to ask, about everyone who appears in the media.

  5. I am very wary of regulators applying special standards of accuracy or even offensiveness to religion that they would not to any other field of life. But to unpack all that would take more space and time and thought.

9) I have no idea. Seriously. There are already laws restricting the incitement to religious hatred. It’s not at all clear how the apparatus of the state could go further, or even that it should.