The BBC must lead the effort against religious illiteracy

Religion continues to shape our world but most media fail to take it seriously. Public service broadcasters must confront this head-on, says the BBC’s Head of Religion. 

Aaqil Ahmed
28 January 2016

'Fly free - the multi-ethnic man', Lassi Kurkijarvi

There was a time when religion was everywhere in the media, when broadcasters had Heads of Religion and newspapers religious correspondents a plenty. Now I’m a weird anomaly, a Head of Religion in a time when everyone else has turned their backs on a subject defined by many as a Cinderella genre.

Typical BBC doing something out of step and time with the rest of the media landscape. Well yes and no. Yes, typical BBC to understand something is important and no, this is no luxury position but one that is more relevant than ever.

We live in a time and in a continent often referred to as ‘post-Christian Europe’, a period and place were religion is a spent force and irrelevant. Well… not quite. Europe may seemingly have moved on from traditional religion but the rest of the world hasn’t and right now across Britain and Europe people from across the world are living amongst us to whom religion is still important.

In Britain we have over 800,000 Hindus and 5% of the population is Muslim. It’s not even that though. Whilst traditional Christianity may be in decline Catholicism and Pentecostal Christianity are growing due to immigration. This pattern, taken alongside low birth rates amongst traditional European communities, suggests that the percentage of people with faith is going to grow. By 2050 it’s suggested that 40% of Britain’s population will have some form of ethnic minority or migrant background.

Throw into this demographic shift the issues we see around us, from Daesh to freedom of speech, to religious intolerance and extremism: why would anyone think religion isn’t a genre we need to get right?

Not a luxury

Almost a century of 'post-Christian Europe' and decades of drift into secularism have created a society with poor religious literacy. Whilst this may not have mattered in the past it certainly does now.

Across all groups in society very few people know about each other’s beliefs, values and customs. Into this vacuum it’s possible to say anything and for prejudice to kick in. Given what a lack of religious literacy in a time of demographic change could mean, it is vital that we get this subject right today and plan for the future.

Changes to Songs of Praise have made it a multidenominational weekly, reflecting the changes within Christianity in the UK. This was seen recently in its visit to the notorious migrant camp ‘The Jungle’ in Calais. Religious literacy is so poor that many didn’t understand why Songs of Praise would be there, but compassion for the vulnerable is at the core of Christianity.

Documentaries such as 'The Life of Muhammad', 'The Kumbh Mela', 'The Story of the Jews', 'Sacred Wonders of Britain' and 'How God Made the English' tell us much about the beliefs of the many tribes of modern Britain.

Part of the BBC’s strategy in this area for the past few years has been to create a back-catalogue of programming that will enable us to take the viewer and listener on a journey to understand the beliefs of their fellow citizens at whatever level they want. We could only have done this before with Christianity, but now through films such as 'The Story of Diwali', 'The Passover Meal', 'Britain’s Muslim Soldiers', 'Chinese Near Year' and 'The Turban' to name a few, that is changing.

The strategy on religion is to mark key calendar moments across religions; explore, examine and question faith and the actions of believers and to address that lack of religious literacy in society. It’s a privilege to have such a strategy in place at the BBC, particularly when many media outlets seem to be ignoring or downgrading religious subjects. It’s not, however, a luxury and as silly as this may sound today to some, understanding religion will become more important in the future. It is, in some senses, a more essential genre than others. 

Holding its nerve

I came to religion and ethics from current affairs to help make sense of the world post 9/11. Since then we have seen religion and people who claim to be religious impact on our lives from additional security, terrorism, war and attacks on freedom of speech.

But that’s not the only story. From delivering aid to refugees, to chaplains on children’s hospital wards through to meditation in prisons and schools - religion and belief also enriches the lives of many. It’s a source of joy and comfort for believers and touches the lives of many with faith and those with none.

Religion is not dead and despite decades where for many it became irrelevant it's now firmly back in the public space. The BBC is the last game in town in this area and we should all appreciate it holding its nerve where rivals have walked away. 

The business and social cohesion case is in front of us all. Now though it’s all about ensuring that a future where religiosity grows is met by a modern media outlet that can help answer what will become a defining issue of our lives: living with religion in a culturally diverse society with poor levels of religious literacy, in a world defined by religion and conflict.

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