From Basel to Baghdad, why do so many people fear other religions?

We are living through a crisis in global religious education

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Pope Francis's visit to Iraq has been a welcome boost to the cause of fraternity and inter-religious tolerance, as was his clear statement that "hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion". All those who promote inter-faith dialogue are to be commended, as encouraging fellowship based on goodwill and emphasising what religions have in common could not be more necessary. But what the Pope's meetings with members of many faiths underscores is the real need for a far more widespread knowledge of religions other than one's own.

John Kerry, US President Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate, made this point emphatically in 2015. “One of the most interesting challenges we face in global diplomacy today is the need to fully understand and engage the great impact that a wide range of religious traditions have on foreign affairs,” wrote Mr Kerry, at the time President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. “I often say that if I headed back to college today, I would major in comparative religions rather than political science. That is because religious actors and institutions are playing an influential role in every region of the world and on nearly every issue central to US foreign policy.”

Mr Kerry knew what he was talking about. The Pew Centre’s last survey on the Global Religious Landscape estimated that 84 per cent of the world’s population was “affiliated” to a religion – with the vast majority either Christian or Muslim – while those with no religion were expected to become a shrinking minority in the long term.

This statistic and its relevance ought to be obvious. Throughout history, notions of kingship have been intertwined with religion, from the “devaraja” tradition of Hindu god-kings and the Buddhist “dhammaraja” principles that underpin the Thai monarchy, to the “divine right” to rule claimed by Charles I of England and Louis XIV of France. In America, some Christian evangelicals pray for turmoil in the Middle East – which may seem perverse, unless you realise they believe it is a harbinger of the “end times” and a 1,000-year Messianic kingdom.

Similarly, it takes knowledge of religion to understand why critics worried when the US's first Catholic president, John F Kennedy, was elected in 1960 (they thought his primary allegiance would be to the Pope, rather than the US people), and to appreciate the different natures of Shia religious leadership exemplified by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani in Iraq and the Supreme Leader in Iran.

Religions have a huge impact on culture – not just on norms of behaviour, but on concepts such as fatalism and universalism; while without an acquaintance with its symbolism, whole swathes of art, from the European Renaissance to the works of the late Indian master MF Husain, who spent his latter years in Dubai, cannot be fully comprehended.

The centrality of religion to societies not just today but throughout human history ought to be an incontestable fact. But it is often overlooked in countries that have, in effect, become post-Christian – as in parts of Europe – or in others where a noisy chorus of militant atheists have made a fetish out of the separation of church and state and have sought to push religion out of the public square as completely as possible.

Hundreds of headstones were vandalised at the Mount Carmel Jewish cemetery in north-east Philadelphia in 2017. EPA
Hundreds of headstones were vandalised at the Mount Carmel Jewish cemetery in north-east Philadelphia in 2017. EPA

As far back as 2005 the Council of Europe – an organisation distinct from the European Union, and whose best known body is the European Court of Human Rights – warned of the dangers of this approach. “Knowledge of religions is dying out in many families,” it stated in a report on education and religion. “More and more young people lack the necessary bearings fully to apprehend the societies in which they move and others with which they are confronted.” As the report also said: “Knowledge of religions is integral to knowledge of the history of humanity and civilisations.” Going on to make it clear that learning about other faiths did not imply agreeing with them, it said this “should be distinguished from belief in or practice of a specific religion".

In fact, the real peril comes from ignorance of religion. Both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism find all-too-fertile soils in populations that know next to nothing about two of the three great Abrahamic faiths – and whose people are then prey to so-called "experts" who present highly distorted pictures of what Muslims and Jewish people believe or do. Too many, sadly, are taken in by hateful lies or by tropes that any half-informed person would reject without a moment's thought.

How else to explain the wave of rulings in European countries that have banned the wearing of the burqa or the niqab in public spaces – most recently in Switzerland, where a recent study found that no more than 37 women wore the niqab, and none the burqa, in the whole country?

The centrality of religion to societies not just today but throughout human history ought to be an incontestable fact

This cuts all ways, of course. Pope Francis has talked frequently about the unjust persecution of Christians around the world since being elected in 2013.

What all this speaks to is what may rightly be called a crisis in global religious education. To take my own example: having spent many years living in countries across Asia, from the Gulf to Malaysia, I have been brought up with a rich tapestry in which Muslims, Hindus, animists and others have woven their threads. And yet I learned barely anything about their traditions and beliefs at school in England. How can this be right?

If, as Pope Francis exhorted in Iraq, we are to journey together as brothers and sisters in "the firm conviction that authentic teachings of religions invite us to remain rooted in the values of peace… mutual understanding, human fraternity and harmonious coexistence", then we must truly know one another. And that must include a proper understanding of the varying beliefs that animate our words, our deeds and our hearts.

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National