The Pagan Heart
Myth, Magic, and Madness

January 2005 Issue

Religious Literacy, Education and the Myths of Paganism

By Axiom


What is religious literacy? The ability to read a book on religion? Yes, simple as that sounds, that's exactly what it is. But that's just the start. To be a religiously literate person involves developing an educated awareness of religion - both of your own faith, and (almost more importantly) the faith of others.

Of the people who read books on religion, many read almost exclusively about their own beliefs. Some may occasionally pick up a book on "Comparative Religions", but usually such a book is authored by someone of the reader's own faith. Few read books on other religions.

In the Pagan community many pride themselves upon the diversity of religious books they read: books on Islam, Judaism, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, other Pagan faiths, and even some Christian texts - although many comments indicate the familiarity with Christianity is from youthful worship rather than adult study. This exploration of other faiths, especially through books written by and for followers of those faiths, is commendable. It encourages understanding, reduces fear and increase acceptance of differences. For some it even helps them to reach a closer understanding of their own faith and beliefs through understanding the different perspectives of another's.

But how often is this attitude a myth? How many seriously read the books of other faiths? Did you go through a phase when selecting your current path and read a selection, but nothing since? When was the last time you read the mythos of your faith as the ancients wrote it down - not as some modern writer claims to have "remembered" it? Not that that's not a valid source, but it shouldn't be the only one! Do you occasionally pick up a book from a favourite "alternate faith" (such as Buddhism) and flick through it? Do you avoid reading anything on certain specific major faiths (such as Judaism and Christianity) because you dislike the patriarchal monotheistic ideology you recall from your youth?

Unless you seriously read books from at least the five major religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) occasionally, and research the history of your own faith through the works written by the ancient believers, you are likely to be illiterate when it comes to religion. The great myth - that Pagans are knowledgeable and accepting of all faiths - is a myth. It is based upon the first Neo-Pagans who seriously searched, and while some modern Pagans do, many do not.

And religious literacy leads to more than reading. It leads to a better understanding of the faith of other people. Faith is, for many, not simply a belief in deity, but also a defining feature of who and what they are. To truly understand a Fundamental Christian/Moslem/Jew, you need to understand the basics of his or her faith. Because the person and the religion cannot usually be separated. It goes beyond ethnic and racial consideration to the point that two Jews/Moslems/Christians of different races consider themselves more alike than they are to the people of their own race but a different religion. Why would I want to understand a Fundamentalist? Why wouldn't I? Many of the problems between Fundamentalist believers and others is a lack of understanding. An inability on the behalf of the Fundamentalist to hear the words of the other person, and that other's inability to understand why the words fall on deaf ears.

And this is where religious literacy comes to the fore. So often I hear the utter confusion of someone trying to have a rational dialogue with a Fundamentalist - without including the religious perspective. The two people are speaking foreign languages, and will rarely hear each other as neither understands nor accepts the role religion is playing in their communication framework. Simply becoming familiar with the religious framework of a Fundamentalist opens up new avenues of communication - even though you may never agree on faith, you can have a conversation devoid (or at least mostly) of unintentional insult and prejudice. And I say insult and prejudice because, although it is not my intent, in a conversation with someone whose religion is totally foreign to me it is easy to err and insult. To make a comment that seems prejudiced or hateful - because my listener is filtering my words through his or her religious system.

It may seem like a lot of unfair effort - I read your books so I can speak your language. Why don't you read mine? Bust seriously, if I am aware of the issue, and you are not, isn't it my responsibility to take the initiative as the more "adult" of the two? I would with my child, and seriously, such blindness in religion, to me, is the sign of the child. The truly adult people I have conversed about faith with come from all religions, but are few and far between. And each one sees it as a personal responsibility to engage others on the level they best understand, and then gently lead them to one of mutual respect and acceptance.

So, in the interests of improving your own religious literacy, what book will you pick up next time? Will it be another modern interpretation of what you believe? Will it be an older text more closely based upon the original material? Will it be from a religion you scorn or fear or simply don't know?

Challenge yourself. Step outside your comfort zone and read.

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