Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Illiteracy and the Church

In the 18th century, a man was considered "literate" if he could sign his name. Later, the ability to read and write text was considered tantamount to literacy, and this perception is still widespread.

However, we must distinguish between absolute literacy (the ability to read and write text) and functional literacy. The National Assessment of Education Progress considers literacy "[the ability to] use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential."

This is measured by the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), which measures three areas of literacy (prose, document and quantitative) with scores ranging from one to five. Prose literacy is the ability to read, analyze and comprehend a written work such as an article, novel or journal. Document literacy is the ability to interpret informational documents such as maps, timetables, or warranties. Quantitative literacy is the ability to apply basic mathematical functions to real-world situations.

Exact estimates range from one-third to one-half, but a great deal of the American adult population scored between levels one and three. According to the Survey of Adult Literacy, "nobody in the three lowest levels [can] consistently integrate complex information, take into account special conditions, or use background knowledge to state or solve a problem."

Source: National Commission on Adult Literacy

The implications are staggering. I devoted the past semester to studying adult literacy, and this is where I began my research. It all began with this article by Chris Hedges. Truthdig is a notoriously liberal webzine, and I wondered if the information was scholarly.

Unfortunately, it is. The journals and federal statistics and international surveys have precisely similar findings. (And I would be more than happy to disclose all my sources.) One-third to one-half of Americans are functionally illiterate. Read the article by Hedges. Go, do it.

Did you read it?

Hedges writes, "in our post-literate world, because ideas are inaccessible [...] news, political debate, theatre, art and books are judged not on the power of their ideas but on their ability to entertain." This creates an atmosphere of hostility towards critical examination of ideas, political policies, and intellectual thought, which is often labeled "elitist."

This, I believe, is one of the primary reasons why mainline Protestant denominations are shrinking! Because we "function in a print-based, literate world. [We] can cope with complexity and [have] the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth."

  1. Mainline denominations are relegated to the margins, de facto. Our approach to faith is too complex. We are increasingly out of touch with society.
  2. Roman Catholicism dumbs down its message. (Ex. "you are pro-life or pro-death, you embrace all of the dogma or none of it.")
  3. Evangelical churches thrive. Their message is clear, simple, and easy to understand. Their services are entertainment. Their teachings accomodate popular culture, including consumerism and American nationalism.
  4. Any attempt at higher-level religious discourse is drowned out by clergy abuse scandals, debates about evolution, abortion, gay rights, public prayer, etc.
  5. Vast numbers of individuals disillusioned with the culture wars turn away from religion in disgust. Their opinions of religion are based - not on theology - but on perceived social teachings of the church and the actions of its members.
  6. Mainline churches continue to lose members to fundamentalism or secularism as our increasingly polarized, illiterate society rejects notions of a middle ground. Middle ground and "shades of grey" are too complex to be easily understood or marketed.
We are left with a dangerous and volatile mix of fundamentalists and secularists. Fundamentalists know very little about their religion, save for how they feel about it. Secularists often know more about Christianity, but certainly not enough to develop an accurate opinion.

Those who turn to secularism instead of fundamentalism are not necessarily more literate/intelligent. The Atheism of Nietzche, Camus and Sartre is radically different from that of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, much in the same way that Thomas Aquinas has been replaced by Joel Osteen.

What must we do? What can we do? I don't know. Being able to clearly articulate our beliefs is one step. Changing the public perception of religion and ending the culture wars is another. Most folks don't realize that "all denominations are not created equal." Yet in a world unable to take into account subtlety, Episcopalians are liable for the bullshit pulled by the Westboro Baptist Church.


Thom Curnutte said...

Most social-scientific definitions of "religion" apply to atheist groups, especially the modern Hitchens (et al) fanatics.

How to fix it? I don't know. I don't know if it's fixable. But perhaps it's time for another Jesus Movement.

ex_fide said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gabe said...

What to do? The answer seems fairly clear. A faith made for humanity should have answers available at all levels of understanding, whether for the scholar, the mature layperson, the childish adult, or the actual child.

I tend to think of childish adults as a fairly new category of persons who have been infantilized by government schools where, among other obstacles to their maturity, they chiefly acquired distaste for education. The way to restore a right order is to abolish government schools; the way to minister to its victims is to use art (and liturgy!) to restore a sense of wonder about the topic to be learned.

Thom Curnutte said...

Eric, agreed. But perhaps we can have spirit of Borg and Crossan without the tie-dye and hemp.

Thom Curnutte said...

*the spirit

Davis said...

Funny, ex_fide, I was going to suggest you get to know eric better. Bright guys both of you.

BAS said...

Good point: that the god Dawkins et al reject is no more the Christian God than the god Phelps et al worship. The only way we can address this is to pray, worship, read, and "keep the faith." Belligerent falsehood is never remedied by trying to correct it, but by quietly and simply embodying Truth.

But I think it's important to remember that this is not a battle we must win; the victory is already won! What is Jesus trying to teach us in this current struggle? I don't know, but it seems like one of the lessons must surely be humility in realizing that we no longer run the world, and that we can't control the public perception of our message either.

Faith doesn't have answers though, and it can't if it is to remain faith. (Indeed, I think some of the problems we've gotten ourselves into have arisen because we behave as if we have more answers than we actually do.) We do not believe because we have the answers, we believe because our hearts have been stirred to love by him who loved us first. Faith is not the careful distribution of answers, but rather living in hope that one day faith (and sacraments as well as science!) will cease, and Love will be all that remains.

While we remain this side of time, however, it is reassuring to remember that the Church belongs to Christ; and the gates of Hell (including its legions of violent ignorance) shall never prevail against it.

eric said...

BAS: Your words are welcome to the weary! How often we forget to let God be God. All we can do is our part, and leave the rest to him.

Joseph said...

was camus technically an athiest? seems i remember reading that he was unable to take the final "leap of faith," but had hope he was wrong...

the american landscape is historically anti-intellectual, and the rise of mass media has made it even more so. why read seriously when one can watch House of Love on VH1 and be titillated? look around us: we no longer have giants of american literature who are actors in the public square, helping form debate on the issues of the day. solzhenitsyn, sontag, buckley (at his prime), vidal, etc., would be marginal, at best, today. instead we have the osteens and oprahs who dumb down everything in american culture, including religion. what is the quote from niebuhr? "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross" something like that. this is why it is vital for traditional anglicans, roman catholics, and orthodox to continue to express the hard truth about salvation, sin, holy mystery.

eric said...

Hi Joseph, thanks for stopping by!

I appreciate your comments, and I absolutely agree. The response to a tidal wave of postmodernism and relativism isn't more postmodernism and relativism. It must be an intelligent and articulate, yet loving and firm response which draws on the theology of the ages.

Gabe said...

(Belated responses are my style.) I don't propose any particular alternative educational model. Private and parochial schools, autodidaction, Sudbury and Montessori schools, tutors, apprenticeships, losing oneself on Wikipedia--all these are valid methods good for some things and not for others. For my own kids I'd send them to a Sudbury school, then try something else if they failed to prosper.