Religious literacy vital to a tolerant world

LA Trobe University’s decision to downgrade its successful religious studies program at Bendigo is the latest episode in the decline of such studies in universities throughout Australia. There are now very few places left where students can study religion in a secular context. This makes no sense in a multicultural and multi-faith society.Surely the events of September 11, 2001, underlined for us how dangerous it is to leave religion to the religious. After those events it was hoped that our education system would acknowledge the importance of religious literacy to a sane and tolerant world. It was hoped that religious education might be one of the cures for fanaticism. This has not happened. Surveys reveal stunning levels of religious ignorance among the general population and even more among the supposedly educated classes. It must be admitted that often letters to The Advertiser illustrate the alarming degree of religious ignorance, among believers and non-believers alike, in our society. The thing that should worry all of us is that ignorance, hatred and violence all go hand in hand. In this sense our universities are failing in their duty to a free, informed and tolerant society. As university curriculums become narrower and universities become overly focused on training, the level of basic ignorance in our society increases. Surely anyone who claims to have a liberal education needs to know something about the Bible, the Koran and the religious ideologies that - for good or for bad - continue to shape our world?Sadly, our universities are no longer producing graduates with a knowledge of such basics.Yet, quite plainly, it is only through teaching such things and raising levels of religious literacy that we can address the root causes of religious strife in the world.In Britain and other countries the teaching of religious studies is increasingly regarded as a vital element in building tolerance and social cohesion. Alas, not in Australia.Dr RODNEY BLACKHIRST,Ironbark