The opportunity to teach religious studies courses at the university is one that I relish for many reasons, not the least of which is to hopefully whittle down the number of abjectly foolish things people tend to say, or claim to know, about many and various religious traditions.
There is a not abnormal, though certainly disheartening, amount of misinformation and ignorance about traditions that are not one's own. This can be remedied by getting as many people into the classroom as possible to dispel the falsehoods and distortions bandied about in our popular discourse (the media does no favors in this - as they tend to never ask people to actually unpack their ideas, they simply want sound-bites that will draw eye-balls and ears, not caring to actually delve into the belief systems of the ones they interview.) One can even attempt to get the media to do a bit of the heavy lifting, at least in a round about way - I have now given a number of interviews to the local media on religious topics, and in every case I tend to use the opportunity to teach the reporter a few things. My hope is that even a few scraps of actual information will get through the writing and editorial processes.
An even more distressing and depressing problem is the amount of ignorance people display regarding their understanding of their own religious tradition (should they have one). It is astounding (it probably shouldn't be quite so astounding) that people simply don't know what they believe, why they believe it, how their faith traditions developed, the history of their particular faith tradition, or even the basics of the texts that they use as the basis for their belief system.
What is most distressing, though, is the way in which the ignorance of one's own faith tradition causes some to move straight to utter ridiculousness. So ridiculous that they smear the entire faith tradition with their foolishness. The latest example (and there have been far too many as of late) within the Christian tradition was the entire rapture bit from a couple of weeks ago. I won't bore you with the details, but what was clear was that the individual who was generating this particular bit of nonsense was profoundly ignorant of the history and development of the idea of the rapture (early 19th century evangelicalism was the root), Biblical interpretation, eschatology, and many other bits of rather important business.
What was most crushing about the entire business was the fact that it offered one more opportunity for Christianity to be presented as foolish, knavish, ridiculous. Something worthy only of derision and mocking laughter. The Christian tradition is often weakened from within, as many Christians show a face to the world that is profoundly unserious, ignorant, ridiculous. When this happens it doesn't take long before that is the only face that the world sees. This is especially true in pop culture - note Bill Maher's movie 'Religulous', wherein Mr. Maher doesn't even bother to try to find rational and reasonable people of faith to talk to, simply the ignorant or profoundly shallow. It was his hope to mock religion, and so many made the job far too easy. Granted, he had that end in mind when embarking on the film, so it seems a rather ham-fisted way to mock the faithful, but honestly, it didn't need to be quite that easy.
Faith is not antithetical to critical thinking, yet too often it seems that this is what is presented for mass consumption. Why is this? What leads people to think that they don't need to think about their faith traditions and religious belief systems? And why is it that people who really shouldn't say or do something (the Koran burning pastor comes to mind) are precisely the ones who find their way to the cameras and loudly pronounce their cluelessness?
I am not certain. I don't have good answers for this. I guess my only response is to continue to fight against this the only way I know how - education. Bit by bit. Student by student. Class by class. Maybe, just maybe, this will help. It certainly (I hope) will not make matters worse.