Who will fight society's religious illiteracy?

I believe in God.

There I said it – and it looks like my world hasn't collapsed around me. These are four little words which are easy to say on a Christian website, but can prove costly in many other settings. I thank God I can admit to that here in the UK without fear of intimidation, persecution or worse. Yet despite all of our apparent freedoms, we're frequently reminded that for many of us it is still difficult to admit outside the safety of Christian circles.

This week the Telegraph reported that speaking about faith is "not the done thing" in civil service culture and the public sector, according to William Nye, a former top Whitehall mandarin. The Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb announced at last month's Conservative Christian Fellowship Wilberforce Address that "I have never found it easy as a politician to talk about my faith. In an age where every word is watched for something that can be construed as a gaffe, off-message or representing some bigoted or irrational attitude, it is a topic which many of us steer clear of... And as for the topic of personal prayer, well that's become a total no-go-area".

BBCAdrian Chiles' well-meaning effort to present religious belief in a positive light, has swung to the opposite extreme, says Gillan Scott

You only have to look at the torrid time Tim Farron received from the media following his election to Liberal Democrat leader to know that there is plenty of truth behind those words. So I have a great deal of respect for Adrian Chiles when at the start of his new two-part series, My Mediterranean, on Sunday night, he begins with the statement, "I believe in God". Chiles is all the more unusual in that he comes from a family of atheists and is a fairly recent convert to Roman Catholicism. He is on something of a mission to prove that the majority of believers of all faiths are pretty normal people and not remotely similar to the fanatics and terrorists that gain the vast majority of the media's attention. In an interview promoting his programme he came out with this: "Jesus said, 'The meek will inherit the earth.' Well, they might do but they get no press along the way at all, they're completely forgotten."

Convincing the controller of BBC2 to let Chiles make the series is an impressive achievement, although the BBC's removal of any references to God or faith in the title is a reminder of how twitchy our national broadcaster still is about how it approaches religion. This was just as apparent in the programme's content. Certainly we got away from the hellish stories of religious extremism, but it was replaced by a 'basically all religion is the same and can't we just get on?' approach. We had lots of happy people enjoying festivals and Chiles finding commonality and good will all over place, even when he spoke to a gay atheist Jew. In fact he became most irked when he met some British evangelical women visiting Israel who responded to his thought that, "We're more or less all the same and we're under the same God", with a resolute, "We're not! Because on the Temple Mount in Arabic it says that God has no son, which to a Christian is offensive because God does have a son and that son's name is Jesus." It may have left him uncomfortable, but it was a much needed reality check.

It feels bad to be overly critical of Chiles' well-meaning effort to present religious belief in a positive light, but the problem is that by attempting to distance itself from a theology of radicalism and hatred it has swung to the opposite extreme towards a theology of 'nice' that has little in the way of substance. Sure, we are reminded of our common humanity and that it is possible to get on with those who hold different beliefs, but we're still left none the wiser as to what those beliefs actually are. Such an approach had the inevitable consequence of leaving Chiles questioning the very nature of religious identity and more confused as to what is worth believing.

Anyone who has more than a basic grasp of the world's greatest faiths will know that there are distinct and irreconcilable differences between them. The problem is that most people in this country just don't have that basic grasp. Religious illiteracy and naivety coupled with a secularising spirit that has permeated much of our culture has resulted in the situation we now find ourselves in where discussing religion in any meaningful way is virtually impossible.

If we are going to change this and actually work towards being a less ignorant society, what we don't need are fluffy headed attempts to gloss over religious differences. Instead we need to embrace and understand them. When we genuinely see where others are coming from, it is much easier to put ourselves in their shoes even in we choose not to stay in them.

The irony of this is that the BBC in its attempts to be all things to all people is doing everyone a disservice, including itself. I strongly believe that many of us are curious to learn more about the fuel that makes different religious believers tick. I've been in situations in schools where I've met students with limited prior knowledge lapping up accounts of Jesus' life because for the first time they've seen the biblical Jesus – instead of a watered down two dimensional version – and seen why he had such an incredible impact on those who encountered him. Those students went away with a smattering of knowledge that allowed them to make a bit more sense of the world and a greater insight into the uniqueness of Christianity.

Until broadcasters realise there is an appetite for a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of our major religions, it will be left up to those with a faith to get that message over, which to be honest is as it should be. We need more Christians to do the brave thing like Adrian Chiles and declare without apology that, "I believe in God", even if it makes us look foolish. But it will only be of real value if it is accompanied by a willingness to explain what that entails and what difference it makes. Would Jesus expect anything less?

Gillan Scott regularly writes about the relationship between Christianity and society. He is deputy editor at archbishopcranmer.com. You can follow him on Twitter @gillan_scott.

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