On religious literacy

Craig Calhoun considers music and art, and how we understand our world.



Craig Calhoun considers music and art, and how we understand our world.


People sometimes speak about being religiously literate. [That] doesn’t just mean knowing how to read religious texts, it means knowing something about religion and how it has informed the world that we inherit from the past and that we see around us. So there are large parts of the history of art that we understand less well if we can’t understand the religious origins of some of the symbolism, or the religious motivations of the artists, or even the religious locations – when we look at a triptych and don’t realise it was an altarpiece or something like that. 

But this goes for music and musical traditions. So there is a literacy element to knowing more about the past, knowing more about religion. And the same thing goes to the present. How do we understand what’s going on in the Middle East if we don’t know something about Islam, and so forth. But beyond literacy in that sense, there is the ability to understand and grasp the feeling of spiritual awakening that has informed art sometimes, or exultation. 

So if you listen to the Eroica symphony and you think about the emotion that is engaged, you may or may not think of it in religious terms, but lots of our vocabulary and, for many people, a route to this kind of emotional connection comes from religion. And so we have not only an ability to know things about religion, we have an ability for empathetic feeling that is important. And from music and art we get some of that, and we may take it to religion – we may not be religious but say, I get it, you’re telling me that it’s like music for you to be able to participate in religion. And I don’t know about religion, but I do know about music. But it works the other way around too – that some sorts of understandings of the world that are cultivated in a religious ritual inform people in their ability to grasp what’s going on even in foreign musical traditions, even in foreign traditions of dance or performance.