It’s no laughing matter: Britain has become a nation of religious illiterates 'who are baffled by Biblical references in Monty Python film The Life of Brian'

BBC figure in warns that shared understanding of different faiths is now so low the even jokes are losing their meaning

Media Editor

The British public has such “poor religious literacy” that a modern audience would be baffled by the Monty Python film The Life of Brian – because it would not understand the Biblical references, a senior BBC figure has claimed.  

Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, told The Independent that failings in religious education over two generations were undermining public understanding of contemporary national and international issues. “You had generations that missed out. We have poor religious literacy in this country and we have to do something about it,” he said.

He was speaking at the launch of an ambitious three-part BBC2 series which will address the subject of pilgrimage from a broad perspective and is intended to attract the interest of Atheists as much as religious believers.

“If you tried to make The Life of Brian today it would fall flat on its face because the vast majority of the audience would not get most of the jokes. They don’t have the knowledge,” Ahmed said. He questioned whether modern audiences would appreciate that the “great joke about the Sermon on the Mount” in the 1979 Python film, where a woman asks “What’s so special about the cheesemakers?”, was a reference to Jesus’s words “Blessed are the peacemakers” from the Bible.

He also claimed that comedians such as Eddie Izzard, Tim Minchin and Ricky Gervais – who he said he found “really funny” – tended to tackle religion in very general terms. “They don’t take on specific aspects of religion they take on bigger things – such as the Bible. They can’t go into specific stories anymore because no one knows what the stories are.”

Ahmed also claimed that a key reason that Islam is not the subject of more humorous discussion is that the life of the Prophet Muhammad is poorly understood by large sections of the British public. “How can anybody tell a joke about Muhammad when they don’t even know how to spell his name, let alone anything about his life? The day we have people standing up and telling detailed jokes about Muhammad and have the audience understanding that humour, then we will have come a long way in society and we will have a lot more religious literacy about a major world figure.”

Ahmed claimed that a basic understanding of the major faiths was important so the public have a grasp of contemporary issues. He noted that Christianity in Britain had been transformed by recent immigration from countries including Poland, Portugal and Brazil. “One of the things we have had to learn over the last ten or 15 years is that religion is back in the public sphere. To understand a lot of what is happening around us, whether you are looking at what is happening in Syria or women wanting to cover their face in Bradford or Birmingham, or the demographic shifts in London with regard to party politics, you have got to have a conversation that looks at this through the prism of religion,” he said. “I think that anybody who thinks that religion is no longer an important thing has to ask themselves [why] it is all around us. We have such a lack of religious literacy in this country.”

Ahmed stressed that he was not trying to force religious faith on audiences. “I’m not saying for one second that everybody has to understand religion and therefore become religious,” he said.

Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve, which will be screened in December, will examine the history and challenges of spiritually-inspired journeys to shrines from Canterbury and Santiago de Compostela to Jerusalem, meeting modern pilgrims as well as exploring the experience of medieval British travellers. Reeve traces the paths of pilgrims down London’s Old Kent Road and onwards across the Alps and desert regions to the Holy Land. “I’m not a religious person,” said the presenter, “but I finished filming the series with a new respect for people who made and make these epic trips. I learnt that pilgrimage isn’t always a painful and onerous task. It’s often a journey of celebration, of adventure, of wonder.”

Questions of faith: Are you a religious ignoramus?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Reach Volunteering: Volunteer Trustee with Management, Communications and Fundraising

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission, Benefits, OTE £100k: SThree: ...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada