Literary Bias

Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 23/10/2020

Last modified: 23/10/2020

Texts (of all kinds) are controlled and mediated by people, and therefore restrictions can sometimes be made about which texts are preserved and shared, and which are ignored or destroyed. This can lead to an erasure of certain material from a religious tradition, or from the public understanding of that tradition, particularly if the material disagrees with the perspective of those in positions of power.

Perspectives

Table of Contents

Introduction

Texts (of all kinds) are controlled and mediated by people, and therefore restrictions can sometimes be made about which texts are preserved and shared, and which are ignored or destroyed. This can lead to an erasure of certain material from a religious tradition, or from the public understanding of that tradition, particularly if the material disagrees with the perspective of those in positions of power.

Writing in Introducing World Religions, Victoria Kennick Urubshurow discusses three types of erasure: literary bias, marginalised voices, and a combination of the two, where a strong focus on a particular piece or style of literature perpetuates a pre-existing social inequality (2008, p.11).

Literary bias is another way of saying that people focus too much on written texts, and not as much (or at all) on oral texts, artwork, performances, rituals, architecture, or practices.

For instance, in studying the (many) philosophies of India, a scholar might place significant focus on the translation and interpretation of the ‘holy books’ called the Vedas, without paying equal attention to the lived experiences of practising Hindus, and their practical applications of philosophical ideas.

Spotting bias in the wild

Since literary bias run very deep, we can encounter it in popular culture as well as in academic sources.

In the 2018 series of Celebrity Big Brother in the UK (a gameshow where people are locked together in a single house for several weeks), one of the contestants attempted to find out about the religious beliefs of his housemate by asking for information directly (in other words looking at the lived religion of an individual), but was instead referred to books and written resources for ‘authoritative’ answers.

When he noted that these written materials were not available during his stay in the house, but that she (i.e. the religious adherent) was, she countered that it was normal practice for understanding religions to consult their written texts.

…if I really wanted to know what a Christian was, what they really believed, I would read the Bible … if I really wanted to know what a Muslim was, I’d read the Qur’an…

Whilst, as scholars, it’s important to respect the wishes of those we investigate (clearly in this situation the housemate did not want to talk about their religion), it’s equally important to remember that this idea of understanding a religion by reading its texts is at best misleading, but often downright false.

In part, this bias towards texts may be due to the strong association between knowledge and writing that has developed (think about the traditional image of a scholar, surrounded by dusty books).

Religions of the book

The religions that built modern Europe (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) were traditions that placed great emphasis on the importance of scripture (in Islam the Qur’an is the literal word of Allah).

When religious behaviour has been encountered by western scholars studying other cultures, it’s been ‘legitimised’ (i.e. seen as worthy of being called religious) through the existence of texts. These texts are seen to provide meaning, context, and purpose to observed religious behaviour. If there’s no text, then the behaviour may not be recognised as religious, and instead might be labelled myth, superstition, or even mental illness. This attitude is problematic, placing academics as gatekeepers of what counts as religion.

Even if we were to take this problematic approach, and claim that written texts are somehow more ‘authentic’ sources of religion, we still run into issues because every text must be read and interpreted in the light of a prevailing culture, which includes additional ideas, interpretations, and perspectives. Even the Qur’an doesn’t exist in a perfect bubble of meaning, but is instead embedded within a historical process of interpretation by different Islamic scholars, supplemented by records of the activities of the prophet Muhammad (ahadith), and the perspectives and lived reality of millions of individuals.

This focus on textual sources as the sole point of reference and highest authority contributes to ‘…the gradual silencing and erasure of alternative oral forms…’ of lived religion (Ahmed, in Urubshurow 2008, p.11), as well as profoundly misinforming the public perception of what a religion is, or can be.

Marginalised voices

However, just because something is written, that doesn’t mean it has to be ‘conventional’ or part of a ruling narrative. Wendy Doniger, in talking about Hindu texts (2010, p.7), notes that:

[while] some of the vernacular [popular language] literatures are marred by the misogynistic and class-bound mental habits of [ruling] Brahmins … the good news is that even some Sanskrit texts, and certainly many vernacular texts, often break out of those strictures and incorporate the more open-minded attitudes of the oral vernaculars.

In other words, this means that a focus on written material (literary bias) by itself might not exclude people from the discussion - as long as they can find a way to produce or appear in written texts. But this isn’t really a good solution – if someone cannot (or chooses not to) produce written texts, then their voice is still going to be ignored or silenced - in other words marginalised.

Marginalised voices can be found in all cultures, and they provide valuable perspectives on the dominant social norms and customs around them. Doniger (2010, p.1) makes the point (again, talking about Hinduism) that it’s important to consider ‘…people who, from the standpoint of most high-caste Hindu males, are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions, or cultures, or castes, or species (animals), or gender (women).’

These alternative voices are crucial; without their perspectives, the image we have of the world (and ourselves) can become restrictive and one-dimensional. Likewise, those who are denied a voice or ignored by mainstream society can feel repressed and disempowered.

When we study religion, we need to be mindful that not every religious practice will fit into our preconceived notion of what a religion is, or ought to be. We should be open-minded, adaptable, and careful not to shut out alternative voices, which might be communicating something important about their spiritual life – even if the method of communication doesn’t match our expectations.

References

  • Doniger, W. (2010) The Hindus: An Alternative History, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Urubshurow, V.K. (2008) Introducing World Religions, Oxon, Routledge.

Image Credits

Image by Devanath from Pixabay

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