Should our schools teach religion? Ideally, yes, but could we do it properly?
I am currently reading A suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. Set in the early independent, and post-separation, India it provides an idea of what life must have been like for well-to-do Indians of different religions – mainly Hindu and Muslim. However, I would get a lot more out of the book if I had some background in the mythology, ceremonies and customs of these two religions, particularly Hinduism. I’m sure most New Zealanders have the same problem with world literature.
Many years ago the religious education I got at school was religious instruction – teaching of the Christian religion as dogmatic “fact” rather than an objective account of its origins, mythology and customs. And of course nothing was taught about those other “heretical” religions. Consequently, I have some useful background in Christianity (useful for understanding literature and social customs in several, but far from all, countries) but very little to help me with the diverse beliefs we now have to accommodate in our society.
And of course, there was nothing about non-theist beliefs like Buddhism, Humanism, agnosticism and atheism.
So, I am strongly in favour of teaching about religion and specific religions in our schools. That view is not original for an atheist. Have a look at this video presentation of atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett who also advocates this. I suspect the opposition to an objective teaching about religion in our schools will come from religious groups themselves. Despite this, I’m sure if it were done properly it would go a long way to counter the fears and prejudices so prevalent in our society. (See this news item for some views form the NZ delegation to the Waitangi Dialogue).
What worries me, though, is how this education would happen given the current narrow-minded interpretation of our country’s religious diversity. Clause 6 of the National Statement on Religious Diversity says:
- Schools should teach an understanding of different religious and spiritual traditions in a manner that reflects the diversity of their national and local community.
To do this properly the educational authorities have to acknowledge that a third of the population is non-religious. Consequently the “spiritual tradition” should be interpreted to include non-theist traditions. These are largely ignored in the current debate arising from the Waitangi Interfaith meeting and the clamour for parliamentary endorsement of the “Christian nation” concept. As for the Plan of Action issued by the Third regional Interfaith Dialogue the section on Education limits itself completely to religious beliefs.
The other worry I have is the ability of teachers to give objective presentations of any religion or belief given the prejudices and strong feelings this subject brings out.
In practice, how should we go about “understanding of different religious and spiritual traditions”?
How would you do it?PS: (Have a look at Brian Rudman’s Herald article Suffer, little children – and watch out for the spaceship for a refreshing view on this.)