♦ Teaching religion

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:

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.)

11 responses to “♦ Teaching religion

  1. Have a look at Brian Rudman’s Herald article
    Suffer, little children – and watch out for the spaceship for a refreshing view on this.


  2. Pingback: ♦ Overcoming religious problems « Open Parachute

  3. Philip Pangrac

    Of course religious organizations will oppose teaching ALL religions in schools.

    1) People of faith generally want to see others come to their SPECIFIC faith. It’s not enough that you become a Christian, you must become a protestant that attends the “right” church, votes against abortion, against gay marriage, and votes straight ticket Republican (or whatever you guys in NZ have).

    Because accepting Jesus is not enough. You have to accept the right Jesus.

    2) In a more serious argument you are more likely to encounter, teaching all religions encourages a relativistic view of them, and that insults them. Saying Christianity and Islam are on the same level is a slap to the face of either religion because only one can be truly right.

    3) If you teach the religions with a detatched, anthropological view of them, you will not give them the proper respect. The spiritual truth of any given religion will not come across if you have a skeptical instructor.

    How would you counter those arguments (well, not the first one, because I’m including that tongue-in-cheek)?


  4. 1: If religious leaders object to investigation and teaching – have they got something to hide? Such an attitude is not worthy of respect. A benign religion will only benefit from inquiry and teaching – a toxic religion will oppose it.

    2: It is not the place of schools to brainwash or provide biased spiritual “truth.” However, students with a good grounding in the world’s religions and other beliefs (the non-religious beliefs should also be part of their education) are in a better position to accept (or reject) their own family’s religious tradition. They will also be less likely to be prejudiced towards other beliefs (including humanism and other non-religious traditions).


  5. 1. Throughout my entire life, and especially now when I am a Christian, I have had distrust for religious leaders for the very simple reason that Christianity is about an individual’s relationship with God, not some organization on Earth like a church acting as an intermediary between the two parties. Corruption comes too easily when you put faith in a person rather than God (this is why I advocate a more involved democracy here in America, people not caring about politics has allowed rampant decay the system).

    So I’m not presenting my personal opinion in my above post, just pointing out why other religious people will oppose you.

    2. I don’t know if you’d be able to convince the faithful that teaching all religions in public schools will make it easier for their children to accept their family’s religion. Easier to reject? Absolutely, and that is why religious people will oppose teaching all religions.

    But how do you believe that learning about multiple religions in a detatched, group environment (a classroom) by a person who is supposed to be seen as an authority (the teacher) is going to lead anyone to say to themselves “This one religion must be the right one, and those others we learned about in class are false?”

    I think it’s much more likely students will reject all of them, believing that because of the contradictions between any two of them they must all be wrong. When they get older (and, certainly, are in a better position to make an informed decision/realization about faith) they may come to an organized religion.

    But I think it is more likely that having been stripped of any reason to accept one religion over another, they will remain skeptical for the rest of their life. As an atheist you might like (or even prefer) that outcome, but for the religious (and I include myself here, even though I don’t consider myself an extremist in any way) it is not quite as appealing.

    As for being less prejudiced of other faiths, that is definitely the dream for many. But Christianity has the unfortunate absolutism to it, that Jesus is the only way to God. C.S. Lewis had a beautiful scene in the Chronicles of Narnia’s last book, the Last Battle, that refutes this idea, but most people are unfamiliar with it.

    So as terrible as this sounds, many Christians in particular will oppose teaching all religions because they believe they really shouldn’t be accepting of other faiths.


  6. Actually, Philip, in New Zealand religious education is being supported by mainstreamn church and religions. It is the more extreme one (fundamentalists etc.) who oppose it as you would expect.

    The problem is that the issue of including humanist and other non-religious life stances in this education is, on the whole, being avoided. So that is a struggle for us.

    As a non-religious person with a more humanist ethical stance I support the teaching of religion and want it widened to teaching ethical life stance like mine. I don’t think this encourages cynicism – far from it.

    It’s interesting that you see such knowledge as a threat to your religion!


  7. Did I say I see knowledge of other religions as a threat to my faith? Don’t be so quick to assume, you haven’t liked it when other people have done the same to you.

    In fact, I argue I am the exact opposite of what you assume about me, and first and foremost I would like to mention that very soon (once my books arrive) I will be studying Eastern religions and philosophies with the express intent of seeing what I can take from them.

    The fact that I am a Christian and am rather strong in my faith means I won’t accept all of any one faith, that much is obvious. I’m not going to suddenly disbelieve in the monotheistic God, that Jesus was His son, and that the crucifixion paved the way for salvation.

    But I am very much interested in seeing what ideas and beliefs from Asia are similar to my Christian beliefs, or cover things Christianity does not.

    Again, don’t assume I’m so close-minded as the fundamentalists. My post above was simply laying out what arguments you are likely to encounter, and I was wondering how you would respond. The thing about “mainstream” churches (whatever those are) welcoming religious education in NZ is new to me because, as I’m pretty sure I’ve said before, I’m an American currently in Baghdad. I’ve never been to NZ (the most I know about it is based on the exterior shots in Lord of the Rings).


  8. Philip, my reaction was to your statement: “But I think it is more likely that having been stripped of any reason to accept one religion over another, they will remain skeptical for the rest of their life.”

    That seems to be advocating the withholding of information from children because it might influence them not to accept the beliefs of their parents.

    I am saying that if there is substance to this fear, then what are those beliefs worth?


  9. A fair enough question, and I suppose I did not elaborate on what I said as I should have.

    My fear is that they will not only reject their parents’ beliefs, but all beliefs. From what I can tell from reading your blog, you yourself view all religions with skepticism because their claims and foundations cannot be tested or verified by natural sciences. You reject anything supernatural through, what is to me, an overwhelming amount of distrust.

    What I fear is that children taught about all religions will also grow up with a similiar level of distrust, only this will be more focused than a general moving away from faith.

    If they are taught about religions in the same school as science or historical myths they will compare religion to both and reach the conclusion that because the religions are unverifiable, they must be the same as any other myth or story. Ergo, Jesus or Buddha are characters on par with Zeus and Hades.

    Thus, they turn their back on any idea of spirituality or faith. A bad outcome in my view. I mentioned the C.S. Lewis story above (don’t know if you’re familiar with it) because it illustrates one of my fundamental beliefs; that anyone who is open to their spiritual person will try to find God. This does not mean only Christians are seeking God (or that all Christians seek God), far from it. But I would rather see someone sincere in their beliefs practice a different religion than reject outright all faiths because they are so locked in to only what they perceive in this plane of existence.

    You’ll think I’m arrogant for saying this, I know, but I’ll even give you the benefit of the doubt because you’ve discussed awe at the order of the universe and expressed an open outlook to meditation (when you posted about the Dalai Lama coming to NZ). I don’t know what your actual thoughts on meditation are, perhaps you simply see it as a placebo-like effect where practicing it triggers some neurological action. But even you don’t look down on all religions and faiths with absolute scorn.

    I believe Christianity, at its base, is Truth. It can lead people to God, to an understanding of things that go well beyond this mortal, temporary plane and to an everlasting joy that transcends this life.

    But that doesn’t mean Truth will always win out over lies, or that people will automatically recognize it when they see it (else anyone familiar with Christianity would come to it). This modern world is very skilled at getting people to focus only on the here, the now, this physical realm. It’s amazing at how even religion is used as a tool against spirituality.

    My fear is not that beliefs will crumble when compared to so many others, but that the people will become confused, apathetic, irritated with the idea of faith in general.

    I’ve already written a lot, I’ll end there.


  10. Philip – if you understood my comments you would not say: “You reject anything supernatural through, what is to me, an overwhelming amount of distrust.” That is a position I reject.

    The fact is that I don’t ask the question “Is this supernatural or is this natural?” before investigating. In practice scientists never think that way, or ask such questions. They just get on with the job, collect the evidence, develop hypotheses and theories, verify these against reality, etc.

    I think that when people argue for acceptance of the “supernatural” what they are really saying is that they have come to a conclusion about some aspect of reality but they want to ring fence that conclusion – they don’t want it to be treated as objective evidence amenable to verification and investigation.

    So in my mind there is no place for a natural/supernatural distinction. If something exists then it is potentially amenable to investigation.

    The fact is that so many of our ideas are just wrong that to ring fence any idea is just “protecting” a potentially incorrect idea for emotional reasons. The only way we have of knowing if an ideas is wrong or not is to investigate it.


  11. It seems we’re both misguided about what the other believes.


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