Sunday 10 February 2013

Teaching Religion vs Teaching About Religion

As the number of schools that offer Bible in Schools or similar programmes decreases, it is interesting and important for schools to consider and discuss their provision of religious education. The recent review of this topic brought forth much interesting feedback but was only open to schools that actually had the topic in their document set. The blog, however, allows everyone to comment, so comment...

The main recurring theme of the review feedback reflected opinions expressed in the media late last year in the debate about Bible in Schools, namely that it’s fine for children to learn about christianity as part of a wider study of world religions, but it’s not okay for state schools to provide specific christian (or other denomination) instruction. (Or indoctrination, as many people referred to it.) The separation between church and state should be maintained. 

Many reviewers felt that Bible in Schools and similar programmes encourage the development of values that are necessary for everyday life and reflect the values our country is based on. Are these christian values so different from the values stated in the New Zealand Curriculum Framework? "The school curriculum reinforces the commonly held values of individual and collective responsibility...these values include honesty, reliability, respect for others, respect for the law, tolerance, fairness, caring or compassion, non sexism, and non racism."  Okay, nothing about God, but similar values all the same. Do we need a separate religious based programme for this?

Our culture is changing, our communities are more ethnically diverse than ever before and it is surely more inclusive to learn about the many faiths that make up our communities. Maybe learning about the different faiths offers students the chance to understand more about other cultures, and also how it is for people to have a faith – how it affects and shapes their lives. Wouldn’t it be great for our students to hear about their classmates’ lives through visits from representatives of local cultural/religious groups. How cool to visit a marae, a temple, a mosque, a church, etc.

Have a look at this article by Tapu Misa in The New Zealand Herald last December There are too many interesting bits in it for me to summarise here, but the quotes from Helen Bradstock of Otago University capture what many of our policy reviewers said. 

Here (in New Zealand), we've been unable to draw a distinction between teaching religion and teaching about religion. We should be aiming, she writes, for "secular, inter-religious education" that is taught within the curriculum, as in the UK.

It would teach about Christianity and other major world religions, but not endorse any one belief system. It would recognise diversity and respect human rights but wouldn't compromise the secular nature of the education system, since religion would be treated as an aspect of human culture which is a legitimate "form of knowledge" or object of study.
We don't have a choice. In increasingly multicultural New Zealand, as Bradstock argues, inter-religious education in primary schools has a critical role to play in the growth of multicultural awareness and the promotion of social inclusion.

Such education is most effective, studies show, "when difficult questions relating to conflicting world views are grappled with, debated and not avoided in classrooms".

So, what are your thoughts? How does this relate to what your school community has or wants? 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I feel that there should always be a place for private or integrated schools that choose to teach and promote religion at school as religion is ideally integrated into life rather than separated from it. To be able to choose in this way is (or should be) a parent's basic democratic right, so long as the teaching of religion does not infringe the rights of others (that is the democratic promise, isn't it?). Ideally respect (or at worst compassion) for other religions as well as for those choosing no religion would also be taught and provision made for those attending the school who do not follow the school's religion.

However, for state schools the secular route is, for most of us, I would think, the only answer in our society. In this context it would be good to learn something about different religions, as a means of fostering understanding. Religion would ideally be presented alongside non-religious ethical and moral viewpoints, not just as a "legitimate form of knowledge or object of study" but also as potentially creative and engaging means of finding stability, happiness and fulfillment in life, as a means of working with our mental condition, and as a means of contributing to a better world, more vast in scope than we normally imagine. It would be good if students could also develop a subtle appreciation that religious and non-religious views and practices, like everything in life, have the potential to be used both for good and misused for bad.

Which, of course leads us to consider what makes something good and what makes it bad. This underlines the need for actively developing (or at least addressing) the issue of secular ethics (e.g. see Is there a common ethics that emerges from our condition as human beings, that can cross all religious and non-religious boundaries in a coherent and heartfelt manner? If so, how does each religion encompass this, and how can this "secular ethics" be practiced by those who do not practice religion? Are there more effective ways to practice it? Can it be expressed simply such that its heartfelt and not just a bunch of words?

And can those who choose no religion still learn from the age old religious traditions even though they choose not to follow a religion - for example, by employing methods such as meditation, contemplation, working with ego, and prayer (yes, you don't need a "God" concept to pray - there are other concepts that will do such as "that part of me which knows" - and the humbling and clarifying effects of prayer can still be of benefit, along with any "blessing" - i.e. benefit from a source that you can't fully understand - the "subconscious", or "collective subconscious" might do if you don't believe in the help of any external being).

I would aspire to a world where all religion (and non-religion equally) are seen as different symbolic representations of similar "truths". That we can follow a religion with complete trust in its symbolism and practices as suitable for me, my mind, or my culture, yet not thinking the same path suits everyone and that others may do best to choose another path, or perhaps choose no religion yet still live by a solid ethical framework. This is not to say all paths are equal, but that others can live well and may do best under their circumstances by following another route. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

The question really, in my view, is this: Should the biggest (and perhaps most controversial) questions be ignored in our schools? My answer is no.