Teaching Religion in Schools: Problems and Possibilities

July 28, 2014

Rohit Dhankar

Published in Deccan Herald, on 28th July 2014; http://www.deccanherald.com/content/422178/possibilities-problems.html

One often comes across expression of worries regarding lack of moral values in present day education. The teaching of religion in schools is advanced as a preferred solution to this problem. Teaching of religion is also often suggested as a means to reduce tension and strife between followers’ of different faiths.

Basically these claims boil down to two contentions: one, that knowledge of each other’s religion will enhance mutual goodwill; and two, that religion can become a viable basis of moral development in a secular democratic society. Both contentions stand in need of critical examination.

Such examination will require a distinction between ‘religious teaching’ and ‘teaching about religions’. This distinction is often ignored when arguments to introduce religion in curriculum are advanced. ‘Religious teaching’ indicates teaching of the religious dogmas as well as acceptance of those dogmas. For example, teaching Hinduism for a vaishnavite may involve making students believe that Krishna was really an avatar of Vishnu. Teaching Islam and Christianity will respectively involve making the students believe that Muhammad was really a prophet of Allah and that Christ was really the son of God.

‘Teaching about religions’, on the other hand, will limit to helping the students to understand the religious beliefs, but without any commitment to their truth. In ‘teaching about religions’, then, the three religious beliefs mentioned above need to be understood, critically examined; but the students are not required to accept them.

Religious teaching, then, will be incompatible with a secular education system. That leads to the assumption that those who want to introduce religion in curriculum are recommending ‘teaching about religions’.

In principle understanding of each other’s belief systems should facilitate better mutual understanding, and therefore, enhance harmonious living of different religious groups. This should also increase sensitivity and tolerance as knowledge of the others’ beliefs helps understanding emotional importance of those beliefs for them. But in a multi-religious secular democracy there might be serious practical problems in teaching about religions in schools.

Let’s note that one important aim of education in democracies is to develop critical citizenship; as no democracy can function well without constantly watchful citizens. Development of critical citizenship necessarily require independence of judgment and action. Which in turn will demand critical rational examination of all ideas and beliefs. Therefore, if one has to teach about religions in a democratic system what is being taught has to submit to critical rational examination. The study of religions, then, cannot be a “reverential study” as Gandhi along with many other often recommended. It has to be a critical study rationally examining every belief and event in the history of religions.

Critical study of religions in schools is likely to create a practical problem with two dimensions. One, lack of teachers who can deal with religious beliefs and history with respect, without biases and at the same time without slightest compromise in incisive analysis, without compromising on precise expression of the results of rational enquiry; whether they be favourable or unfavourable to religious beliefs. Our system at resent does not have enough teachers who can take up this task. The second dimension is that the very people who are recommending teaching about religion today will oppose it when religious beliefs like avatar-hood of Krishna, prophet-hood of Mohammad and status of Christ as son of God will be seriously interrogated in classrooms across the nation.

This, however, is not an argument against teaching about religions in schools. This is only to indicate that serious preparation will be required before we could do that. We have to prepare teachers and we have to prepare the public to take critique of religions in a rational and mutually accommodating spirit. A beginning in the second could be made in the press by examining religious beliefs and history more seriously than we do at the moment.

The second claim that religions can provide a basis for moral development is based on the false assumption that in essentials all religions meet in perfect harmony. This claim is born out of unduly reverential study of religions and not out of critical study of them. Actually religions are more often in serious confrontation with each other. Claim of harmony is more of a politically correct statement than a substantiated one. This disharmony between different religious belief systems is enough to dash all hope of religions becoming basis of moral development in a secular system.

But there are even more unsurmountable problems. Moral development does not mean memorisation of moral maxims like “always tell the truth”. Nor is it complete even if one is conditioned to act according to such maxims. Moral development necessarily requires ability to make reasoned judgment in the face of value conflicts. There can be no predetermined formula to resolve value conflicts arising in different actual contexts. The religious ethics is essentially a faith based ethics. It depends on the dogma or divine command, and therefore, is not capable of independent rational judgment. Another problem in religious ethics is that it is essentially utilitarian and self-centred. You obey religious dogma or divine command because you want personal favours from the divinity or you want salvation. It, therefore, depends on non-rational uncritical belief; for personal benefit. How does one square development of critical reason for democratic citizenship and uncritical belief formation in the same classroom?

In conclusion perhaps we can say that teaching about religions cannot form a basis for moral development. Though, it could be very important for development of mutual understanding and sensitivity between different religious groups. However, even for this second purpose introduction of critical study of different religious in schools will require enormous preparation and a very cautious approach.

Making sense of curriculum debate

July 17, 2014


Is the Shankaracharya being Hindu enough? And What if truth hurts someone’s religious sentiments?

July 5, 2014

Rohit Dhankar

A recent controversy about Shirdi Sai Baba started by Shakaracharya Swami Swaroopanand shows the intellectual, spiritual and tolerance level of the religious minded in our secular democratic country.

First a few facts

Set A from two Hindu sanyasins:

1. The Shankaracharya said “Sai Baba was a Muslim Fakir”

2. So he “ cannot be compared to Hindu deities or worshipped like them”

3. According to him certain forces are corrupting Hindu religion by arbitrarily creating new gods.

4. Uma Bharati thinks that “looking upon someone as a god was people’s personal opinion …”

5. However, the Shankaracharya is worried that “Statues of Sai Baba were being installed in homes. What if they were installed in our temples?”

6. He accuses Bharati of being “worshiper of a Muslim”

Set B from Shirdi Sai Baba worshippers:

1. “The Sai Temple authority in Lucknow has filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court demanding an FIR against Shankaracharya of Dwarkapeeth Swaroopananda Saraswati for hurting religious sentiments” of thousands of Sai Baba devotees.

The first question: Is the Shankaracharya being Hindu enough?

One can hardly fight with the fact that the individual remembered as Sai Baba was a Muslim fakir. His worship by many Hindus (perhaps very few Muslims) does not change this fact. We do not know much of his belief system in detail though.

But rest of the Shankaracharya’s claims hardly hold any water. The ancestors of the people today called Hindus have been too good at creating and worshipping gods. Right from the Vedic era they have run a virtual industry of this. Surely, the economic gains and power over peoples’ thinking have been the main motives. It is always doubtful—in all religions—whether the creation and worshiping gods is necessarily an act of faith or more motivated by possible socio-political-economic gains.

It is a well-known fact that Shiva and Ganesha are not Vedic gods, they were introduced in the Hindu pantheon much later. They have many temples devoted to them and form part of set of idols in many others. More recently Santoshi Mata has been created and fitted in the company of Devis smugly. Now she has temples devoted to her. A section of modern Hindus has a craze for building temples to politicians and even to film stars. So what danger a poor Muslim Fakir can cause to either Hindu mind-set or to their temples? How addition of one in tetees-caror can manage to corrupt Hindu religion? If the number and variety of gods corrupt it then it is already unredeemable corrupted.

For a change Uma Bharati is right when she says that “looking upon someone as a god was people’s personal opinion …”. That always have been the Hindu view regarding gods. There are plenty of Muslim fakir and even worriers who are being worshiped by Hindus in rural India, albeit at a smaller scale and in a local population.

It seems the Shankaracharya is deviating from Hindu attitude to creating and worshipping gods. We all have our right to create as many gods as we please, and in as many shapes and size as we please, to boot. Our gods do not even need to be all good, they can happily have some elements of maliciousness in them.

The second question: When the truth contradicts religious sentiments which should have priority?

We are living in a secular democracy. The claim that the Sai baba was a man, and a Muslim fakir is true enough. That worshiping Sai Baba is corruption of Hinduism is the Shankaracharya’s opinion. So are her claims that (i) a Muslim should not be worshipped, (ii) Sai Baba temples are being created to deflect attention from Rama Temple, and (iii) Sai Baba is no symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity.

Now the issue is: if the one true statement and several opinions of the Shankaracharya hurt Sai Baba devotees’ sentiments can one file an FIR and drag him to the court?

As I said above we are living in a secular democracy, which guarantees freedom of expression. That right is extended to all citizens of India, the Shakaracharya included.

Sai Baba was a human, was a Muslim fakir and could not have been a god, as there is no such thing as god. If all this hurts Sai devotees’ sentiments, too bad. They should either change their belief system or learn not to get hurt so easily. However, they have a perfect right to worship Sai Baba as god if they like; after all everyone is free to be deluded or even a hypocrite.

The Shakaracharya of course is free to express his views, in this matter. But he can hardly be said to be following Hindu cannon in holding and expressing the beliefs that a Muslim cannot be worshiped by Hindus as a god, or that creating new gods will corrupt Hindu religion.

I don’t even think that there is such a thing as THE HINDU RELIGION. What we call Hinduism is more like a basket of several religious sects exhibiting a family resemblance. There is plenty of room in this basket for many more panthas. So don’t torment yourself, Your Holiness, as long as this creativity and variety is allowed Hinduism is in no danger.