Teaching Religion in Schools: Problems and Possibilities

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.

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