Opinionista Marelise Van Der Merwe 3 September 2014

Religious schools: What’s good for the goose…

Earlier this week, my colleague Marianne Thamm explored a case where an application filed in the Gauteng High Court by an NGO sought to prohibit six public schools from advertising themselves as “Christian” or as having a “Christian ethos”. The case made me deeply uncomfortable, even though it’s been a long time since I was a little tyke going carolling and it’s not often I find myself defending the FF+ or the ACDP. Why?

I don’t have a problem with secular education. I think it’s actually a pretty good idea. One only has to spend a few minutes watching these videos of American beauty queens dismissing evolution as a “theory” to decide science and maths are the safer bet.

My own education encompassed religious instruction. Although I was raised in a Christian home and have the deepest respect for my parents and the way that they approach their faith – which is to say: just, open-minded and loving – I found myself, from a young age, being at loggerheads with many of the teachers who taught us RI. I didn’t like the way in which they denigrated the atheists in our class. I wondered how it was for the Muslim and Jewish girls to have to stand up, conspicuously, to go and sit somewhere else and do their homework (and I wondered why the atheists – and one girl who declared herself a Buddhist, but was dismissed as a rebel – weren’t allowed to go and join them).

I had also been raised to believe that religion, in whichever form it came, was fundamentally a message of love and acceptance, and the primary message in our house was “Judge not, lest ye be judged”. My dad, a professional academic and amateur theologian, frequently teamed up with colleagues of other religions to write books that preached messages of acceptance and that focused on the finding of common ground. (Yes, with atheists too.) So it really pissed me off when these supposedly Christian teachers had something to say about other people’s beliefs. It went against the kind of Christianity I had been taught. Where I came from, it was all about that moment in Mars Attacks when Jack Nicholson’s character, amidst alien warfare and exploding brain matter, says quizzically, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

So my experience of a Christian education did raise questions for me. Questions about fairness, questions about acceptance, questions about how we treat each other and how we relate to each other’s beliefs. This, I think, was a good thing, although I do think that the teachers delivering the religious instruction ranged from outstanding to downright horrific. Like teachers of poetry and literature, they had the potential to either develop us into great thinkers or lifelong haters of their subject. In the end, much of it was in their hands. Sadly, many of them botched it.

Today, the children in my family have different circumstances. Two of the kids I know are, despite not being Jewish, attending Jewish schools and one of them is excelling at Jewish Studies and Hebrew. He’s fascinated by the politics and current affairs. My own child is not a Catholic, but merrily attended a Catholic school and learnt about rosaries and attended cheery youth groups – more for the girls, we suspected, than the godliness. Sometimes he learnt things we agreed with and sometimes he didn’t. In Comparative Religion, he was exposed to other religions too. We discussed it all with him and encouraged him to make up his own mind. Oddly enough, nothing terrible has befallen any of these children, except that they are rather good at debating.

So I am disturbed by this targeting of Christian schools. It’s not that I want Christianity in schools; for me that is neither here nor there. What bothers me is the double standard. Firstly, it seems bizarre in a country that addresses God in its courts and its Constitution (not Allah, not Jehovah, not Buddha, not the Great White Handkerchief). This – as much as OGOD chairperson, Hans Pietersen, may want to claim that it’s neutral and inclusive of all religions – is not. If you want to take the Christian ethos out of schools, for the love of God (see what I did there?) take it out everywhere else too. “God” is not an inclusive term for anyone and everyone’s god. It’s a reference, loudly and clearly, to the Christian God (witness the use of the uppercase G and no definite article, which would have differentiated it as a common noun, i.e. a god in the more general sense). It’s a hangover from the country’s Christian days, dressed up as inclusivity. At the very least, admit it. And then, if you want to preach a secular approach, do it properly.

Secondly, what is it about Christian schools that is so bad? Is Christianity different from any other religion? Because I don’t see moves to shut down any other religious schools – of which there are plenty, and not necessarily private. I am sure that if a move were made to shut down or secularise Jewish or Muslim schools, it would be seen as discrimination of the worst kind. Of course, it does bear thinking about that the schools in OGOD’s case are state-funded public schools: I do understand why taxpayers would be uncomfortable paying for children to receive instruction in schools of beliefs other than their own. But again, there are questions worth asking. Although it is preferable to have a large number of public schools being secular, I don’t see why – if the religion is approached in a considerate and intelligent way, with adequate support and open discussion from parents – religion of any kind need not find its place in some schools. There are, for starters, plenty of secular schools around for those parents who don’t like it; and perhaps the answer is not to remove Christian public schools, but to open the space for more public schools representing other beliefs too. As a taxpayer, I’d be okay with funding schools of all beliefs: Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, secular…if I felt everyone had a fair chance at representation.

Why can’t we have religious schools? It might not be what many like – but in the end it is not up to non-believers to decide that. Furthermore, nobody can control what we teach our children in any case. You can pass all the laws you like, and you can still have some fruitcake down the road home schooling her child to believe that we’re all descended from the Grand Reptile Zog. So perhaps it should rather be up to the individual to pick a school – secular or religious – which represents their beliefs.

Furthermore, if religious instruction is done from a place of acceptance, intelligence and non-judgement, where learners are encouraged to find their own path to what they believe, we may even be looking at a generation of more accomplished philosophical thinkers in the liberal arts – which we sorely need. Personally, I would have no problem sending my child to Jewish public school (for example) if it were in the neighbourhood. It would probably broaden his mind to be exposed to another culture. The issue here is not whether religion should be allowed in schools – it is how it is approached.

My suspicion is that Christianity is criticised so vehemently because it is hegemonic, or the ‘default setting’ (hence Pietersen’s belief that the word “God” can apply to anyone’s god) – and that other religions are, sometimes, treated with kid gloves, not out of consideration but out of a patronising belief that they are more fragile. But this is nonsense. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and if you put a stop to one, you’ve got to stop them all. Which, considering the pivotal role that religious schooling plays in the cultural survival of many religions in South Africa, would be a huge problem. And anyone standing outside of a given religious community cannot hope to understand that impact.

Let’s look at an example. For me, personally – and I know this will be controversial – I am not sold on sending young Muslim children to learn to be a hafiz (someone who can recite the Qur’an, starting at any point). From my cultural perspective, it strikes me as extreme: the child’s study of ‘normal’ (and by ‘normal’ I mean ‘hegemonic’) school subjects will defer to his study of the Qur’an. In my view, he will begin his studies at an age when he is too young to make that kind of decision about his life. It worries me.

And yet I cannot deny that, as someone standing outside of Islam, I simply do not know what I am talking about. Huffaz command enormous respect within the Islamic community; it is a sacred title that I, as an outsider, cannot hope to comprehend. It is also true that the prophet Muhammad said the study of the Qur’an is the greatest of studies, and that, “On the day of judgement, it will be said to the man devoted to the Qur’an, ‘Go on reciting the Qur’an and continue ascending the storeys of paradise and recite in the slow manner you had been reciting in the worldly life. Your final abode will be where you reach at the time you recite the last ayah (verse).” Furthermore, back in the seventh century, few people were literate, and memorisation of the Qur’an was in fact a crucial part of preserving the culture and language. It was the learning, back then. It was the culture and education, and what was worth knowing. It’s a priceless tradition that today is thousands of years old.

It’s also played an essential role in bringing Arabic to its written form. According to Wikipedia, “the Arabic writing of the time was a scripta defectiva, an incomplete script, that did not include vowel markings or other diacritics needed to distinguish between words. Hence if there was any question as to the pronunciation of a verse, the memorised verses were a better source than the written ones. The huffaz were also highly appreciated as reciters, whose intoned words were accessible even to the illiterate. Memorisation required no expensive raw materials (in an age when there was no paper in the Muslim world, only vellum).”

Bottom line: I know it’s something that I don’t understand, but I also know it has a function, and that it’s sacred. So I respect it. And I back off. Which, I think, is a sensible approach for anybody to take when approaching someone else’s religion. It’s important to them, so handle with care.

Maybe, then, the key to this whole mystery is not to target six Christian schools because we find their prayers threatening to secular thought. Religion is not some magic juju that fills people’s brains with Stupid the second they are exposed to it. In fact, under the correct teacher and with the right guidance from parents, discussing it can be tremendously intellectually stimulating. And if, in our homes, we teach our children to speak up, to question, and to develop their minds, we won’t have to worry quite so much about what they see and hear. Maybe, instead of fearing religion, we should look at it the way we do at gay marriage: if you don’t like it, don’t get one. But don’t stand in the way of everyone else. And if we still feel we prefer a secular education, there are secular schools aplenty: go ahead and pick one.

I dislike evangelism in any form, and evangelical atheism is included in that. Maybe instead of playing Thought Police, we should send our children to whatever school we feel is right for them – whether it’s a secular or a religious one – and instead of trying to limit what they are exposed to, we could just teach our children to think for themselves from the start. DM


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