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The case for keeping religious instruction out of our p...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

The case for keeping religious instruction out of our public schools

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

The children who matriculate from Patrick Henry College in the US have to sign a declaration of faith, which reads: ‘Anyone who dies outside of Christ will be confined in conscious torment for eternity’. On the other side of the world, children are taught to kill people who do not believe in Islam.

I came across a commentary by Prof Jonathan Jansen earlier this week in which he admitted to having “a soft spot for broadcast programmes like CCFM and Radio Islam because they bring a spiritual dimension to complex questions in education” (my emphasis). The former (CCFM) identifies as a contemporary Christian community radio station, and Radio Islam is an Islamic radio station.

While I have no intent or desire to see these radio stations shut down, Jansen has given some kind of primacy to religious instruction in public schools where, I believe, religious instruction has no place. People can teach their children religion, and insist on religious beliefs, in the confines of their own homes and churches.

The Constitution (Section 15.1) guarantees “everyone” (including teachers and pupils) the right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief. So far so good, if you adhere to a particular religion or belief. I will take a wild guess that this does not include atheism, humanism, animism or any of the myriad belief systems in the world.

Across Africa, animism forms the core of “traditional African religions” which include the worship of tutelary deities, nature worship, ancestor worship and a customary belief in an afterlife.

While some religions adopted a pantheistic worldview, most follow a polytheistic system with various gods, spirits and other supernatural beings. Traditional African religions include elements of shamanism, fetishism and veneration of relics.

While the Constitution is silent on “religious education” and “religious instruction” in public schools, it specifically deals with “religious observances”. Section 15(2) of the Constitution — to which the 2003 national policy on religion and education is subject — makes it clear that “religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions”, subject to three conditions:

  • The observances must follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities;
  • They must be conducted on an equitable basis; and
  • Attendance must be free and voluntary.

The policy draws clear distinctions between “religion education” (which is mandatory), “religious instruction” (impermissible) and “religious observances” in public schools.

These provisions need to be reconsidered, especially because religious beliefs, reliant as they are on faith, have no place in progressive, secular education. This is especially true in science, where imagination (then testing it against evidence), experimentation, evidence, reason and rationalism take precedence.

I should add, in haste, that intellectually and personally, I always leave room for irrationality and unreason — but only in the social world (in humanities and social sciences). Faith schools, too, are problematic. But let us start with religious instruction in public schools.

There is no place for god in the classroom

The first problem, in my view, is the way Jansen has appropriated the idea of spiritualism and redeployed it as intrinsic to religion and education. This is misguided.

One can be spiritual without believing in god. Every time I look at the night sky — and the times I have marvelled at the aurora borealis — I experienced something spiritual. The Hubble Deep Field image has revealed the vastness of the universe(s) and exposed to us some of the most distant galaxies ever seen. There is something awe-inspiring about that — as there is about the cosmic microwave background, for that matter.

These are among the issues, when taught in schools, that can evoke a type of spirituality, or even a mystique, and a sense of oneself in the universe. You don’t need a god to evoke those feelings or senses.

There is, also, the belief that one has to belong to some religion or god, typically the Abrahamic faith, to have some kind of moral basis for your life. I would argue that you can live a moral and ethical life without being threatened with eternal damnation if you are immoral. I believe also that you can be a good person because it’s a good thing, and not because you will go to heaven some day.

Ideally, education should be Critical (with a capitalised “C”) pluralistic, non-dogmatic and intellectually honest — especially at the elementary level.

If school administrators insist on teaching creationism, they should at least also teach evolution by natural selection. Given, however, the physical conflict wrought by religious fundamentalists, and its heavy reliance on the supernatural and the willing suspension of disbelief, an argument can be made that creationism should not be taught in school.

There is no evidence for god, nor for religious exceptionalism

One does not have to “hate” any religion to understand the way that young children are brainwashed in madrassas in Afghanistan and Pakistan to kill non-believers, and Christian children to condemn non-believers.

While I personally don’t have evidence that there is no god, the burden of proof is on the believers. The great thing about science is that one is able to say, “I don’t know, but scientists are working on it”, while the faithful just know — from how black holes or atoms form, to what happens when stars collide.

Scientists can actually point to a moment, about 13.7 billion years ago, when the observable universe started. I’m not sure the god of the Abrahamic religions, or the followers of Sathya Sai Baba, can provide us with more evidence than that which is written in their holy books, and which cannot be verified.

There is nothing to be gained from spoiling for a fight with people over their faith. For many people, faith fills an important space and plays an important role in their lives. In public school classrooms of a secular state, there is, however, no place for god.

Religious education is already part of the national curriculum. Pupils are taught about the religions of the world. The first problem — setting aside briefly the lack of evidence — with religious education is usually “instruction in a particular faith or belief, with a view to the inculcation of adherence to that faith or belief”, and the exclusion of people who have different beliefs.

The Constitution does not guarantee freedom “from” religion, but freedom “of” religion — including in public schools. As the Constitutional Court stated in the case of MEC for Education v Pillay: “The display of religion and culture in public is not a ‘parade of horribles’ but a pageant of diversity which will enrich our schools and, in turn, our country.”

But all of this fails to consider that schools are being built around the world that condemn people who have different beliefs.

One example I came across in the US more than 15 years ago was of Patrick Henry College, which had fewer than 500 students at the time, and believes that the Christian god “is the source of all truth”.

Patrick Henry is a kind of feeder school for evangelicals and fundamentalists who prefer home schooling their children in preparation for employment in government. The children who matriculate have to sign a declaration of faith, which reads: “Anyone who dies outside of Christ will be confined in conscious torment for eternity.”

Ultimately, faith is a very personal thing, and science is necessarily public. The main religious texts are firm, and cannot, or will not be changed. Science tends to correct itself when new evidence is presented. No new evidence will change the religious scriptures. Apparently, they already contain everything that has happened and will happen in the years to come.

Of all the things that really do my head in about religion, is why the god of the Abrahamic people decided, say 4,000 years ago, to intervene in the world.

According to most scientists, human beings have been on earth for at least 100,000 years — one estimate has it at 300,000 years. Here’s the question: Why did god wait centuries before going to some of the most backward regions (China was a much more advanced society 5,000 years ago) of the world — the Middle East — meet in secret with “prophets”, and tell them stuff? Do the billions of people who lived before that, not matter?

It’s almost trite to repeat, but a solid education in the social and natural sciences, and in the professions, all make for a solid basis for society. To be able to understand the world and live a moral and ethical life is possible in a solid society without the fear of burning in hell, and makes for a much more satisfying life.

Jansen has every right to his beliefs, but our children need to be protected from false beliefs and lies (they are unproven) about heaven and hell. DM

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All Comments 16

    • Anyone who cites Einstein in defence of their belief in a personal creator god, à la the Judeo-Christian tradition, is utterly clueless about his actual religious and philosophical views.

      • Not at all,every person is allowed to believe what he wants.My observation that he is an Atheist is purely from reading his article.What I will do is pray for him,hope that doesn’t get misinterpreted

        • People should indeed enjoy freedom of belief, so why then attempt to disparage Lagardien’s convictions by presenting a conveniently contrived picture of Einstein’s beliefs?! (Were he alive, Einstein would likely characterise your offer to pray for the author as “childlike” and “naïve.”)

          • Einstein was just used as of a person who believes in a Creator.Just as you have the right to defend atheism,I have the right to defend religion I choose to believe in.That goes for every person,you can used all the fancy analysis and words you want to.I will believe, so will you disbelief.

    • “You are essentially an atheist.” Is that supposed to be an insult? Us atheists don’t see it like that.. You just don’t have the ability to think for yourself…

      • You’re no doubt aware that atheists are among the world’s most reviled significant minorities—which is why some people might think it’s a pejorative label, especially when spelt with a capital “A.”

  • It is clear that Lagardien ascribe to scientism also a religion. He is propagating his faith to be taught in schools and vilify others. Using only negative and extreme examples. I am surprised that Maverick allow this level of prejudice and advocacy of religion by Lagardien. I am disgusted.

  • Thank you to the DM for providing the space for challenging writers such as Ismail Lagardien. It’s striking that dissenting responses to his article on religion in schools don’t deal with his argument but get personal instead.

    • “If you can’t answer a man’s arguments, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names.” ~Elbert Hubbard

      Nowhere is this observation more pertinent than when the religious (mis)perceive that their beliefs are being threatened—which is hardly what Lagardien is doing.

        • Tell that to the hordes out there who will never be happy until everyone else believes as they do, and who incline towards violence in pursuit of that goal. (The glaring irony, of course, is that they’ll avow with all sincerity that their beliefs provide harmony and serenity.)

  • The issue of all the ‘main religious texts’ is that they are written in allegorical & metaphoric language. Most adherents to any of these rely on ‘leaders’ to delve into the ‘meanings’ thereof. Depending on the propensity or inclinations of the ‘leaders’, they are accepted literally by followers.

  • There is Gary Larsen Far Side cartoon depicting two opposing armies, replete with banners. The caption reads’ There can be no peace until they renounce their duck god and accept our rabbit god’. But the banners are mirror images

  • Schools should teach children to think critically about *all* beliefs. Scientism is one such set of beliefs. It is based on the doctrine that only the physical exists (physicalism). It has many variants, each with its own ethical system.

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