Sunday, 15 November 2015

No education can be complete without studying world religions.

How many was it...?

While I can understand the difficulty of trying to find space for the new Education about Religion, Beliefs and Ethics (ERBE) class in a busy school curriculum, not one cell of me fears for the faiths of faith-based schools.
What are they frightened of? The entire environment and ethos of faith-based schools is single-mindedly monotheistic, and given Primary School childrens’ ability to absorb the entire universe around them, I’m sure that each boy and girl will soak up a heap of religion, which here in the Republic of Ireland means that 90% will start life as Catholics.
Some complain that world religions are too complex for the childrens’ tiny minds, to which I suggest that if they are old enough to understand Christianity, they’ll equally be able to grasp the basic tenets of other religions.
Later, being sentient human beings, they will decide for themselves which kind of adult they want to become. Well, maybe, if they succeed in breaking out of whichever prison of indoctrination they’ve lived in since birth.
If any religion is worth its salt, it should not feel threatened by education. If your faith, whichever it might be, is the true faith, then it has nothing to fear from knowledge of other faiths, or understanding other less fortunate souls, who live the wrong way according to your laws.
I find it astonishing that there might be any outcry whatsoever about the teaching of world religions. To me it seems beyond belief that anyone might deem it possible to create a curriculum in which world religion as a subject does not exist. How on earth will the next generation pretend to understand this planet and the people on it, without an appreciation of their beliefs?
I recently heard someone on the radio being asked for a definition of culture.
“Culture is the distance we put between ourselves and our faeces.” he replied.
Quite a brilliant answer. There’s buckets of pooh written about culture every day. In some newspapers it has its own section, which always makes me smile, as I wonder how we dare to isolate culture as an end in itself, rather than the product of everything we do.
Take a war, any war. An army marches on its stomach, so the soldiers’ food will be in some way familiar, to remind them of the homeland for which they are fighting. 
They will have faith that God is on their side. If it’s a religious war their God will be the reason they are fighting.
Before the war there will be propaganda, cartoons of the enemy, and if their culture allows, other cartoons attacking the war itself. 
After the battles, movies will be made, books written, frescos drawn on walls, friezes carved on ancient temples.
The losers displaced, carry their faiths along with their furniture. They will eat, drink and pray as they did before, but in new countries. Their religion is as intrinsic to their culture as their food, their homeland, their history and their human geography.
Trying to offer an education without teaching world religion is akin to teaching anatomy without mentioning the heart. You’ve nearly all the pieces but there’s a gaping hole and nothing is as connected as it might be.
Faith-based schools cannot and should not try to fill that hole entirely with their own religion. They must have faith that their own religion is strong enough to allow their believers to learn about the world.
Even though I do not have one, I’m well able to understand that a belief in God is a wondrous and joyous thing, yet all I see from religious bodies is fear-based behaviours, attempting to crush imagined oppositions.
Some do-gooders are making the spurious argument that as Ireland now has a new immigrant population, it’s important that we learn about their religions too.
Well yes, of course we have to honour and acknowledge their presence and their faiths, but we need not patronise them.
What we need to offer those immigrant children is the same we need to offer indigenous children: a comprehensive education that carries as little bias as possible.
Although I often criticise my English Public School education for its anachronistic and unregulated regime, I can find no fault with the way we were taught about religion.
With an impressive dimple at the end of his ski-jump nose, our RE teacher Rev. Hall was a softly-spoken perma-tanned man, who fascinated and inspired me as a boy by proudly wearing his dog collar while criticising his own religion.
In a gentle, very English and rather magnificent way, he explained how much had been lost in translation over the centuries. We were not to take the Bible at face value. 
Adam and Eve was a story written by the Pharisees, who were trying to stop Solomon sleeping around so much, by showing him how women had supposedly led men astray since the Creation. 
‘Forty days and Forty nights’ was just a Hebrew way of saying ‘A long time.’
We laughed when he said that Jesus only had two buttocks, so he could not have ridden into Jerusalem on both an ass and a donkey. The repetition was just the Hebrew way of using emphasis, as we might use italics: A donkey!
Rev. Hall challenged our minds to enquire; to question and consider. He asked us to consult our Bibles and tell him how many loaves and fishes there were at the feeding of the five thousand. 
Turns out, it rather depends on which gospel you’re reading. 5 and 2 or 7 and 3, or… the details are unimportant.
The way he encouraged us to think for ourselves, to understand and respect religion while retaining our independence of thought was admirable. He did not fear that by learning too much we might turn our backs on his religion. He knew well that encouraging critical thinking didn’t preclude faith.
I hope that the Church in Ireland grows to see education in the same way.

©Charlie Adley

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