The Religious Education Council for England and Wales has claimed that all children should be educated in the subject of world religion. The counsel wants to start even the youngest students in a curriculum on the subject, and (if the informal poll is to be trusted) most are opposed to the idea.
Personally, I’ve never considered the idea of teaching world religion to primary students, but I’ve long since been bothered by the fact that one can graduate high school with no more than cartoonish stereotypes as one’s knowledge of world religion.
Nearly any time I’ve raised the issue, strong opposition isn’t far behind. The most common response is the idea that a world religion class would simply be a devotional class in disguise.
And this, to be honest, mostly reveals a certain ignorance as to what religion and religious education actually are. Really, this is a little like saying that history shouldn’t be taught in schools because it would be imperialist propaganda in disguise. It is highly questionable, at best, that students learning about all the world religions will be more likely to uncritically accept the most familiar of them. From my experience, it’s far more likely that “exotic” religions will be embraced through these classes.
But this all misses the point. The potential for problems is not a reason to stifle education. Indeed, this is one of the chief complaints that secularists have with religious fundamentalists: seeking to prevent children from being exposed to opposing ideas. Any platform preaching that it is best to keep young people ignorant is, in my view, on a slippery slope to some rather dark places.
It always surprises me, how indifferent is the reaction to the idea that we’re not educating young people in the beliefs of 90% of the world–as if one can have a robust understanding of history, art, politics, and sociology while remaining completely ignorant of the beliefs that so often shape those subjects.
I think part of the problem is that many people find it hard to seriously entertain the idea that anyone could possibly want a religious education class for a reason other than to proselytize to students. It simply doesn’t matter how, or how often, you say “knowing something about the beliefs of other people is part of being an educated person”, what too many people hear is “I’m going to try to brainwash your child.”
And this is unfortunate, because it is precisely those who don’t want children to learn who are, however unwittingly, brainwashing children. I’ve run across many young people who are so immersed in white, western, post-enlightenment culture that they have a hard time fathoming that there are other ways of thinking and doing things. Whether or not one, at the end of the day, agrees with those alternatives, it seems undeniable that it is better to reject them out of knowledge, rather than ignorance.
When I was a child, I struggled desperately with the questions addressed by the major religions of the world. Though I couldn’t have expressed it then, I was deeply frustrated and hurt by the unwritten rule that we simply do not talk about life’s most important questions in a place that is supposed to be teaching me to think and ask questions. An atheist, I suspect, may even argue that I am a Christian precisely because, as I quickly learned, the Church was the only place available to me willing to have that conversation.
On occasion, one encounters an idea that, the more one thinks about it, the less sense it makes. This has been my experience with opposition to religious education.
It seems to be connected to the foggy idea that it is somehow acceptable to drift through life without ever seriously considering the most important questions as more than matters of personal opinion–or ever looking into what great thinkers of the past have had to say on the subject.
Here, one begins to suspect that it is not ultimately fear that one particular religion (presumably Christianity) will be favored in such classes. It seems that it just might have more to do with a certain fundamentalism. A fear that one’s own views will be dismissed by a generation that is better educated than one’s self.
Whether this is true or not, it is hard to see how this is all that different from insular religious groups sheltering their children from outside ideas–something opponents of religious education claim to decry.