Considerable controversy has been generated by news that a nongovernmental organisation, the Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy, has applied to the Johannesburg high court seeking to prohibit six public schools from advertising themselves as exclusively “Christian” or promoting a “Christian ethos”.
Some schools apparently actively promote the Christian faith even to the extent of praying before rugby matches. The Daily Maverick reported on September 3 that the Freedom Front Plus had condemned this attempted ban as “a witch hunt on Christendom”.
This raises the question of whether all reference to religion should be banned from state schools. I believe the contrary – that the responsible teaching of religion in schools is crucial for the promotion of rational, open discussion and knowledge of “the rich and diverse religious heritage of our country” and of our world, as Hans Pietersen, chairperson of the Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy, was quoted as saying in the Daily Maverick story.
In order to understand the complex attitudes, assumptions and conflicts of the modern world, it is necessary to acknowledge the crucial influence of religion on human consciousness and behaviour.
Whether one is a believer in a religious faith or not, most rational people would acknowledge the central role played by religion in the past and present, for good or ill, in the lives of millions of inhabitants of all countries.
To be human is to be aware that we are subject to chance in an infinite universe, in which we will live, suffer and eventually die. So: “Who am I?” and “What does it all mean?” are fundamental questions of existence that numerous religious systems over centuries of human history have tackled in a variety of ways.
The study of religion addresses the meaning of life itself: What is “the truth” and how is it to be known? This raises the questions of which religions are true; whether their claims are verifiable; whether religion is a response to a transcendent reality, experienced as holy, or a human invention; and whether there is one true faith by which all others can be judged as inadequate or false.
Recently, the academic study of religion has been guided by the phenomenological perspective, a method that attempts to accurately describe and analyse religious experience in as empathetic a manner as possible.
This method refrains from making judgments about the value or veracity of belief systems, while attempting to understand a believer’s faith from the inside – to see and experience the world from another’s viewpoint, however different that might be from one’s own.
This open approach is very different from the old “comparative religion” method, which assumed the superiority of Christianity, comparing all other faiths unfavourably with it and assuming it to be the fullest revelation of the truth about God.
The phenomenological method humbly acknowledges that “truth” is far more immense than any one mind can grasp, so that this boundlessness cannot be confined to one religious tradition, but that each religion has glimpses of truth and something of value to offer. As Swami Vivekanada said: “I accept all of the religions of the past and I worship God with every one of them. Can God’s book be finished? Must it not be a continuing revelation?”
Also the words of Ramakrishna: “Many are the names of God and infinite the forms through which he may be approached.”
A distinction can be made between the insider’s response to his or her religious tradition and that of the sympathetic student of religion: the former’s is to find personal enlightenment and transformation, the latter’s to access and convey unbiased information.
In this more academic approach, the teacher attempts to impart to students an empathetic understanding, appreciation and respect for the beliefs, rituals, stories, symbols and practices of religious traditions without passing judgment. And, somewhat surprisingly, in doing so, unexpected and precious insights into the ineffable meaning of human existence, and one’s own place in this search for meaning, are often gained.
So, great religious traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism can be explored through themes such as founders and teachers, festivals, scriptures and stories, sacred places, architecture, art, music and food. Even nonreligious world views such as atheism and humanism can be examined as examples of alternative options in making sense of human experience.
In order to create a more tolerant, peaceful world, we need to learn to respect the views of others, unless they are clearly dangerously threatening to the physical and mental health of others and the wellbeing of this planet.
As former United States president Bill Clinton recently pointed out, all the political hot spots in the world today are dominated by religious conflict and intolerance. Surely, to allow the vast, exhilarating array of humankind their chosen interpretation of the meaning of existence, and to grant them the freedom to practise their beliefs in peace and dignity is a far better way to respect and honour their right to their place on this mysterious, exquisite Earth.
This search, imparted by well-trained and open-minded teachers, can open up new perspectives on the rich variety of world views that have evolved over millennia.
Dr Alleyn Diesel’s PhD is in religious studies, which she taught at the University of KwaZulu-Natal