We must practise what we teach

Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi says religion is a powerful force in the lives of most people, and that the values and history of all religions should be taught to children.

Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi says religion is a powerful force in the lives of most people, and that the values and history of all religions should be taught to children.

Much of what I know about the New Testament I learnt as a child at school. We read from the Bible at assembly first thing every morning. We recited the Lord’s Prayer.
Religion in school was not controversial at that time. It was part of the curriculum and I learnt a lot that still stands me in good stead.

Nowadays religion in school is a hot topic. There are those who want to keep religion entirely out of schools. For them, the constitutional separation of church and state is the driving force. Some people take our Constitution as their inspiration when they call for freedom of religion, which they believe includes schools. The Constitution, like a religious document, is used as argument for either side.

The reports that I “distributed 50 000 Bibles to schools” are selective. The truth is that I said the Gauteng department of education distributed 50 000 religious documents, not only Bibles, but also other religious documents including the Qur’an.

Selective reporting without understanding the context serves only to mislead the nation. Tim Fish Hodgson, a legal researcher at Section27 and a member of the Know Your Constitution campaign of the South African Human Rights Commission, wrote in the Mail & Guardian (”A serpent lurks in the garden of plurality”) that my “actions are of particular concern because they are inconsistent with both the Constitution and the department of basic education’s National Policy on Religion and Education”.

Hodgson added: “Lesufi’s understanding of the Constitution and his department’s policies are therefore questionable. His zeal to deliver the religious texts of one religion to schools contrasts particularly strongly with the government’s consistent failure to deliver copies of the Constitution – and to participate adequately in constitutional education programmes for pupils and the public at large.”

That is far from the truth. I believe religion is a powerful force in the lives of many, if not most, South Africans. That is why schoolchildren should learn what religion is and how it is practised and what forms and denominations it takes.

Why should religion be included in the public school curriculum? Because it plays a significant role in history and society. A study of religion is essential to understanding our world and the nations of the world. Omission of the facts about religion can give pupils the false impression that the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant. The failure to understand even the basic symbols, practices and concepts of the various religions makes much of history, literature, art and contemporary life unintelligible.

Though ours is a predominantly Christian nation, it is not exclusively so. Schools should not infer that it is. What do I mean when I say schools should teach religion? I mean that the schools’ approach to religion should be academic, not devotional. Schools should strive for pupil awareness of religions, but should not press for acceptance of any one religion and schools may expose pupils to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.

Also, teachers may educate pupils about all religions, but may not promote or denigrate any religion. Teachers may inform pupils about various beliefs, but should not seek to convert him or her to any particular belief. In other words, public schools are not a place for religious training, but a place for learning about religion.

All pupils can do is to learn how religion has helped people establish values in their lives. In other words, as per our curriculum, schools must teach pupils religion to help them cultivate the art of existential inquiry, thus learning to ask and answer the core questions of life.

In a simpler form, pupils should study the basic teachings, texts, teachers and techniques of the world’s religions – Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and other faiths, with an emphasis on the uniqueness of each religion and the common ethical ground that most, if not all, of them share.

Our society is a pluralistic one. Its members affirm a variety of faiths and philosophies. Public schools must let each pupil receive religious instruction at his own church or synagogue or mosque or temple or, if the parents desire it, receive no instruction at all.

Being a secular and democratic state, our country needs to treat history for what it is – fact-based – and allow religion in its multiple forms to be studied as a way to define freedom of faith and expression. Religious education should be nonjudgmental, and should resist the tendency to pit one religion against the others. At the same time, it should be personally enriching, allowing each religion to share its ideas with pupils in a manner that encourages the child’s inquiry into the meaning of life.

The job of teachers is to increase pupils’ understanding of the roles that religion has played in world history. Teachers can do this without indoctrinating their pupils in any one belief system. In short, they can help pupils study religion but cannot show them how to practise any particular religion.

Public schools may not inculcate religion, nor inhibit it. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. We can tolerate religion in schools. We can teach religious tolerance.

Panyaza Lesufi is the Gauteng MEC for education.

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