As a confirmed atheist and humanist, I suspect that it would be easy for many people to assume that I would be against the teaching of religion in schools. But that wouldn’t be the case; I’m actually greatly in favour of educating people about religion – all religions.
Did anyone wince at that? Perhaps you’d like a specific religion being taught over all others? Well, that’s not how the system should – or can – work, of course. If you’re going to teach religion, you need to teach all religions equally, otherwise how can we fairly educate each successive generation about our past and present religious cultures? Just because we’re in a Christian or a Muslim culture doesn’t mean that we should teach our children only what we agree with; we should teach them everything.
Children deserve to be taught a broad range of comparative mythology and religion; they’re naturally curious, and what’s more interesting than the ancient belief systems that so many of our peers and ancestors have dedicated their lives to? By teaching them about the world’s religions, we are giving them information they seek and filling a gap in their knowledge in the same way we do when we teach about history or politics.
The American approach, where comparative religion is barely taught at all (although can be – various legal rulings are often misunderstood), is in stark contrast to most countries in Europe, which often have compulsory religious education courses taught from an academic (secular) perspective. What are the results of this teaching? In the United Kingdom, a 2008 European Social Survey asked the question, “Which religion or denomination do you belong to at present?” with 52.68 percent selecting ‘No Religion’.
The fact remains that people, more often than not, inherit their religious beliefs from parents or childhood mentors. There is a crucial period in which a child begins to ask questions about life and wonder about the origin of existence and, in a religious family, these questions are typically answered in a religious context. The process begins with childhood baptisms, forced participation in religious rituals from a young age, and teaching children who are too young to understand that their religion is the only correct one, and sometimes that all others will burn in Hell.
This is a form of abuse; these families are stultifying childrens’ intellectual abilities by refusing to give them access to wider experiences and knowledge. But there is hope. By educating children about the world’s many religions, historical and modern alike, we can show them that each faith is simply one culture’s attempt to explain the unknown. They can learn about religion from the perspective of an anthropologist, with a proper balance of intrigue and detachment, and gain true insight into the origin of the world’s many belief systems.
Education breeds understanding, compassion, and – most importantly – tolerance. It gives individuals the power to be critical of information and propaganda and to make up their own minds about a topic. A well-educated person will not blindly follow another, no matter how charismatic that leader might be.
If we taught school children about religion, we would be more likely to breed a generation of tolerant and compassionate citizens. More importantly, if we taught in schools the difference between mainstream religious beliefs and extremist interpretations, we would have a greater chance of deterring people from a path of radicalisation.
Religion ranks as one of the most divisive factors in the world today. Many religious believers have only a cursory knowledge of their own faith, and know next to nothing about the beliefs of other religions. This is something like learning geography by memorising the names and capitals of all the countries in Europe, but never finding out about other countries and continents which lie beyond those borders.
Teaching about religions is not advocating for them any more than teaching about war advocates for war. Not opening the minds of children to world religions and myths denies each successive generation the opportunity to learn this critical part of their human heritage, and to understand that there is a world beyond their own doorstep – and it is down to them to choose what they choose to believe.
A neutral and fair minded study of religion would include the alternatives to religion too — atheism, free thought, philosophical inquiry; all of the many approaches that humans have pursued. I know that some people will object. They will say that the responsibility for religious education lies with our religious institutions not the public schools. But what we are talking about here is not learning the exclusive truth-claims of this or that denomination. It is a broad-based exploration of how people have sought meaning and direction in life.
Granted, this enquiry will offend those who are convinced that only their way is valid — fundamentalists will be the first to object. But real education has always offended. It challenges our notion that only our own views are correct. If teaching about religions broadens our minds and makes us more open to other ways of seeing things, it will have fulfilled its mission.