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Why we should teach religion in schools

By Roger Chao - posted Monday, 26 March 2012


Unlike some aggressively militant atheists (something we have seen the rise of over the past decade) who argue that other discredited ideas like homeopathy, chiropractic or astrology are not taught at public schools, so why should religion, I believe aspects of religion should be taught.

Whilst I agree about the rational invalidity of religion, I also think that a comparative, factual, and comprehensive study about the range of non-theistic and theistic beliefs in the world should be studied in public schools. Given the prevalence of religion in our history, culture, and society, I would argue that it does have a place in the public school curriculum, as part of their studies of society and environment (much like you how learn about other cultures, dreamtime stories, Greek and Roman myths and legends, other countries, the history of alchemy or witches etc.).  However, I do believe that it should not be taught as a standalone subject, but rather interwoven into history, literature, art and SOSE etc.

 For many people, religion plays a large role in their cultural and personal identity, and plays a role larger than many people realise in all levels of politics and society. Religion has also had a very profound impact on literature, music, and art, wars, and political decisions. We can only appreciate the true value of certain pieces of artwork (be it literature, music, theatre or paintings), or the relevance of certain historical movements or political decisions if we understand it in its social context – something that includes its religious context.

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Understanding the religious context of these art works for example will help us fully appreciate the value of these art works. Having an understanding of Van Gough's personal struggles gives us greater appreciation his art, having an understanding of the Russian revolution gives us a better understanding of Animal farm, having an understanding of biblical stories helps us better interpret the paintings of the old masters, so why shouldn’t having an understanding of various religions also give us greater understanding and appreciation for other works of art.

When it comes to history, it is only by understanding the cold war that we can understand the relevance of the Cuban missile crisis; it is only by understanding environmental and social dynamics on the island that we can understand the causes of the collapse of civilisation on Easter Island. We can only understand history by understanding what caused it. We can only learn from history if we understand it. Many events in history are influenced by religion, it is only by understanding the role religion had to play in these events that we can better understand them, learn from them, and prevent or alleviate the harmful ones from happening again in the future.

Whilst I too lament the harm that religion brings to society, as well as the many social norms and political decisions that are detrimentally grounded in religion (which many people do not realise). It is only by the study of religion in schools that these implicit beliefs, norms, and views can be critically examined. The stranglehold with which religion has held our society to ransom can only be released through education, not ignorance (such as not teaching about religion in public schools). Understanding the role of religion in society is the only way this can happen, and understanding the role of religion in society can only be achieved by a careful and unbiased examination of various religious and non-religious beliefs.

Many people do not realise the implicit religious beliefs that are tied up to many social norms we take for granted, or various political positions and decisions. It is only by being educated about religion that people will begin to realise the hidden ways in which the prevalence of religions influence on our everyday lives. The educating of people about the hidden effects of smoking (passive smoking) or use of CFC’s has reduced the incidence of smoking and CFC’s in the atmosphere as people begin to realise the hidden costs of using tobacco or CFC's. Similarly, it is only when people begin to realise the hidden effects and role of religion on our social norms, beliefs and decisions making, that people will begin to question our current norms and beliefs.

Furthermore it is not only the hidden effects of religion on our society that must be examine but also the hidden role of religion on our society that must be examined. If you do not know that X has a role to play in your belief of Y, you cannot properly question or examine Y. if you do not realise that the reason why you keep smoking is due to the addictive nature of nicotine, you cannot readily quit smoking. Religion has a hidden role to play in many things we take for granted together, from social norms, from ideas we take as self-evident, to beliefs we hold because people have always held the, to political positions, to every day decision making by society’s leaders. If we do not uncover this hidden role that religion plays in all these aspects we will never be able to properly examine, understand or critique any of the things we take for granted. Imagine if no one ever started questioning the wrongness of slavery (by pondering the false but implied premise that some races are superior to others, that was taken for granted and self-evident by so many people).

The better-informed people are about certain social norms or political decisions, they more engaged and participatory they will be in political processes. Having more citizens engaged in, or more so, informed about the political process is key to societal progress. Thus the ability to critically examine other peoples viewpoints, understand where they are coming from, know what drives them to hold certain beliefs, know what other beliefs are out there, know what influences them to feel certain ways about certain issues etc., is key to becoming an informed citizen capable of critically examining and participating in  political processes. Ignorant citizens are they seeds from which bad political decisions and leaders grow.

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Rational debate and argument (through education and informed participants in the debate) along with the progress of science has helped end slavery and reduce the prevalence of racial discrimination, it is only through similar education and informed knowledge about religion that we can begin to reduce the negative impact of religion on society by reducing it’s prevalence.

Having an understanding of science has helped us interpret what happened with influenza outbreaks and thus prevent them in the future, an understanding of plate tectonics has helped us understand and reduce the impacts of various natural disasters, understanding tribal conflict in some ethnic regions has also helped us prevent conflict, understanding religion will thus also help us better understand (and prevent) other harmful consequences (wars, discrimination etc.) caused by religion.

Religion has a huge influence on our world, both currently and in the past, and it is only by understanding this that we can move forward. Our children who will be the future leaders of our society. It is thus essential that our children are educated in the various theistic and non-theistic views currently in prevalence. Children will be more able to critically examine issues of social importance, norms, laws and customs as well as understand culture, history and the arts if they understand the various theistic and non-theistic religions, their arguments and their influence on society.

Whilst religion continues to have such a large influence on our everyday lives, children need to be able to know about, analyse, critique and respond to it, and they will be more informed and able to do this by understanding it. Understanding it can only be done through education.

 If we exclude the discussion of religion from public schools, we run the risk of not having our children educated about the diverse backgrounds that people come from. Furthermore, many children only learn about their family’s religion, and may not even know that other people do not share their beliefs.

It is only by studying your enemy that you can defeat your enemy. We can only defeat the enemies of reason by studying them. Ignorance of religions breeds the ignorance that religion brings and thrives on.

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About the Author

Roger Chao is a social and policy researcher, managing numerous Government, NGO, and University research projects. In his spare time he also works as an independent scholar, publishing in and reviewing for journals in the field of applied ethics, political philosophy and moral theory. His extensive travels around the world and passion for the outdoors have provided impetus for much of his research.

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