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Interfaith conference call for religious education could backfire
by Graeme J. Davidson
, 9 June 2007

So, will religious studies in schools reduce bigotry, conflict and terrorism? Judging from the result of teaching Communism in the Soviet Union, it could have little effect or even the opposite effect.

....Back in the days of the Cold War, kids in Soviet schools had to learn about Marxist-Leninism and the evils of capitalism. The curriculum inspired students to fight for the ideal socialist state: people working together for one another’s good. You’d think then, that after all that political indoctrination, Soviet communism had a bright future. It didn’t. The Soviet Union broke up. Most of the former states, especially Russia, embraced their former nemesis, capitalism – and its principles of greed and competition.
....I thought about this and the effectiveness of teaching religious studies in schools as I read the Declaration from the recent Asia-Pacific Regional Interfaith Dialogue Conference at Waitangi. And if you wondered why our agnostic Prime Minister Helen Clark was there, it’s because the focus was actually peace and security. After 9/11 and the Bali nightclub bombings, the forum was set up “to discuss and promote means of enhancing mutual understanding, tolerance and peaceful co-existence amongst the region's faiths and communities - and in so doing to address some of the potential causes of religious conflict and extremism in the region”.
....The desecration of a Jewish chapel and graves several years ago in Wellington was raised as a local instance. That occurred after two Israeli spies pleaded guilty to trying to fraudualantly obtain New Zealand passports and after our government retaliated by imposing diplomatic sanctions on Israel. No culprit or motive was found for the desecration.
....In social studies, Kiwi school kids learn about “cultural diversity” – which can include religions – and a few choose religious studies for NCEA. But the Ministry of Education may need to give greater emphasis to the teaching of religion to help inoculate our kids against religious bigotry and violence. One of the Waitangi conference declarations states, “We support education about religions in the public curricula of all schools, including religious schools”. If they have to teach about other faiths, religious schools whose focus is commitment to their faith could face a basic conflict of interest. Imagine the outcry if a business had to tell customers about competitors.
....Another declaration states, “that curricula meet guidelines for fairness, accuracy and balance in discussing religious beliefs and that they do not denigrate any faith or its adherents”. But how do we provide for fairness? At the last census, there were nearly 8000 adherents of Judaism and over six times that many Latter-Day Saints or Mormons in New Zealand. Does that mean Mormons get more emphasis in the classroom because of their numbers and modern cultural impact? Or does Judaism feature more prominently because its ancient historical roots underpin not only its own faith but also Christianity and Islam?
....It also raises another question. Do we denigrate adherents of a faith when we persecute the few Christian groups who believe in smacking children? Despite opposition from most teachers at the time, we abolished corporal punishment in our schools in 1989. Yet, a few weeks ago, the Ministry of Education advised several Christian Schools to get legal advice about their corporal punishment regimes or risk arrests for child assault.
....That makes me wonder. When’s our government going to prosecute those in religious groups who practise child circumcision? After all, sexual mutilation of kids is a more serious assault than a smack. Despite talking about kids’ rights, our Government would never risk igniting a religious backlash over child circumcision, especially from Muslims in the Asia-Pacific region. Instead, the Ministry of Education, which showed its sensitivity to religion last year by suggesting removing prayer from primary and intermediate schools, picks on religious minnows who believe that to spare the rod is to spoil the child.
....The Pew Research Centre in the USA recently found that, in contrast to the many disgruntled Muslims in Europe, most US Muslims are opposed to Islamic extremism. There are far more religious studies programmes in European schools than in the US but, unlike in much of Europe, American Muslims are highly assimilated, have pay parity with Americans and, therefore, have a positive view of US society.
....So, will religious studies in schools reduce bigotry, conflict and terrorism? Judging from the result of teaching Communism in the Soviet Union, it could have little effect or even the opposite effect. Religious studies will be seen for what it is – an academic study of faiths designed to underpin a liberal humanistic goal. It could even produce some well-informed bigots.




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