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Developing religious literacy during school years

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September 12, 2016

Developing religious literacy during school years

Two facts about the times we live in and changed political landscapes have bearing on the importance of religious literacy in our times – One is globalization: how it has shrunk the world through technology, communication and commerce. The other is the polarization of groups of people who profess or adhere to differing sets of belief and practices, which affect daily life. This has demonstrated and portends an ominous future of discord, terror and its aftermath.

Religious literacy is simply the knowledge of, and ability to understand, religion. The importance of being religiously literate is increasing as globalization has created greater links between many people who live and work far away from places where their native faiths and cultures prevail. Instead of this bringing people closer and creating harmonious ‘secular’ groups in inter-religious harmony and coexistence, the meaning and implications of secularism have been misread and this has led to diminishing social and moral values in diverse social settings. Conflicts on the basis of religious intolerance have grown to dangerous proportions. These must be seen in the light of an imperative for present and future generations who can learn, understand and appreciate differences between religious institutions, groups or sects.

Our only hope of survival is to come together by an act of collective will to understand and appreciate an individual’s right to live, not only by his or her metaphysical beliefs, but of ethical practices as well. This can be done only through respect for differing beliefs which comes and grows through information about them and faith in the democratic ideal of freedom of belief and practice. Illiteracy about differing faiths kindles and fuels prejudice and antagonism. Respect for diversity, pluralism, peaceful cooperative coexistence in local, national and global contexts are thrown aside. Instead, there arises the spectre of intolerance, disrespect and irrational hatred of ‘others’. In children, this is a greater tragedy as they are robbed of their inherent moral imagination, which is the bedrock of all human altruism. Very young children show an inherent sense of fairness, kindness to people and animals and an ability to emote with spontaneous sincerity. This is lost in the process of watching adults in their lives, who demonstrate the opposite and various forms of selfish and hurting behaviour.

Religious Literacy results in knowledge of:
1) the basic tenets of the world’s many and diverse religious beliefs and traditions;
2) the historic origins of these traditions that affect our social lives and how we understand and appreciate our differences.

Your belief system determines the boundaries in your life. It is the framework you use to make sense of the world around you. It is a way of interpreting events and encounters. It is your container. Your belief systems, however, should not control you. A belief system should support you. It should remain flexible and fluid, allowing space for personal improvisation and exploration along the way. The happiest people are the ones who are able to claim complete ownership over their own minds and hearts.

Schools and teachers have a vital and large role to play in addressing this potential for misunderstanding, stereotyping and oversimplification, based on ignorance. Living with diverse belief systems stems from Knowledge, Understanding and Respect for the beliefs of others. This brings about change in attitudes in the minds of children and young adults. They are meant to be dynamic persons, who make themselves richer by listening, watching, reading, interacting, collaborating and experimenting. Knowledge sweeps away the cobwebs of mystery that rituals and the jargon of religion forms over our convictions and beliefs. Understanding and reflection makes us respectful and appreciative of neighbours and citizens. Dialogue helps our own beliefs to become rational, ethical and firm.

Inter-faith dialogue is the process that gives us a world view that will help us win the battles of tomorrow, that will help generation X to survive and thrive.There is no other way to progress, improve, correct or innovate.

Schools need to welcome all communities and ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life. Humanistic values are common to all faiths. These are the values which must be modelled by adults for children to assimilate and make their own.

While over-simplifying things, by saying all beliefs lead to one God may be acceptable to some children under 6 years of age, children beyond that age are quick to notice that differences in perception and practice do exisit. The route suggested is filled with questions, confusion, reason, logic, and finally—at least some degree of clarity. Acceptance of diversity is accepted. This also protects children against indoctrination, where only one set of ideas is presented and children are forbiddento inquire of those ‘other’ people themselves or to question or debate those ideas. Probably one of the best ways to inoculate children against religious indoctrination is to expose them to a wide variety of religious ideas.

Influence, on the other hand, is the teacher/ parent sharing their ideas with children, but then saying as often as they can, that there are other good people who have differing opinions, and encouraging children to learn about other beliefs and practices.

Teachers however face the following challenges:

The first challenge is that very few teachers are trained in the methods and content required to teach about religion responsibly. Gaining even a minimal level of competence in these areas requires more reading, sifting through the information gleaned and making it age-appropriate for the group being taught. Pluralistic humanism must be the keynote of each lesson in these studies and discussions. A second challenge is that teachers and students often have some predisposition to some strongly embedded assumptions about religion, their own and that of others.

Blanket statements must be avoided at all costs, e.g. ‘All truly religious people are vegetarians’, ( suggesting unconsciously that non- vegetarians are violent!) ; ‘Hinduism tells us to be kind to all forms of life’ (giving rise to the assumption that other faiths condone cruelty to animals); ‘Christianity is a western religion’ ( factually untrue) . Even commoner examples are , ‘All religions are fundamentally the same’. ‘Homosexuality is a sin’. ‘Religion and science are incompatible’, etc.

Thirdly, exploring the truths of a particular faith must never ever be confused with teaching a specific religion or proselytizing (converting to a particular faith). Teachers must always be on guard against letting their personal beliefs manifest themselves strongly. A neutral, scientific approach is ideal. The following is a suggested framework under which beliefs and outlook on living may be introduced and discussed –

Many children can understand a good deal
more about religion than they are able to
express in language. The mediums to use here
are Art, music and drama. Included in the
curriculum should be learning and discussion
Festivals and fasts: Stories from the
Scriptures. (Festival list, to be suggested
by teachers) One assembly presentation per
Prayer and devotion: Customs, sample
prayers. (Learn to say or sing)
Rites of passage: Thread ceremony,
Christening and Baptism, naming ceremonies,
Navjote, Patka tying in the Sikh faith,
Confirmation, Bar and Bat Mitzvah,
Upanayan. The significance of ceremony
and symbolism is interesting to observe,
through pictures or short films of marriage
ceremonies, significance of customs and

Grades 5 to 7
Revealed Religions and Scripture
Major Faiths: beliefs such as the nature
of deity and divine. (Monotheistic and
Polytheistic). Discussions, presentation by
teachers and children
Forms and places of worship
Codes of Conduct: personal and social issues;
debate, discussion and student led talks. The
5 Pillars of Islam, The Ten Commandments,
The Lord’s Prayer, The eightfold Path in
Buddhism, etc.
The culture of religious beliefs: food, dress,
customs, dance, music, etc
Discussion, research, visits to observe
places of worship, talks and demonstrations,
question and answer sessions can be the
tools used. Field trip to a gurdwara, temple,
mosque and church brings out questions and
interest. Understanding and appreciation

Grades 8 to 12
Issues for discussion and debate, talks
by guests, student prepared assembly
Issues for Inter faith studies with reference to
religious advice, prescriptions on these issues.
Evil and Suffering
Marriage and the Family
Wealth and Poverty
Life after Death
The Media
Crime and Punishment
Belief in God
War and Peace
Voluntary study of excerpted scriptures.
Project work on sub-themes of interest:
e.g.Sufi music, Dancing Dervishes,
Gospel-rock music, Bhajans of Meera etc.
These evoke much interest.

All ‘teaching’ must be interactive and aim at upholding the founts of social, ethical and political values systems in democracy. Such learning must be seen as a source of inspiration, guidance, and even comfort. The objective of all study and dialogue and experience must be flexible and fluid, never ever prescriptive.

Much can be done to bring respect, regard and considerate co-existence into our societies all over the world. Universal brotherhood cannot be accepted as a lost cause. It will spell the doom of the human race. For starters, religious and cultural literacy can free us from the longstanding assertion that religion can be and should be restricted to a private sphere and separated from political influence. The time is ripe to grow in the minds of impressionable children, a kind of spiritual secularism which will support pluralistic humanism.

From knowledge comes power, the power to desist from the grossly undemocratic culture of ignoring individual beliefs instead of understanding their diversity and upholding them, for the greater good of all.

Pritam BenjaminPritam Benjamin An educator for over 40 years, Pritam L Benjamin has a deep and abiding faith in practical idealism that should guide the awesome responsibility of educating children and young adults. A gold medalist In English Literature from the University of Allahabad, for both graduate and post-graduate degrees, with a B Ed from Calcutta University, she has lectured at Women’s College Ranchi and Loreto College, Kolkata. She committed herself totally to school teaching at Sishya in Chennai, La Martiniere for Girls in Kolkata, Bangalore International School, National Academy for Learning, Bangalore, Indus International School and Inventure Academy, in Bangalore as Vice-Principal and Principal. She has initiated and supported innovation and change within curriculum, teaching practice and rethinking and redefining the vision and extent of the responsibility of schools and teachers to ‘educate for life’. Pritam Benjamin morphed into a teacher trainer, in the last 6 years. This has afforded her the privilege of learning and assimilating the changes that pedagogy and teaching practice have undergone.

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