The value of religious instruction
Around the 14th Century in Europe, many scientists suffered at the hands of religious extremists who believed that the Bible should be read literally, and that challenging this view was heresy.
One of the most famous was Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). He postulated the idea that the Earth revolved around the sun, anathema to the theocracy, who believed that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was burned at the stake for expanding upon the ideas of Copernicus. He also suggested the insightful theory that other stars may have worlds revolving around them.
And there was Galileo,a challenger to the centric views of Christianity, building upon the views of Copernicus. He spent the last years of his life, from 1634 to 1642, under house arrest after he was labeled a dangerous maverick.
Today in the 21st Century, we see an almost turning of the tables with secularists and modernists dismissing the value of religious thought, instruction and expression. Not that they have gone to the extremes like our religious protagonists of the 14th and 15th Centuries but their rhetoric and postulations on religion in education seemingly suggest a doing away with such subjects.
I often wonder why some human beings believe it necessary to adopt extreme positions. It must be one way or the other. Is there no room for both to co-exist? The reality is that even at the height of Europe’s battle between religion and science in those early centuries, the world was already witnessing a mutual co-existence of these two entities.
Martyn Shuttleworth, in an article titled “Religion vs Science”, points out:
“The ancient Greek philosophers were one of the first groups to look at religion and science together. Most believed that there was no distinction between science and theology. Great thinkers, such as Aristotle, believed that science was a process of trying to understand the natural laws behind creation. It was their view that creation was mathematically perfect, and that logic and reasoning could discern the mind of the gods.
The expansion of Islam, from the 9th century until the 12th century, saw a renaissance in science, known as the Islamic Golden Age. The Caliphs of the Islamic world believed in enlightenment, and set up ‘Houses of Learning.’ Cities, such as Baghdad, became centres of knowledge, containing great libraries and universities.
Great advances in medicine, astronomy and agriculture were made, and were believed to be the will of Allah. There was little distinction between philosophy, science and theology, and certainly no sign of the religion vs science debate. This holistic view brought many developments, with Muslim scientists developing processes such ascitations,peer reviewingandvalidity.
The philosophy of science was explored in, and a structure for the Scientific Method was laid down, building upon the work of Aristotle. The great Alhazen, with his book on optics, laid down many scientific practices that became standardexperimental method.
After the Muslim Age, 12th Century Renaissance Europe became the seat of learning, and there was no particular schism between science and religion. For example, Robert Grosseteste, c.1175-1253, was an early Christian scientist who made great advances in geometry. He stated that experiments were essential to learning and the development of humanity.
Roger Bacon, a Franciscan monk (1214- 1294), is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers and scientists of all time, advocating that there were distinctive ‘Laws of Nature’ behind the cosmos.”
Appreciating the above, I enter into the recent discussion that was highlighted in the media in relation to a call to remove religious instruction from the national curriculum of our schools in Barbados. I understand that the call was predicated upon the case of the Rastafarian family who saw it necessary to keep their children away from the Government schools and instead opt for home-schooling.
The argument, as I understand from what I read in the media, was to have a fully secular curriculum and to do away with any sort of religious instruction. What I also understood from the media reports was that Dr Tennyson Joseph suggested that the world had moved away from religious-based education and that what obtained in Barbados was a curriculum that had packaged doctrines and that a child cannot learn the secular things without it being packaged in religious clothing. It is interesting to note that one priest has also come out in support of such a call.
I enter into this discussion having spent many years advocating for the role of faith in our society. I come from an Islamic background and I fully appreciate what extremists can and will do if allowed to gain the upper hand in any society, whether they wear the cloak of religion or secularism.
The world has not moved away from religious-based education. Some countries, societies or communities may have but certainly not the world. In fact, in many countries, even so-called secular countries, religiously-based schools are excelling above non-religious-based schools.
Having gone through the entire government school system in Barbados, from nursery to university as a Muslim, I can strongly argue that the education system is already very secular and that religious studies is taught as any other subject and one can choose to take that subject or request exemption.
And while non-academic activities like assembly etc. are done to cater to the fact that Barbados is predominantly Christian, once again exemption can be sought from such activities in public schools.
The religious education syllabus has undergone several changes over the years. The world’s major religions and Caribbean religious expressions have a part in the syllabus. And having been closely associated with the Caribbean Examinations Council paper on Religious Studies in relation to the Islamic faith, I know that it is a work in progress to keep the paper and the syllabus relevant to the changings dynamics as it relates to religion in the Caribbean.
I agree with a few sentiments expressed that some teachers may use the opportunity of religious education as a pulpit to preach or espouse dogma and castigate those who don’t follow a particular thinking. However, I believe these are few and by and large you will find teachers who generally teach the syllabus as it is set out by the Ministry. We should therefore not ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’.
Religious Education or Studies has its place in the syllabus and the very fact that the world today is still made up of billions of people of one religious persuasion or another makes its inclusion in the curriculum even more critical. I agree that any dogmatic approach in teaching this subject may need to be corrected but having it as a course of study is vital.
Understanding the world in which we live includes both the secular and faith oriented societies. To dismiss the fact that faith and/or religion plays an important part in the lives of the vast majority of the earth’s inhabitants is to deny students a rounded education that will allow them to understand and embrace the world in which they live.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI.