Guest Contributor: Nandini Chatterjee on ‘Religion vs R.E.’ – part 2

[continued from Part One, last week]

Ram and Sita - sometimes referred to as 'Sitaram'

To give another example of the unsuccessful coupling of modern values and sensibilities with ancient texts – related to the same festival and epic: the story of Ramayana involves a long exile of Rama the hero to the jungle in obedience to (extremely unreasonable and selfish) parental wishes. Subsequently, his wife Sita is kidnapped by the King of Lanka, Ravana, and there is a rollicking story of her rescue by Rama – aided by an army of monkeys and bears.

In the book I borrowed from the local library, written by a Tanzanian Hindu, I found that after his victory Rama conformed to modern British sensibilities by embracing Sita and sighing about how much he had missed her. In all versions of the epic however, Rama suspects her of infidelity – and forces her to walk through fire in order to prove her chastity, an ordeal from which she emerges miraculously unscathed, affirming the traditional view that a woman’s respectability hinges mainly on her managing to preserve her physical chastity, whatever the odds against her.

Ram’s hard-heartedness and misogyny is hardly unique – that is the nature of older religious traditions. And yet, it is those harsh traditions that have produced stories that continue to enthrall, art and music that continues to enchant, and in fact, sources of spiritual sustenance for human beings asking the big ‘Why?’ of existential crisis. I am not sure that this boiled mush of modern-day ethics and nice fairytales can ever have the potential of achieving anything close.

It seemed to me after looking through my local library and some further research online, that there are a small number of main genres of R.E. books – books of stories (eg. the sanitized Ramayana) , books of basic doctrines and practices, and books of social studies – which describe how certain people celebrate certain festivals, or generally lead their lives. The last category, which is the largest, has extremely odd books. One of them purported to follow a Muslim child in Birmingham throughout the day – explaining no doubt to the general non-Muslim audience that Muslims are normal people, who even play video games and do homework. If I were the mother of a Muslim child, I would feel very sad that my son needed such showcasing purely because of his or her religion.

National Framework for Religious Education 2004

However, all this makes sense when one considers the state’s priorities. The first UK National Framework for Religious Education (2004) proposes that this subject should promote spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of the child, contribute to the promotion of citizenship and to personal, social and health education.

Since the syllabus for R.E. has hitherto been decided by Local Area Authorities and the governing bodies of voluntary-aided religious schools, presumably this ‘guidance’ is meant to streamline teaching in the subject to meet current social and governmental priorities over tackling racism, religious extremism, social fragmentation and so on.

There is a laudable emphasis on tackling religious prejudice and enhancing the sense of self-worth in a child of a ‘minority’ religious background. The problem is that there is no necessary fit between the contents of religions themselves and British governmental priorities.

As the introduction to the agreed syllabus for one London borough says – R.E. in 21st century Britain does not proselytize. I take that to mean that it does not tell the child to believe in God, or to believe in God in any particular way. I am all for that – at university level this translates into one of three methodological alternatives: studying religion sociologically, studying religious texts as literature, or studying theology as a branch of philosophy.

The last alternative is methodologically the weakest, because ‘religious studies’ departments tend to be separate from general (i.e. West-centric) philosophy departments and there is very little motivation for mutual engagement.

Pope Benedict XVI at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Such religious studies departments specialize in organizing events such as ‘cross-cultural communication’ and ‘inter-religious dialogue’ – which seem to me to work on that strange assumption that all religions are uniformly good, that they are fundamentally similar, and that they are compatible with modern-day values: such as appreciation of multi-culturalism, commitment to equality, tolerance, justice, environmental sustenance… whatever.

The transference of those well-meaning aims of ‘religious studies’ to the primary school level produces intellectually terrible fare. With the emphasis being on learning how to appreciate all religions, I did not see where there is space to be culturally aware but also critical. Surely to say that Rama was unacceptably unkind to Sita would count as disrespectful under this regime? Conversely, does the ‘Hindu’ child, in developing his or her sense of self according to the recommendations of the R.E. curriculum need to embrace all such ancient stories as articles of faith and stand by them? If he chooses not to, and given that all religions have terrible bits, is the only choice to be a doctrinaire atheist? Or is it possible to be a critical participant – maybe in more than one religious tradition – celebrating what is beautiful and profound and rejecting what is cruel, dated and outright silly?

Otherwise perhaps one could just dump the subject and include comparative religious studies in the social studies subject. If the theory is that civic virtues and moral judgment flow from social and cultural knowledge, then surely that should suffice. And the children would be spared the religious gloop.

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