Guest Contributor: Nandini Chatterjee on ‘Religion vs R.E.’ – part 1

In my academic avatar, I am a historian and I work on religion and law in India. As mother of a five-year old, I have some interest in the early stages of the English National Curriculum. Recently, I found these two sets of interests converging over the R.E. curriculum for Key Stage 1, which is intended for five to seven year olds.

I have always found the pedagogy of religion fascinating. In my academic research, this has been limited to examining the political history of national curricula making, in India and Britain. What I have not had a chance to look at so far is the mechanics of actually teaching religion and about religion, including the nature of classroom activities, teaching resources such as textbooks, multimedia material, and so on. There are many benefits to being mother to a five year old; one of these is learning things that one never learns through years of formal research. Recently I learnt certain things that made me think once again about the problematic position of religion in modern societies.

Diwali candles

My son and I like to rummage in our local library. In the children’s section of our local library, next to the most alluring section on reptiles, there is a shelf of books on religions. While my son explored rattlesnakes, I took a look at the other offerings – and in spite of finding attractively written and illustrated books on Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism and Sikhism – I came away bemused.

As I saw it, there were two conspicuous problems with the content of those books. The first is that the authors appeared to be unable to distinguish between culture and religion. Admittedly, this is a difficult problem and a debated one – but the lapses seemed to be very basic. For example one book offered a recipe for making kheer (Indian rice pudding) alongside colourful pictures of Indian men and women bathing in the river Ganges. True, Hindus of India make and relish kheer – but so do Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, and as probably Zoroastrians and Jews as well. I have never hear of kheer being attributed any doctrinal relevance – whether in a sacred text or customarily. This may have been one badly conceived book – but more alarmingly, the syllabus for R.E. Studies at my son’s school included saris! This reminded me, inversely, of a friend at Cambridge who had expressed surprise that Indian Christians wear saris. What did he expect? Did Jesus wear a three-piece suit?

Mar Gregorios of Parumala (1848 - 1902), a leader of one of India's many Christian traditions

Secondly, there was a higher order problem with regard to the tone of the texts. There appeared to be an unstated assumption in all the books I saw – that all religions share a fundamental set of moral and ethical values which ‘we’ sensible and upright citizens and residents of Britain today and of the future, can easily share. There is also another assumption, that ethics is the main point about religion. The problem is that neither is true – and those assumptions both dull the grandeur of real religious traditions, and insult the critical ability of any thinking person, including a five year old child.

To give an example, Diwali, which in spite of being an exclusively north Indian festival, has been exalted to the most important Hindu festival in Britain, is said to be a celebration of the victory of good over evil. Now the story of the victory of Rama, king of Ayodhya, over Ravana, king of Lanka as told in the Hindu epic Ramayana, is indeed connected with this festival in north Indian Hindu tradition. However, the main gods worshipped on this occasion are Ganesha, god of wisdom and learning, and Lakshmi, goddess of wealth.

In many north Indian communities, this is a time not only for generic celebrations – cleaning the house, cooking good food, eating sweets, firecrackers and so on – but also for gambling, in a symbolic referent to the desire for very worldly wealth. Hindus are not particularly scriptural in their religion, but the oldest and most venerated Hindu Scriptures – the Vedas –  provide very good justification for such worldly religiosity, being themselves replete with appeals to the gods for more wealth, more sons and the defeat of enemies. Yes, good over evil – but not in any abstract wishy-washy sense – good is what would make the supplicant very happy!

[Part Two next week….!]

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