Religious Lessons for Secular Education
Religious Lessons for Secular Education
I would consider myself a modern enlightenment kind of guy. The value I place on rationality, science and reason come above almost everything else I consider important in my life. However, the thing that I find most fascinating and a key to how I endeavour to live my life is morality. I am not going to herald myself as an expert on moral philosophy, nor necessarily particularly great at following my own code at all times – after all, I am only human. This fascination with right and wrong came after a number of people and experiences, starting most formatively with school. Everyone remembers the major grievance in primary school: that things are not fair. You might relate that to a sibling’s treatment, or not being able to partake in the same activity as a friend, but either way, that feeling that the scales of justice had been tipped against you was crushing. At times, that could cause angst, anger and apathy amongst us, but I always had a particular solace. As bizarre as this feels to type, it was religion.
I was raised Catholic, in a primary school that the nuns had only vacated for actual qualified teachers the year before I got there. My parents were far from strictly practicing, if you could even call them practicing at all, but at my grandparents’ wishes I found myself in a school present of the sector. From a young age, I was taught basic mantras of “Love thy neighbour,” or “Do unto others what you would have done unto you” and hung onto sermons about turning the other cheek to people. I will be the first to admit that in my past I have been massively sceptical of all areas of organised religion. I lost faith in the actual belief in a higher being long before I even finished my religious education and since becoming more aware of the world, I have taken to the belief that large scale organised religion is a pre-modern institute designed for control in the guise of salvation. As time has gone on however, I will be damned if I am not thankful for some of the values it gave me.
Faith schools are not without their detractors, myself included, but by looking past the positive aspects of what they deliver and dismissing their methods entirely, we stand to lose an important way of teaching the difference between right and wrong. This seems especially relevant in a decreasingly religious state where faith schools are viewed as everything from archaic for teaching Christianity or Judaism, to potentially dangerous for teaching Islam. I do not necessarily believe that all faith schools are shining beacons of excellence when it comes to instilling good values. That being said, I hardly see them as dangerous to the country for the religions they may choose to teach, but I am opposed to movements that seek to delegitimize all of what they do. I put this question to you: would you rather a school taught a coherent, structured message of the differences between right or wrong, or would you rather good and bad was taught purely in the context of individual scenarios? Knowing the benefits of having been raised with a coherent moral code, I feel that the first option creates the best environment for people to be caring and thoughtful in their lives. Whether this lesson is influenced from the teachings of Abrahamic religions, which give a basis in the ten commandments, or the practices of the Buddhist eightfold path to enlightenment, education stands to gain from clearer messages of rightness and wrongness.
Schools in the United Kingdom do teach PSHE in schools, in an attempt to work on citizenship and empathy amongst students, but as someone who experienced these lessons, I can assure you that the general feeling is that they are unproductive and insubstantial. This consensus surely points to the curriculum needing a serious rethink. That leaves us with the big question: how can this codified way of teaching morals be merged into non religious education? The potential remedy I find myself coming back to time and time again relies on a basic philosophical education from a young age.
“Philosophy!” I hear you scream, “How on earth could you teach that to a six year old?” On the surface, this idea seems problematic, as even for most adults philosophy is a seemingly alien concept, which could create resistance to educational reforms amongst parents. The point of hope, however, comes once again from looking at faith schools. The similarities between religion and philosophy are not so different. Both use codified, structured approaches to understanding the world. Both offer ways for your average person to achieve a sense of belonging on earth. Crucially, both are based on a key search for truth.
I am not saying that there is no place for Religion in modern education, quite to the contrary. Not only are many Religious teachings thought provoking and can teach us fundamentally sound codes of conduct, but through better understanding of the core values that others hold dear we can learn to be a more tolerant society. I am a firm advocate of being able to challenge other people’s beliefs, but with that privilege comes the responsibility to make sure you do so respectfully, and in a well informed manner. I, for one, cannot imagine having such a problem of media fuelled religious intolerance if the facts had been taught clearly at school in the first place.
A further important lesson my religious upbringing taught me was the power of faith. Although I no longer see that as faith in a higher being, it remains important to me to have faith in what I do and what I believe. To actually change the education system for the better, we all need to have faith in making it work. We can take the lessons of belief and morality from faith education and use it for the good of the population as a whole, if only we believe in it.
Written by Zac Harvey / @zacfishface
Photographs by Matthew Christopher on the destruction of St. Bonaventure Church in Philadelphia