world religions

[Update: There is now a part 2 to this post]

For some people heat is rising, as it does from time to time, about religious instruction in state/public primary schools in Aotearoa New Zealand. The law allows

class or classes at the [primary] school, or the school as a whole, may be closed at any time or times of the school day …for any class, for the purposes of religious instruction given by voluntary instructors approved by the school’s board and of religious observances conducted in a manner approved by the school’s board or for either of those purposes; and the school buildings may be used for those purposes or for either of them.

To be clear:

  • The law applies to primary state schools only. Secondary schools may choose to have religious education as part of their curriculum; some do, and there are nationally recognised assessment standards available for this alongside other subjects such as mathematics, history, and so on.
  • The law does not apply to integrated or independent schools which are often required by their establishment to provide religious education, and hence would have state inspectors checking whether they are living up to those requirements.
  • The school is technically closed, its buildings are being used for religious instruction and parents are entitled to not have their child attend such instruction.

Apparently about 40% of primary schools have religious instruction. Very few state secondary schools provide it.

In my opinion, the systematic study of religion is an essential component of education, and what is provided in New Zealand’s education system is generally sorely inadequate. Religious Education can help young people learn how to think carefully about religion and religious issues, to become aware of the influence of religion in culture and in their own lives, and to be in a better position for making informed decisions about faith and commitment. Students learn to understand and interpret many current events. They explore their own values and develop principles for life. They are encouraged to make connections with their other studies such as history, art, music, and drama.

The introduction to the discipline of intellectual examination of deeply held beliefs can also provide a non-judgmental environment in which the students can reflect and develop their own position on faith, spirituality, and morality. It recognises and explores the pluralism of society and the variety of beliefs and values that are available as commitment options, making the question of decision-making a crucial one for young people. Because “commitment by convention” has largely given way to “commitment by intention”, the skills of searching for relevant information, of critical evaluation, and of decision-making in relation to potential commitments can be provided for in Religious Education.

I endorse the points made in a joint statement on the importance of Religious Education signed by leaders of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh religions:

We believe that religious education develop pupils’ knowledge and understanding of Christianity, other principal religions, other religious traditions and other world views. It offers opportunities for personal reflection and spiritual development. It:

•          provokes challenging questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, beliefs about God, the self, the nature of reality, issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human.

•          enhances pupils’ awareness of religions and beliefs, teachings, practices and forms of expression, as well as of the influence of religion on individuals, families, communities and cultures.

•          encourages pupils to learn from different religions, beliefs, values and traditions, while exploring their own beliefs and questions of meaning.

•          challenges pupils to reflect on, consider, analyse, interpret and evaluate issues of truth, belief, faith and ethics and to communicate their response.

•          encourages pupils to develop their sense of identity and belonging. It enables them to flourish individually within their communities and as citizens in a pluralistic society and global community.

•          has an important role in preparing pupils for adult life, employment and life-long learning.

•          enables pupils to develop respect for and sensitivity to others, in particular those whose faith and beliefs are different from their own. It promotes discernment and enables pupils to combat prejudice.

Together with the Department for Education and Skills, we endorse these principles as fundamentally important for all children and young people, for communities, and for the well-being of society.

We believe that schools with a religious designation should teach not only their own faith but also an awareness of the tenets of other faiths.

For further reflection: Dr Zain Ali, head of the Islamic studies research unit at the University of Auckland, argues Religious education in schools has an important role to play in a secular state, provided it’s done right.

Religious Education in New Zealand part 2

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