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OP-ED: Why children need to learn about all religions (not just their own)

  • Published at 07:29 am June 6th, 2021
madrasa students
File photo: Madrasa students during a class MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

And what the school curriculum can do about it

Religions and different religious texts have crucial historical value, although the theological aspects of these get the most attention. When one reads different religious literature, like the Vedas, the Qur’an, the Bible, or the Tripitaka, those unveil the way of life that people used to have in the days when these religions came into being. Moreover, on many occasions, one learns about the social, political, and economical spectrum of life in different stages of history by studying the religious texts in detail.

From the Vedas, we get an impression of life in India during the Vedic period. Apart from the theological teachings of the Qur’an it also provides us an insight into the seventh-century tribal Arab societies and their customs. The same applies to the Old Testament and the Avesta of Zoroastrianism, representing life in the Mediterranean region of West Asia and Persia consecutively.     

We have religious studies as a separate subject in our national curriculum in Bangladesh. However, if we delve into the matter of studying religion in the real sense, I feel the way we are teaching religion to our children does not serve the actual purpose. If we did not have any mandatory subject for religion in our curriculum, then it would have been a different discussion, but as we have it, I reckon there needs to be some examination of the current method of teaching religion.  

All religions have an underlying similarity -- the belief in a supernatural deity, the one who’s behind the creation of everything in the universe. Different religions explain it in different ways, however, the very essence remains the same. The rituals, the ways of worshipping, the customs may vary from one religion to another but the ultimate goal hardly differs. It’s all about the veneration of that divinity. 

If we can agree on the abovementioned similarity among the religions, then one wonders whether it is really necessary to make separate books on religions to be studied by the children that belong to specific religions. In my conviction, this deprives a child of knowing about other religions, the other viewpoint, which is also concentrating on the same issues -- the search for truth, morality, justice. 

Letting children know about the other point of view could enrich their knowledge and enable them to think critically. Not knowing about the other paves the way for the creation of different dogmas and a sense of self-superiority from a very early age -- a dogmatic mindset.

Now, I should highlight the actual process that creates the phenomena of the “other” among children when it comes to religious study. One who has completed his or her secondary education under the national curriculum can recall the class period of religious study from school life, where students get divided into groups according to their religion. They move to other classrooms for their religious study. It may seem that there’s nothing wrong with it, it may appear benign. But I disagree. I strongly believe that this way of teaching religion sows the seeds of division at a very early age. That division eventually becomes mature and in many cases irreconcilable. 

Moreover, children of one religion do not get the chance to know what is written in the books of their friends from another religion. This then initiates another problem -- creating fabricated stories about each other’s religion. 

A Hindu student doesn’t usually know about what is written in the Qur’an nor does a Muslim student know about the Vedas, unless they have some unique interest in theology. Generally, the only source of their learning about other religions is either family discussions, which are often predisposed to different prejudices, or the tirades of politicians or politically motivated clergymen.

I can remember as a child I also had misconceptions about the religions that some of my friends belonged to and vice versa. All of these are the consequences of a flawed way of teaching religion, nothing to blame on the children. 

My thoughts on this matter suggest making one single book that will cover the key principles of all the major religions in Bangladesh. The students will come across the teachings of all other religions, not just the ones they belong to. Only then will they be able to realize the convergence of all the religions regarding faith, history, and their gradual evolution with time and place. This approach will also prevent children from paying any attention to falsified stories about other religions. If we can raise a generation this way, I believe that they will bring us out of the religious and communal distrust and mitigate the division among people.

The colonial project of divide and rule by creating divisions among different religions and communities is not unknown to anyone. But I don’t find any rational reason behind carrying that on still today. In my opinion, not allowing children to learn about other religions is quite similar to that colonial project. 

I have no doubt that the lack of knowledge about religions other than one’s own creates a distance among people, and that distance only grows. In countries like ours where religion appears to be a very significant component in both the social and political arena, the matter of letting children learn about all religions inclusively from a young age should be considered seriously if we want to bring people together regardless of their religious identity.

Ratnadeep Toorja is a freelance contributor.

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