Monday 11 July 2022

Religions as World History

Religious manuscripts in the fabulous library of Timbuktu. Such texts are a storehouse of ancient knowledge.
By Keith Tidman

Might it be desirable to add teaching about world religions to the history curriculum in schools?

Religions have been deeply instrumental in establishing the course of human civilisation, from the earliest stirrings of community and socialisation thousands of years ago. Yet, even teaching about the world’s religions has often been guardedly held at arm’s length, for concern instruction might lapse into proselytising. 

Or at least, for apprehension over instructors actions being seen as such.

The pantheon of religions subject to being taught span the breadth: from Hinduism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism to Buddhism, Christianity, and Sikhism  including indigenous faiths. The richness of their histories, the literacy and sacred quality of their storytelling, the complexities and directive principles held among their adherents, and religions seminal influences upon the advancement of human civilisation are truly consequential.

This suggests that religions might be taught as a version of world history. Done so without exhortation, judgment, or stereotyping. And without violating religious institutions desire to be solely responsible for nurturing the pureness of their faith. School instruction ought be straightforwardly scholarly and factual, that is  without presumption, spin, or bias. Most crucially, both subject-matter content and manner of presentation should avert transgressing the beliefs and faiths of students or their families and communities. And avoid challenging what theologians may consider axiomatic about the existence and nature of God, the word of authoritative figures, the hallowed nature of practices like petitionary prayer, normative canon, or related matters.


Accordingly, the aim of such an education would not be to evangelise or favour any religions doctrine over another’s; after all, we might agree that choice in paving a child’s spiritual foundation is the province of families and religious leaders.

Rather, the vision I wish to offer here is a secularised, scholarly teaching of religious literacy in the context of broader world histories. Adding a philosophical, ideas-based, dialogue-based layer to the historical explanation of religions may ensure that content remains subject to the rationalism (critical reflection) seen in educational content generally: as, for example, in literature, art, political theory, music, civics, rhetoric, geography, classics, science and math, and critical thinking, among other fields of enquiry.


You see, there is, I propose, a kind of DNA inherent in religion. This is rooted in origin stories of course, but also revealed by their proclivity toward change achieved through a kind of natural selection not dissimilar to that of living organisms. An evolutionary change in which the faithful — individuals, whole peoples, and formal institutions — are the animating force. Where change is what’s constant. We have seen this dynamical process result in the shaping and reshaping of values, moral injunctions, institutions, creeds, epistemologies, language, organisation, orthodoxies, practices, symbols, and cultural trappings.


In light of this evolutionary change, a key supporting pillar of an intellectually robust, curious society is to learn — through the power of unencumbered ideas and intellectual exploration — what matters to the development and practice of the world’s many religions. The aim being to reveal how doctrine has been reinterpreted over time, as well as to help students shed blinkers to others’ faith, engage in free-ranging dialogue on the nature, mindset, and language of religion writ large, and assume greater respect and tolerance.

Democracies are one example of where teaching about religion as an academic exercise can take firmest hold. One goal would be to round out understanding, insights, skills, and even greater wisdom for effective, enlightened citizenship. Such a program’s aim would be to encompass all religions on a par with one another in importance and solemnity, including those spiritual belief systems practiced by maybe only a few — all such religious expression nonetheless enriched by the piloting of their scriptures, ideologies, philosophies, and primary texts.


The objective should be to teach religious tenets as neutral, academic concepts, rather than doctrinal matters of faith, the latter being something individuals, families, and communities can and should choose for themselves. Such that, for example, whose moral code and doctrinal fundamentals one ought to adopt and whose to shy from are avoided — these values-based issues regarded as improper for a public-education forum. Although history has shown that worship is a common human impulse around the world, promoting worship per se ought not be part of teaching about religions. That’s for another time and place. 

Part and parcel, the instructional program should respect secularist philosophies, too. Like those individuals and families who philosophically regard faith and notions of transcendentalism as untenable, and see morality (good works) in humanistic terms. And like those who remain agnostically quizzical while grappling with what they suppose is the unknowability of such matters as higher-order creators, yet are at peace with their personal indecision about the existence of a deity. People come to these philosophical camps on equal footing, through deliberation and well-intentioned purposes — seekers of truth in their own right.


In paralleling how traditional world histories are presented, the keystone to teaching about religions should be intellectual honesty. Knowing what judiciously to put in and leave out, while understanding that tolerance and inclusion are core to a curious society and informed citizenry. Factually and scholarly opening minds to a range of new perspectives as windows on reality.


As such, teachings focus should be rigorously academic and instructional, not devotional. In that regard, it’s imperative that schools sidestep breaching the exclusive prerogative of families, communities, and religious institutions to frame whose ‘reality’ — whose truth, morality, orthodoxy, ritual, holy ambit, and counsel — to live by.

These cautions notwithstanding, it seems to me that schools ought indeed seek to teach the many ways in which the world’s religions are a cornerstone to humanity’s cultural, anthropological, and civilisational ecology, and thus a core component of the millennia-long narratives of world history.



Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. I would see it like this: curbing religious and ideological subjects may be more dangerous than teaching them. To understand how people think in these areas is crucial. People arrange their worlds in terms of such thinking. Millions if not billions of people.

I do not think it is possible to teach religion without offence, no matter how circumspectly it is done. Teaching religion as history may in itself cause offence. Therefore if one teaches it, one is teaching learners how to go about with contradiction. And I think that is healthy.

I have the sense that your proposal sets too many condititions for the teaching of religion. It seems to me to slice too much away. On what authority can one do that? May one not lose important perspectives through one’s own ... anopsia?

[A note to Pi: do we have a new word for our stock vocabulary?]

Keith said...

I’d like, Thomas, to briefly address just one or two of your critical observations. I think experience at the university level in many parts of the world reveals that teaching about religion’s deeply rooted role in the shaping and evolution of human history is possible. It demonstrably works. To that degree I’m reassured. Many historians have published wonderful tomes on the linkages between the world’s religions and humanity’s history, with many shelves of books from which universities can and do select. The source material is already there. My concern, however, is that such instructional outreach currently bears on the lives of only a minuscule few: those privileged to go on to university, which excludes many people. Rather, my thesis aims to explore the possible benefits to awareness, understanding, and forbearance of bringing such facts-based and history-based teaching to public schools earlier than university. That is, can (and ought) some restyled version of the university curriculum be replicated at earlier levels of public schooling? My essay is largely focused on the pedagogic considerations of such curricula decisions. (As for the anopsia to which you refer: might *all* parties on this particular subject suffer from the condition?)


A topic too controversial to enter a truthful factual debate, it has reached the same level as American Politics. One never knows whose toes you might step on. Thanks though for making us think about it.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I wonder to what or to whom John would attribute this problematic nature of religion. I live in Africa, where by and large it is not problematic, and does not evoke such strong feeling.

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly favor teaching religion in an anthropological and sociological context. Religions have played and continue to play central roles in the evolution of humans and the development of civilizations, philosophy in negative and positive ways. I firmly believe that humans have a preternatural need to be connected to cosmological forces and origin myths. Whether one considers religion in terms of Shinto/animist or the highly structured Roman
Catholic church, spiritualism runs deep through them and into the human psyche. We would all be more tolerant and broadminded if we share a fuller understand and appreciation of each others' religious (or agnostic) differences.

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