Moderator says religious education holds the key to defeating extremism

The Rt Rev John Chalmers

An Educational Curriculum fit for these days of Religious Intolerance
Rt Rev John Chalmers

As we enter a new year there is probably no issue of any greater concern around the world than the rise of religious fundamentalism. Nothing is more dangerous than the radicalised mind and there is nothing worse than the indoctrinated child. We will not, however, defeat such extremism simply by confronting it across battle lines. The frontline for winning this battle is education and the school is the place where young minds need to be introduced to the power of critical enquiry. How else will a young person ever grow to be able to make wise choices unless they are allowed access to the widest possible range of knowledge and how else will they learn tolerance unless they are introduced to the wide ranging menu of different ideas that populate the world.

Peace in our time will only come when we find the means to respect those with whom we disagree and when we have matured to the point that we can discuss our deepest held views on religion, philosophy and politics without seeking to impose ours on others. Such tolerance, however, will not come by removing, as some desire, religious observance from the school curriculum; on the contrary what we should be doing is building on the strong tradition of religious reflection which is currently a part of the Scottish school environment.

The Scottish education system is amongst the best in the world. It produces free thinking, independent and creative minds and it does so by opening up the world ideas as they are practised across the world and across every major discipline. One of the most important of these disciplines is that of properly understanding the faiths that motivate most of the world's population. I am not advocating any measure of proselytising within our schools, but I am saying that knowledge of the substance and practise of religion must be part of any rounded education. Intolerance would, in my view, be the resultant outcome of turning Time for Reflection in schools into a choice.

There is a theory prevalent in western society that secularism is an unstoppable bandwagon. Sociologists in the 1960's were sure that secularism and modernity went hand in hand and it was only a matter of time before religious views of the world would be passé. It is clear, however, that such theories have been proved wrong. Peter Berger, of Boston University reassessing the place of religion in society writes, "I think that what I and most other sociologists of religion wrote in the 1960's about secularisation was a mistake. Our underlying argument was that secularisation and modernity go hand in hand. It wasn't a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it's basically wrong. Most of the world is certainly not secular. Religion continues to be important to people in many countries. The one exception is Western Europe. One of the most interesting questions in the sociology of religion today is not 'How do you explain fundamentalism in Iran? but, 'Why is Western Europe different?"

If this is true, and I believe it is, then it has never been more important than it is now to maintain a proper, temperate and inclusive approach to the practise of religious observance. Every child needs to know about religious practice and it has to be shared in a context of open-mindedness and mutual respect. So, I'll be doing all that I can to see that religious observance or time for reflection stays in the curriculum.

I am comfortable with such an approach to religious freedom not least because God's encounter with each one of us depends on God's gracious meeting with us rather than our zealous encounter with others on God's behalf.