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One night, when we were about to sleep, my 5-year-old daughter said, “Daddy, I want to wake up early and perform dawn prayer (subuh) with you tomorrow morning.”
Spontaneously, I asked, “Why?”
She quickly answered and it shocked me, “If we don’t do prayers, we will go to hell.”
“Go to hell? Who told you that?”
“My teacher at school.”
It took several seconds before I said “yes” and rubbed her head to help her get to sleep. Waiting for her to fall asleep, I kept thinking until I concluded that there must be something wrong in the way religion was taught at her school.
As far as I know, in some standard textbooks on the psychology of religious teaching used in Indonesian Islamic teacher colleges, such as the one written by Prof. Zakiah Daradjat more than two decades ago, it is clearly stated that the concepts of problematical things such as hell or Satan should not be introduced theoretically during early education.
Instead, the students must primarily learn to admire any beautiful or great creatures they can see as the manifestation of the graciousness and mercy of God. They should be made accustomed to exploring the concrete exposures before they are in proper time directed to the abstract ideas of religion.
Simply put, religious understanding should be implanted by using meaningful ideas to construct positive “fact-finder” young minds.
Along with the argument, in a study conducted in Finland from 1987 to 1988 where the researchers conducted psychological tests, “negative” religiosity as in the story can be an additional burden for children, as can the severe feelings of guilt that can precipitate suicide.
Affectively, in other research (Pargament et al. 2001), negative religious coping such as avoiding difficulties through religious activities and blaming God for difficulties has been associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms. Also, conflicting religious environment in a family can be a stumbling block for children’s development and foster division.
However, we cannot blame the teacher. First, her insufficient knowledge on educational psychology or pedagogical capacities required for being a teacher must be related to how she had been inappropriately educated or trained.
If she was a teacher with relevant educational background, as her credentials show, we should unhesitatingly question the quality of the education she had received. If she had a poor educational background, we should question the reason for her employment or the responsibility of her employer to provide proper didactic training.
Second, and it is more problematic to deal with, the teacher must have expressed her own understanding on religion in her teaching activities and it very likely reflected the way she was educated. Here, in the same pack as the hell and condemnation doctrine, we could find other teachings on the inequality of people, jihad war, or many kinds of threats to make the students abide by uncompromising religious rules.
More regrettably, the teacher’s understanding actually represents a common religious cultural system where she lives and works and therefore, as long as no complaints emerge from parents or evaluation from her superintendent, it is silently accepted at the school.
Such understanding and practice, speaking more broadly, can be found not only in other schools but also in other places where religious educational processes are intended to take place. When the children are taken to religious services, for instance, they will inevitably listen to the same improper things.
In conclusion, the internalization of the mistakenly placed religious concepts occurs repeatedly and
To the people standing up for religious indoctrination of children, however, threatening a young child with the doctrine of hell and even a condemnation is usually viewed as a moral action before the law of God. It is thought to be the way to make young children accept religious belief unquestionably and to take it on as faith.
And as we easily find, many parents are among the pro-indoctrination group that makes it difficult to complain about the indoctrination practice at schools. They send their children to religious schools because they believe that religion is the backbone of moral education.
They assume that by going to such schools children are more likely to avoid wrongdoings, such as engaging in delinquent behavior, and to gain a good attitude, such as respecting their parents or other people.
Some research actually supports the religious indoctrination argument. Benson and Donahue (2010) and Smith and Faris (2002), for example, found an association between religion and pro-social values and behavior. Bridges and Moore (2002) found that religious values promote children’s physical and emotional health and well-being.
After all, especially for the teachers, as in the above story, some training with a great pedagogical load, both theoretically and practically, combined with proper “moderate” religious materials is urgently needed. It hopefully may make them look at their religiosity and teaching practice differently.
Regarding religion, there might be absurdity. More precisely, because of the way it is perceived and embraced, with the hope that it will provide existential security, a sound mind might be forged and senselessness taken as something ordinary.
Yet, it might also be a peculiarity if we do not consider an Indonesian proverb, “Do not throw away a whole sugar tree while only a part is rotten.”
The writer is a school manager and a researcher at Paramadina Foundation Jakarta.