Evaluating religious education

Kamaruddin Amin, Jakarta | Opinion | Fri, November 15 2013, 11:32 AM

During a recent one-week visit to the United Kingdom, I found that religious education there was substantially different from that in Indonesia. It is not a matter of whether the UK system is wrong or right, better or worse. Rather, it is a question of how religious education is designed to meet the needs of the respective country.
In the visit we had discussions with various officials and professors at Oxford University and visited a number of elementary and secondary schools. We directly observed how teachers delivered religious education, the content and the response of students of different faiths. It was interesting to note the purposes of religious education, the teaching and learning process and the method of teachers’ training.

The population of the UK is multicultural and multi-faith. The existence of six large religious groups — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism — significantly colors its socio-economic and political life. Not surprisingly, religious education in the UK is compulsory by the Constitution.

As a secular country, however, the inculcation of religious values to students is not a priority. Religious education essentially promotes social cohesion, peaceful co-existence and mutual respect amid the diverse British society.

Differently put, religious education in the UK is not intended to nurture or instill religious doctrine in students. Students are not directed to be devout Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews or Catholics. Instead, they are encouraged to inquire about their religious teachings and practices and to have a critical and reflective understanding of their beliefs.

Thus the delivery of religious education is to investigate the impact of religious beliefs and teachings on individuals, communities and societies, to evaluate beliefs and the impact of religion in the contemporary world.

Given that students have to learn many religions in a limited time and given the lack of emphasis on subject knowledge, the superficial understanding of any religion becomes unavoidable. Consequently, one cannot hope to grasp an extensive understanding even about one’s own religion.

One may consider this as a weakness of the British religious education system. However, given that its purpose in the UK is to realize social cohesion, mutual respect among believers and not to create a devout religious community, the strengths and the weaknesses of the British religious education system is dependent on to what extent this purpose has been achieved.

Religious education in Indonesian schools aims essentially at creating a religious community, where a deep, extensive and even critical understanding of religion is nurtured. Religious teachings and values are not exclusively to be understood but to be internalized and to be accordingly acted upon.

Religious education is expected to transform a student’s behavior and to build his or her character into a religious one. To what extent these goals have been achieved, however, remains a challenging question.

Based on our Education Law, religious education is compulsory for every Indonesian student. Every Muslim student has the right to study Islam from a Muslim teacher. This also applies to other religious groups. So, the purpose of religious education in Indonesian schools, be it Islam and other religions, is to inculcate religious values in students, to make them devote Muslims or Christians, Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists. This may be called a mono-religious approach.

Why are other religions not taught to students (the inter-religious approach)? This question has been raised by many, assuming that a proper understanding of other religions could potentially promote virtues of respect and social cohesion that is tremendously important in a diverse society as Indonesia. Let us learn from the UK experience.

By applying the inter-religious approach in religious education, the UK could be considered as highly successful in achieving its goal — peaceful co-existence among religious groups, though religious extremism cannot be totally eradicated. However, this system, at least in the UK experience, substantially lacks deep understanding of the subject knowledge and nurturing of the essential doctrine of any religion.

One may argue the importance of introducing other religions to every student in Indonesian schools. This is definitely justifiable, but inculcating religious values, nurturing a religious doctrine, creating a religious society and being a devout believer is no less important. Truly devout believers should genuinely respect others, thus helping to create peaceful coexistence. Therefore religious education in Indonesian schools is theoretically and ambitiously dual-purpose.

Have we become devout Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists or Catholics? Have schools achieved this dual goal of our religious education? Given the fact that integrity, which is central to any religious teachings, remains low among former students, resulting in rampant corruption, and that religious-based conflicts are still widespread in Indonesia, we have to bravely admit that religious education here needs to be seriously reevaluated.

The problems could be due to the content or textbooks of religious education, the way it is delivered or the teachers’ competence. This is the big challenge that the new 2013 curriculum is trying to deal with. The curriculum has been designed to meet the need of this multicultural country, to promote mutual respect and peaceful coexistence, and at the same time, to create a religious community.

The writer is secretary to the Directorate General of Islamic Education at the Religious Affairs Ministry. The views expressed are personal