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

Hell and religious learning

Khairil Azhar, Jakarta | Opinion | Fri, June 21 2013, 9:21 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

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
uncontrollably.

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.