Religious education in South African schools

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

While South Africa’s Constitution attracts justified praise for its commitment to preserving various freedoms, we should remain vigilant in our defence of the rights it affords us, and consistent in our engagement with the responsibilities that correlate with those rights. When proposed legislation threatens to chill free speech, it’s appropriate for us to use that freedom to challenge measures such as the POI bill. In the absence of such vigilance, the Constitution could end up with little more than symbolic value.

But while much of our attention has of late been on various questions related to press freedom, a quiet – but worrying, and ongoing – erosion of other freedoms should not be allowed to pass unnoticed. And this is freedom of belief, or more specifically, the freedom to have no beliefs at all, particularly of a religious sort. The place where this freedom is threatened is in schools, where despite official policy which insists on religious neutrality, many schools continue to abuse their captive and impressionable audiences by proselytizing for one specific religious viewpoint or another.

The National Policy on Religion and Education (2003) is a wonderful document. Kader Asmal’s foreword tells us that the Policy “adopts a co-operative model that accepts our rich heritage and the possibility of creative inter-action between schools and faith whilst,[sic] protecting our young people from religious discrimination or coercion”, and that it “is neither negative nor hostile towards any religion or faith and does not discriminate against anyone”. Most important, perhaps, is that it calls for “a profound appreciation of spirituality and religion in its many manifestations, … but does not impose these”.

The Policy makes for interesting reading, as finding a compromise between the religious – and mostly Christian – beliefs of many of our citizens, and the need to embrace the possibility of a diversity of views is a tricky task. The Policy meets this challenge by defining “religion education” as an activity that requires “a spirit of openness in which there shall be no overt or covert attempt to indoctrinate pupils into any particular belief or religion”, with “religious instruction” understood as “instruction in a particular faith or belief, with a view to the inculcation of adherence to that faith or belief”. The former is permitted in schools, the latter not. In fact, the state “must maintain parity of esteem with respect to religion, religious or secular beliefs in all of its public institutions, including its public schools”.

But these noble intentions often seem to bear little relation to what might actually be happening in many of our public schools. Consider a school like Stellenbosch Primary, whose website says things like: “Die skool sal ‘n Christelike karakter hê en dit sal in alle aktiwiteite uitgeleef word” (the school will have a Christian character, and this will be exemplified in all its activities). And this Christian character frequently seems to involve keeping children in the dark ages, judging by the regular emails I receive from both parents and learners at various schools, expressing dismay at having to endure classes which dismiss evolution, and instead preach the explanatory value of creationism.

As many readers will know, the teaching of evolution has recently been in the spotlight due to a proposed policy change which will remove it as a compulsory topic in schools. The topic is alleged to be “cognitively too demanding”. The irony is of course that the concept of a triune God, or immortality of the soul, are orders of magnitude more cognitively demanding than the basic principles of evolution by natural selection. The travesty is that the lack of qualified teachers in this and other subjects is not being fixed by better incentivising those who might want to teach, but instead by dumbingdown the curriculum.

As part of the same round of revisions to the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS), the Life Skills curriculum uses plenty of neutral-sounding language while simultaneously allowing for much dogma to be transmitted into the minds of your children. While it speaks of the virtues of producing learners who are able to “critically evaluate information”, it’s simultaneously littered with sentiments that express a necessary connection between religion and morality.

In Grade 6, learners get to hear about “risks or dangers associated with non participation; penalties for non participation.” And of course there may be risks, especially if your family or community is hostile to any questioning of their chosen worldview. But there may also be benefits, and we see no mention of these in the curriculum. Furthermore, seeing as it is quite plausible that what risks there are often result from irrational adherence and defence of dogmatic faith, discussion of the risks should really be framed as a problem with religious belief – not a problem for the learner who is thinking about opting out of religion.

In fact, the dogmatic retention of religious points of view is perhaps encouraged in the curriculum by requirements like “The teaching of Religion Education must be sensitive to religious interests by ensuring that individuals and groups are protected from ignorance, stereotypes, caricatures, and denigration“. What does “sensitive” mean in this context? Is it a stereotype or caricature to say that for some believers, the content of their beliefs contradict established knowledge in biology, physics or cosmology? It’s easy to claim offense, and the lessons learners are taught here will further reinforce the idea that the victory will always go to the hypersensitive, and those who complain the loudest.

Teaching learners about the wrongness of “discrimination against religions” and “accommodating religious diversity” is not necessarily problematic, so long as being critical does not automatically make one discriminatory. And, of course, so long as we also find counterbalancing mentions of the wrongness of discrimination against the non-religious, and how laws against “religious discrimination” may in fact exist in tension to laws around freedom of speech.

While children remain free to excuse themselves from religious ceremonies, prayers and the like, two significant problems are not addressed by the “freedom of association” embedded in existing school policy. First, if your school’s character is explicitly defined as Christian, you have no option to disassociate yourself on a formal level, except by leaving the school. If there are no other schools in your area, or that are suitable for whatever reason, then you are compelled to study at a school that is Christian in character, despite the fact that public schools are not permitted to take on or practice the character of any particular religion.

Second, and more disturbingly, children cannot be expected to have the independence of mind which would allow them to disassociate themselves from such activities, or to recognise that what is being taught to them as consisting of critical enquiry, and tolerance of diversity, is in fact significantly biased towards a religious point of view. Consider also peer pressure: If all of their friends happily say their prayers, I doubt that we would find many children willing to risk the potential social repercussions of excusing themselves. They would instead meekly play along, despite the fact that the mystic mumbo-jumbo they are exposed to might make no sense to them at all.

And in the manner of all propaganda and brainwashing, it may well end up being the case that some – or many – of these children end up taking the nonsense they hear seriously, and thereby consign one part of their rational brains to eternal sleep. We have an existing policy – the National Policy on Religion and Education – which reminds schools that religion education (a neutral account of various religious points of view) is permissible in schools, and religious instruction not. The CAPS are not in accord with this policy, and neither are many of our schools.

This is one of those areas which present a real threat of the subtle erosion of the liberties enshrined in our Constitution. We have little reason to be alarmed at the teaching of religious traditions and points of view in schools, so long as they are presented critically rather than being yoked to concepts like “equipping learners, irrespective of their socio-economic background, race, gender, physical ability or intellectual ability, with the knowledge, skills and values necessary for self-fulfilment, and meaningful participation in society as citizens of a free country”.

Self-fulfilment and meaningful participation is possible for us all, not only for those who believe in one particular religious tradition. Meaningful participation is even possible for those who think any religious traditions are a handicap to self-fulfilment. We can have little control over what children are taught in their homes, but ideology taught as objectivity has no place in public education. After all, schooling is meant to make one smarter, rather than to transmit the crippling notion that there is only one route to human flourishing.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.