Dismissing religious education is a poor lesson in tolerance

It is bizarre to hear educators argue for ignorance over knowledge in any context

Recent opinion about the place of religious education in Irish schools has demonstrated postmodern rifts in the fabric of Irish tolerance. In some circles religion is cast as the benighted remains of some kind of redundant arch-Catholicism. There is a feeling abroad that “no deal is better than a Catholic deal”.

By extension, we see ourselves as having grown out of the denominational presentation of religion in schools. It is sad, however, to learn that we prefer ignorance to any in-depth knowledge of religion. Better have our children studying more Maths or English.

However, it is ironically hard to hear educators argue for ignorance over knowledge in any context and to do so in the name of tolerance seems hardly bearable.

Maybe we need to remember that religion itself is not medieval. Of 7.6 billion people alive in the world today, 7.1 billion are categorised as having some religion. There are 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1.1 billion Hindus, 400 million Buddhists, 30 million Sikhs, 20 million Jews, eight million Bahai’s, seven million Confucian, four million Shinto and a smattering of other religions.

What evidence is there based on these figures that ignorance of religion is what is required in our schools? And in the name of tolerance?

Recent profiles of young western ISIS recruits showed a common, rather disturbing feature.

They seemed to lack any real understanding of Islam. Ignorance left them prey to clever fanatics willing to introduce them to a Ponzi scheme for brutality, a purely heathen philosophy shrouded in the trappings of black flags and beheaded corpses designed to determine who lives and who dies. Only a surface knowledge of the Qur’an, could support such a worldview.

The more serious attraction of this cult, however, is its ability to identify a human meaning for young people word-wide who have lost belief in their own cultures.

ISIS propaganda offered meaning to these young recruits a sense of purpose and some relief from the emptiness of postmodern life-forms.

Had these recruits studied the original texts in more detail and achieved knowledge of them, they would have rejected the butchery that their videos portrayed. They might have learned instead the meaning of tolerance, the meaning of peaceful coexistence.

A religious education should lead us back to original texts and to the recognition that there is a human meaning and that there are many ways to express this in practice.

Often we suppose that it is easy to tolerate difference and the less we know, the easier it is. Different customs, different views, different belief systems are all fine as long as they don’t have a feather’s impact on us.

Views that don’t seem to matter to anyone except to the people who hold them have little impact on the public space and can be easily tolerated. But what about ideas that do have an impact on the public space?

A communist government might abolish private property. That would have an impact on everyone and to tolerate such a measure would require a lot of effort.

Or if we are asked to accept the ritualised slaughter of animals at an annual religious celebration, then our tolerance is put to the test.

It is usually difficult to tolerate public forms of behaviour that we do not share. A society therefore needs to learn how to be tolerant of different practices and different views of what it is to lead a human life.

The religions put forward their understandings of this question in their practices, rituals, oral traditions and eventually in their scriptures and the cultures that express them and receive them into contemporary meaning.

To tolerate is not to follow all these cultural differences (because that would be impossible, since some contradict others on various points). To tolerate means to accept or take these ways of life as plausible, sincere attempts to answer the question about what is a properly human life. We are prepared to accommodate ourselves to them.

The context is complicated if we, as post-moderns, don’t hold any particular views at all or if we are mindlessly inconsistent in our practices. Then the very fact of supporting a well-integrated religious culture side by side with our own practices may appear strangely backward, perhaps even the antithesis of what we take to be required by tolerance in a liberal sense.

Taken together various religions offer a vision of a fulfilled human life in harmony with the natural world.

Having stepped out of the butchery that still holds the human heart in its grip, many of these religions reach for the steadying hand of a deity; others suggest different paths.

This is perhaps all the more reason why we should know something substantial about the religions of the world. Indeed the evidence of a world without this knowledge risks returning us continually to the violence we use as our default mechanism in all things, even in our ongoing re-definition of words like “tolerance”.

* Fiachra Long is head of University College Cork's school of education . He is joint-editor with Dr Siobhán Dowling of the newly-published Sacred Scriptures: From Oral Tradition to Written Documents and their Reception (Routledge).