Religious Pluralism and Distorted Notions of Secularism in Education

Religious Pluralism and Distorted Notions of Secularism in Education

The events of the European Reformation and its aftermath in which the material power of the Christian Church was reduced, still hang heavy as a collective memory in social orders that have inherited this civilization. This fear has made the education systems in the West (and as much in the East where the colonial models were followed) totally divorced from religious heritage and very often valueless and hollow. And this is particularly so because the so called Humanism of the Enlightenment has proved to be too anthropocentric and consumerist.

Karl Marx

The Marxist animosity to religion viewed as ‘opium of the masses’ is another major factor that contributes to the banning of religious notions from educational systems. Ethics thus is the biggest casualty of civilization today. It is high time that the modern state should redefine its secularity which can no longer mean atheism, agnosticism or theophobia but an active engagement in imparting the basic tenets of all faiths in the world and specifically so that are professed by its majority and minority populations of each land. And this should be done not as a concession but as an endeavor that answers the deepest aspirations of mankind and makes it harmonious with other beings and non-beings on the planet. I may add here that the ideal before the Indian State, namely what has been carefully defined in India as ‘sarva-dharma-sambhaava’ (equal regard for all faiths) endeavors in this direction. It may be noted that in the Indian philosophical systems as in the common psyche of its people even atheism or even the Marxist materialistic dialecticism is just one another faith (matam/sampradaaya), that is a set of metaphysical, existential and ethical notions that sustain its adherents. Hence the divide between a secular and a godly system of faith does not exist as the state is committed to the well being of the adherents of all systems. It is then its bounden duty to educate its children and grown ups in all the faiths so that not only they fulfill their denominational needs but learn to understand the faiths of others. Perhaps a rigorous pursuit of this path shall prevent us from frantically trying to dole out palliatives in emergencies as has been the case regarding Islam after 9/11″

“Pluralism” is a word that these days abounds alike in the glib talk of undergraduates, outpourings of subaltern filmmakers, papers read by academics in international seminars and the maiden speeches of newly elected legislators. But do we usually pause to think:

  1. What exactly do we mean by the word ‘pluralism’?
  2. What obligations and social conduct does a life of pluralism demand from its professed adherents?
  3. Is pluralism a contemporary concept or have the older cultures also thought of it?
  4. Does the present day world has capacity to manage variety and differences and still maintain a faith in the deeper unity of humankind?

It is a pity that on this earth where plurality has been debated in metaphysical and ethical terms for thousands of years, plurality has been now debased to mean merely a tolerance of diverse faiths and cultural habits. Discussions on plurality in the context of the ultimate nature of the seen and unseen universe are no longer the order of the day. Can the diversity of dress codes, sexuality, religious convictions, and morals be practiced if the finer questions of philosophical plurality are shoved under the carpet?

Reducing the larger expanse of plurality and limiting it to the sphere of “ethnic tolerance” or “community harmony” is putting the cart before the horse. If the deeper springs of religious and social beliefs are not studied, debated, and analyzed, measures to keep the adherents of these faiths and communities in harmony are not going to succeed. Religious and cultural denominations will always be taken over by chest-beating demagogues who shall proclaim the right to dictate their whims on behalf of vast populations. Their conflicting claims shall continue to create recurring flare-ups in the name of identity protection and continue to detract from the deeper sources of spiritual and intellectual probing.

Pluralism is more than External Marks

The real worth of pluralism lies in making new and distinct choices off the beaten road. These differences created by the new choices should be profound investigations and not matters of mere practical conveniences or egotistical assertions. For example, in medieval India, the teachings of Nanak Dev, the first Guru of the Sikh denomination of Indic religions, provided a fresh method of infusing mantra repetition (japa) and community service in the non-iconic (nirguna) tradition of the devotional (bhakti) movement that invited adherents to his path from various religious denominations including the Muslims.

Guru Nanak

Nanak chose to provide a fresh plurality and thus a new identity for spiritual upliftment and social welfare at the same time, when most of his contemporaries preached only other worldliness. But the controversy we often witness not only in India but in Europe and the USA as well, on small matters of ethnic distinctions such as the dress codes and food habits of his Sikh followers are not comparatively speaking vital issues of religious diversity. Thus the insistence on the use of turban by Sikh soldiers in the British Army or the insistence of certain Sikh organizations in India that women pillion riders on motor-cycles shall not wear safety helmets cannot be taken as core issues of religious faith as such demands are more of identity markers than spiritual practices. One could take similar examples from Islamic and Christian fold, such as wearing of large Crosses by Christians or head scarfs or skullcaps that loudly declare the religious affiliations of a person more than his/her inner conduct. This show of plurality is made up of mere diversity of dress codes or marriage customs. It does not ensure any deeper perceptions about the nature of reality and truth as they are defined for a better life according to the religious tenets of an adherent.

Teaching the Diversity of Faiths

The obligations of societies professing pluralism go beyond mere tolerance of external markers. Such societies are obliged to actively cultivate a reasonable acquaintance with the articles of divergent faiths and beliefs. But in most national systems of formal education world over, and particularly in the Indian one that inherits the British perspective, religious and moral education has been kept out of school and college education as a guiding principle of the secular state. For example in Indian educational system it is presumed that acquainting a Muslim child with Hindu precepts will obstruct his allegiance to his family faith and similarly teaching the basic tenets of Islam to a Hindu child will ruin his or her faith in tenets of parental Hinduism.

Hence, India like many a modern Western or Asian democratic non theocratic state prefers not to teach the precepts of different religions, and especially not even of her majority religion of Hinduism to her own school children lest this kind of teaching shake the faith of the children in their parental interpretation of religion. The Indian policy makers are further afraid if religious instruction is given, the State may be accused of promoting one religion over another or of even pushing religious values over and above the so called atheistic/agnostic/secular values of life that for some reason have acquired the aura of being more liberal, democratic and modern than religious ethics. In other words, it is presumed that knowing about the faith of others, and of the majority Hindu adherents of the nation in special, is detrimental to the security and freedom of a child’s beliefs.

In India, another irrational fear has been practiced now for more than half a century ever since it was enshrined in the Constitution as an unwarranted phobia. Teaching of religion may end up as teaching of the majority religion, that is Hinduism and this may result in a religious oppression of religious minorities like the Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and atheists.

Therefore, these minorities are not only ‘protected’ by the lack of religious education, they are given a Constitutional concession to open and manage religious or other institutions where freedom to teach their particular faith is guaranteed. In other words, a minority child is likely to be harmed by exposure to the faith of the majority and hence no general religious instruction in state schools, but a majority child is not likely to be harmed if he/she attends a minority school class in a minority institution. This theory of education is based on phobia and exclusion and instills a suspicion of faiths other than one is born into. Such a kinky pedagogy can only breed intolerant and ignorant members in a society who to satisfy their religious thirst can fall prey to any unhealthy cult ranging from aggressive dogmas to terrorism promoted from within or outside the nation.

Family, not an Efficient Teaching Space

One often hears the prescription that religion and its values are best taught by the family and the State far from having an obligation for providing education about religious matters should keep even the public media, such as news prints, television and public utility spaces sanitized from religious overtones. Besides promoting the tyranny of the Euro-centric post Enlightenment secularity, this notion simply overlooks (or secretly galore in) the fact that the family is no longer capable of giving proper religious instruction of even the faith it professes and least of all of the faiths of others. As a matter of fact most families, even the well-versed ones in religious concepts have a sectarian idea and irrational emotional attachment to their faith. They teach hostility and prejudice to other faiths. In fact, it is the prejudice instilled by families that pours into the public space as strife and the more deprived the public education about religious matters, greater the chances of conflict.

A child with a vaishnava tilak

If plurality is to be promoted then a new public space for religious dialogue must be created. Seminars and conventions that are being so frantically arranged now all over the world cannot resolve prejudices that families have instilled for generations. The family is not expected to have a pluralistic and wide vision approach to religion that instruction in public spaces needs to evolve for a better world. Older societies had chosen to demarcate social norms for adherents of divergent faiths in stricter terms. But people were more aware of the fundamentals of each other’s religion or sect. For instance in ancient India, a Jain child may not have gone to the same educational institution (ashrama) along with a Buddhist or a Vaishnava child, or may have never shared lunch with a child that came from a family of the followers of Shiva, but the pedagogy of the times as practiced in schools of all denominations, had a rigorous system of teaching the precepts of other systems even though for the purpose of refutation. In other words, a Jain child or a mature scholar would surely know the precepts of all other sects.

And so would a Buddhist or a Shaivite scholar. But what is taught nowadays in schools and universities the world over is not the way to distinguish between the why and how of different faiths but a namby-pamby multi-culturalism constantly reeling under the weight or some ideology, usually western, be it neo-colonialism, senile socialism or a carpetbagger globalization.

In pre-technocratic cultures spaces of common activities were fewer than now in the present age of high mobility and intermixing. In the face of the great uniformization that occurs through mass production, perhaps religion, language, skin-color, marital laws and food are the few markers left with us today for making group distinctions amongst vast populations. The last two, that is, marital laws and food, may not be distinct for very long and may become uniform in another half a century. A hybrid global cuisine of the fast food variety and serial monogamy of the Christian heritage is already the emerging trend. Therefore, it is all the more essential that an informed and open-minded view is cultivated about religion, skin-color, and language by people the world over. But in order to secure some degree of success in this direction, we must shift the emphasis from harping upon the differences between peoples, races, religions, and cultures to the deeper unity of humankind.

Distorted Notions of Secularity

One of the biggest hurdles in the modern times regarding religious education is the distorted notion of secularity that demands a total separation of the Church (not just Christian Church but the organized or semi-morphic body representing any religion) from the State to maintain an equal distance from all religious denominations. The events of the European Reformation and its aftermath in which the material power of the Christian Church was reduced, still hang heavy as a collective memory in social orders that have inherited this civilization. This fear has made the education systems in the West (and as much in the East where the colonial models were followed) totally divorced from religious heritage and very often valueless and hollow. And this is particularly so because the so called Humanism of the Enlightenment has proved to be too anthropocentric and consumerist.

An Example of Faith Diversity Curriculum

I have had personally the opportunity to be involved in some policy-making exercises regarding religious education in India. Although most of this has remained at the level of planning and is far from execution due to lack of political consensus, a fresh thinking about the content of modern education, particularly at the school level is already underway in India. One such long exercise was conducted in 2002 at the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, New Delhi by a committee of educational experts and then in office chairperson of the National Women’s Commission. I had the opportunity to lead the committee as the Convener. It was felt by us that religious plurality cannot be introduced into a school curriculum as mere verbal statements of the articles of diverse faiths to be memorized by pupils. That would be just another kind of catechism.

Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts

Introducing the religious concepts should be part of the larger plan to make the young acquainted with their cultural and scientific heritage of India as a whole. Religions can make sense when they are taught in relation to architecture, dance, music, painting, poetry, drama, history and mythology, traditional medicine and knowledge systems preserved by the forest and mountain peoples. The documented part of religious texts, the so-called scriptures make much more meaning in relation to other forms of religious expression that depends upon music, poetry and so many arts. As a method of collecting the advice of the schools, a series of conferences and workshops were held in each of which teachers and principals of about 50 schools were invited to offer their views. Much care was taken to invite teachers from the Christian and Muslim schools as well besides the regular schools of Hindu majority. We found that there was a great enthusiasm about changing the print oriented and examination modelled system of teaching and grading and nearly all the proposals tended to demand a system in which learning would be provided through a greater involvement of the arts. It was repeatedly mentioned that the much needed communication skills could be easily acquired through various arts and particularly through theatre for the children.

Jarawas of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

To begin with it was emphasized that the diversified nature of Indian society as a unique mosaic of traditions and cultures, ranging from hunting-gathering communities like the primitive Jarawas of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the most complex urban cultures of its cosmopolitan towns must be made familiar to students. The present school system was too centralized, elite-dominated and urban-oriented. It will have to undergo several modifications to relate itself to the needs and convenience of various communities and young learners, if India is to have a strong base of Heritage Education (HE). The new cultural curriculum and pedagogy must take into account the life-views and living styles of the communities to which the school going children belong and adapt the content of learning to their needs and aspirations. Severe neglect of the sense of belonging to the community makes the present day system of schooling uninteresting and even unacceptable to many. After exhaustive discussions following conclusions were drawn:

(1) Cultural Heritage studies should be named as Heritage Activity. The change in name was made to emphasize that ‘culture’ very often stays limited to the fine arts and that students should not be asked to memorize certain facts about ‘culture’ but to feel the place of culture in the broad ambience of the total heritage that includes religion, science, history and ethics in a tangible way through practical activities to be prescribed for the classes. Culture is not an isolated activity but as a whole vision of life.

(2) The Heritage Activity shall NOT be made as extra curricular but shall be evaluated and marked as other curricular subjects. It shall be taught in all classes in the school curriculum right from primary classes till the last class of the school.

(3) The children are needed to be encouraged to develop a more of a play-like atmosphere in tuning themselves to HA and entirely so in the lower classes through music, painting, theatre, recitation, and such arts. There should be a gradual transition from the experiential in the lower classes to the conceptual in higher classes. At all levels students shall be involved practically in learning about the material heritage (such as archaeological sites, temples, museums etc.,) and abstract heritage (philosophies, poetry, scriptures) forms of Indian Heritage through work-books, projects and visits to sites and less through textbooks.

An Odissi dance performance

(4) The instructional materials of various subjects shall be divided into practical and conceptual modes of instructions but shall be transmitted through projects and activities.

(5) Besides the school system, other cultural resource centers such as museums, historical sites, documentation centers, research institutions, places of worship, holy sites, pilgrimages etc., shall be visited to feel a closeness and respect for the living heritage and the various regions of India.

(6) In order to provide room for heritage activity and not impose additional work load on students, obsolete and repetitive content from the various existing subjects, can be shed after proper scrutiny.

(7) Training should be given to the present teachers to teach the Heritage Activity. Teachers from diverse existing subjects can very well teach HA after training. HA need not require additional hiring of teachers.

(8) Special care shall be taken to use the local, regional and geographical aspects of Heritage around the school to accommodate the diversity of Indian culture. The HA work-books and projects shall be prepared at state levels and also reflects some national elements.

(9) The curriculum should also be made to reflect and highlight the living urban and folk wisdom of the traditions of India.

Following themes are identified as constituting the essential aspects of India’s Heritage.

a) Sacred sites and architectural heritage.

b) Folklore and lifestyles of Rural, Tribal and Urban India.

c) Visual, Oral, Performing and Fine Arts of India.

d) Scriptural Heritage of India, including all religious and cultural texts.

e) Literature and Literary Figures of India.

f ) Philosophers, Thinkers and Saints.

g) Traditional Modes of Transmission of History, Arts and Culture.

It is needless to say that the detailed syllabi for projects, cultural activity, work-books, community activity, teaching of arts and crafts etc., is a task to be undertaken by experts of various heritage subjects from early to highest class according to the suggestions and guidelines given above, should the policy makers ever decide to implement this vision of pluralism in religious and cultural education.

Curricula for Plurality Needed in Europe and America

What has been proposed for the Indian situation above need not be treated as applicable to India alone but can be used by various countries. It is a model of treating plurality that exists in many cultures. The 20th century has already witnessed a vast migration of Arabs and Asians into Europe, North America and Australia. The trend is likely to intensify and create highly diverse societies in these continents. Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Orthodox Christians are now a permanent part of these regions.

[contextly_sidebar id=”f55sxOJbKThMaKMlMFcQZrC0ZrV75swp”]

For this reason the Indian conditions and the suggested model preserving harmonious diversity can of great use to some major nations like the USA, Canada, UK and the EU that are now grappling with racial, linguistic, and ethnic conflicts. The ignorance of the Christians about Hinduism and its diverse faith is simply appalling as one notes from the many incidents of Sikhs being mistaken as followers of Osama and shot in the USA. One may observe, though, that whereas in India much wider and intense diversity has existed for many millennia, it is relatively new in these continents and therefore even its smaller scale may be more difficult to deal with. Particularly so when Christianity and Islam both preach the doctrine of the elect and the fundamental right to proselytize that stands in the way of harmony and mutual admiration of faiths.

It is my hope that an educational policy that is able to open up the young minds to religious diversity shall also result in locating a common ground between various religious and cultural beliefs. It may be remembered that commonality between beliefs and not their differences are the raison d’etre of communication. If communication is to be something more than exchange of goods or info-commodity, then we may benefit most from turning to the core of vibrant similarity between religions and cultural identities that exists beneath all differences and which, instead of being wiped out by the individual differences, sustains itself and the differences as well. To provide a simile, it is like the consonance between two musical notes, which are always independent but are always capable of generating a mutual resonance by virtue of their common grounding in a given scale. Within our pluralism we need to explore our common scale.

Today one cannot escape dealing with the theme of religious and cultural diversity in the context of globalization that demands harmonious interchange between cultures and nations. Hence for a peaceful growth of the global interchanges a strong mutual appreciation of religious tenets is essential. Religion happens to be one source of causing a lot of misunderstanding among the diverse peoples of the world as they mostly do not understand the approaches of those who follow a different faith from theirs. This problem needs to be overcome as early as possible. This task of building understanding of others’ faith cannot be left to voluntary good doers or whosoever claims to address it but should be the part of the education system from childhood onwards.

As at initial levels almost entirely, and at higher levels partially, managing the educational system is essentially the duty of the State, governments world over should adopt a pluralistic approach to religion in making it a part of education.

Dr. Bharat Gupt

Dr. Bharat Gupt is a retired Associate Professor who taught at Delhi University. He can be contacted at