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Religious Education and Indoctrination

Religious Education and Indoctrination

Charlene TAN

Abstract

Given the traditional association of religious education with indoctrination, the question faced by educators is how we can teach children religion in a non-indoctrinative way. There are three main approaches to religious education available to educators and parents. This chapter points out the problems associated with two of the approaches and argues for the “teaching from commitment” approach, where religious faith is acquired not indoctrinatively but autonomously and meaningfully. The chapter concludes by suggesting some attitudes and approaches for parents and educators to adopt that will provide a stable initial culture for our children within a particular religious faith while encouraging the development of rational autonomy.

Introduction

A major concern of educators and policymakers regarding religious education is the problem of indoctrination.1 Given the traditional association of religious education with indoctrination, the question faced by educators is: how can parents and educators teach children religion in a non-indoctrinative way? There are three main approaches to religious education available to educators and parents, namely, teaching for commitment (the confessional approach), teaching about commitment (the phenomenological approach) and teaching from commitment (Thiessen, 1993). This chapter discusses these three approaches and argues that parents and educators should adopt the third approach, where religious faith is acquired not indoctrinatively but autonomously and meaningfully.

Three Approaches to Religious Education

Teaching for commitment

First, there is the confessional approach that was traditionally used in ancient churches. Philosophers such as Hirst (1973) and Kazepides (1983) have charged that such an approach is indoctrinative as there are no valid objective tests or scientific evidence for religious claims. In the “cold hard glare of rational scientific scrutiny”, the daily ritual of Christian worship in schools “may also have amounted to little more than a crude conditioning or indoctrination into views which are highly questionable, if not actually meaningless” (Carr, 1996, p. 171).

However, what is objectionable about this approach is not that religious beliefs are held non-rationally without regard for evidence. I have elsewhere argued that scientific investigation rests on assumptions which are themselves beyond proof and evidence (Tan, 2004). The search for empirical evidence is a fruitless endeavour that will only lead to an infinite regress. Many of the basic beliefs that we hold on to, such as the reliability of senses, are not evidentially grounded nor open to change when challenged by better-grounded beliefs. Philosophers such as Plantinga (1983) and Alston (1993) have also pointed out the incongruity of justifying religious beliefs based on evidence owing to their unique nature.2 What is objectionable about this approach is that it indoctrinates by paralysing one's intellectual capacity, characterised by an inability to justify one's beliefs and consider alternatives (Tan, 2005). Indoctrination is reprehensible because it makes a person incapable of thinking independently. In extreme cases, indoctrinated individuals are easily manipulated by others to inflict harm on themselves and others. Such an approach is inconsistent with the aim of parents and educators in a democratic society to develop rational autonomy in children. Besides, there is no reason why religious beliefs must be taught in an unthinking manner: rational autonomy is compatible with genuine religious commitment. After all, as Laura and Leahy (1988) put it, “an authentic faith is an autonomous faith” (p. 259).

Teaching about commitment

Rejection of the confessional approach has given rise to the “phenomenological” approach, which teaches about commitment. This approach seeks to avoid indoctrination by concentrating primarily on different social and cultural expressions of spirituality, rather than induction into substantial spiritual beliefs (Carr, 1996).3 Instead of simply teaching one religion, children are exposed to a wide range of religious views in a neutral and objective fashion. Crittenden (1982) advocates that schools do not reflect any of the particular inclusive value systems nor aim to promote any of the particular styles of life within society. Instead, they should play a more limited role of critically examining the assortment of inclusive value systems.

The phenomenological approach is especially popular in societies where neutrality, openness and pluralism are valued. For example, it became the dominant approach in England in the 1970s and 1980s. It is also adopted in Wales, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. In the United States, the Supreme Court in the 1963 Schempp/Murray case ruled against the teaching of religion in favour of teaching about religion in public schools. This was grounded on the distinction that the latter involves a historical and comparative approach while the former entails dogmatic indoctrination of children in promoting only one religion as true (Bartkowiak, 1999). The First Amendment Center in America, in its publication Finding Common Ground, supports the neutrality in the phenomenological approach: “Public schools may teach about the various religious and nonreligious perspectives concerning the many complex moral issues confronting society, but such perspectives must be presented without adopting, sponsoring or denigrating one view against another” (cited in Kunzman, 2003, p. 260). Likewise, in Singapore, the phenomenological approach has been adopted in the teaching of religious knowledge in schools (Tan, forthcoming). The aim is for students to receive “religious knowledge” and not “religious instruction”, with information about the various religions being taught in a historical, objective and detached manner. The Singapore government states that there should be no attempt by teachers to preach, proselytise or engage in other religious activities in school.

The phenomenological approach has met with a number of objections. The most common criticism is that it does not represent the true character of religion in its Herculean quest to avoid any religious point of view. Scraps and fragments of different religious traditions are presented which are meaningless, superficial and distortive of any real understanding of religion (Carr, 1996). Such an approach is not only inadequate in giving students a realistic picture of religion, it has the danger of misrepresenting the character of a faith. By making little or no reference to the lived experiences of religious believers, this approach does not encourage students to see religion beyond its status as an academic subject. By presenting a truncated and superficial account of religion, it is also not favoured by parents and educators who want their children and students to have an empathetic awareness of religion.

Moreover, it is questionable that indoctrination will inevitably occur when only one religion is taught, which is the presupposition for teaching a plurality of religious views to children. Whether indoctrination has taken place depends on how religious views are taught, not how many religions are addressed. A teacher could deliberately teach comparative and historical material on religions in a manner that amounts to the indoctrination of a particular religion (Bartkowiak, 1999). Hence, the phenomenological method, with its emphasis on neutrality and pluralism, cannot ensure a form of religious education that is non-indoctrinative. In fact, some have countered that religious liberals who embrace the phenomenological method can be as dogmatic as religious conservatives. Alexander (1996) maintains that “religious liberals are attracted to their own dogmas, from the secularist denial of any value in theological discourse, to claims that ultimate authority for one's religious posture lie[s] in individual autonomy or the positivist historical study of tradition” (p. 385).

Teaching from commitment

Dissatisfaction with the first two approaches has led more philosophers and educators to canvass for “teaching from commitment” in religious education. In this approach, children are introduced to a particular religion from within the religious system while ensuring that the child's rational autonomy is enhanced. Using the idea of a “primary culture” developed by Ackerman (1980), McLaughlin (1984) underscores the importance for parents to provide a stable and coherent primary culture as a precondition of the child's later development into an autonomous liberal citizen. A primary culture in the sense of a shared framework of fundamental beliefs is essential to the preservation of one's culture. The need to provide a primary culture is especially relevant to religious minorities in plural societies. Halstead (1995) notes that the cultures of the minorities are threatened by prolonged exposure to liberal values. There is therefore a need for these communities to use education to maintain this shared framework of fundamental beliefs. Speaking from the non-liberal perspective, Halstead is not surprised that liberalism is viewed as oppressive and undermining particular religious traditions. In his words, “What Western educationalists see as universal liberal values may well be seen by others as secular and reductionist” (p. 267).4

The initiation into a primary culture is not indoctrinative. On the contrary, initial commitment is necessary for children to develop their critical faculties for evaluating the different alternatives presented. Without the initial beliefs, there is no point of comparison and, when confronted with opposing views later in life, “an individual reared without parental instruction will likely be indifferent to the alternatives” (LaFollette, 1996, p. 165). The initiation of children in their early stages of development into a particular world view is not indoctrinative as long as their autonomy is not stifled; the aim is to encourage them to gradually “reflect critically on the committed perspective into which they have been nurtured” within the religious context, knowing that “they will eventually make an independent choice” for or against the religious commitment (Thiessen, 1993, p. 255).5 Likewise, McLaughlin (1984) argues for a need to balance the demands of stability and openness at the same time; he describes the intention of parents and teachers to achieve this balance as aiming at “autonomy via faith”. The short-term aim is to develop faith within a stable primary culture, although this faith is not impervious to any change or rejection in the future. In the long run, the ultimate goal is for individuals to exercise their autonomy in making a personal decision about the faith.

Implications for Parents and Educators

Parents and educators should provide a stable initial culture for children within a particular religious faith while developing their rational autonomy and avoiding indoctrination. To lay the base for autonomy and guard against indoctrination, McLaughlin (1984) suggests adopting the following attitudes and procedures for parents and educators in religious education (p. 81):

  • Encourage the child to ask questions and be willing to respond to the questioning honestly and in a way which respects the child's developing cognitive and emotional maturity.
  • Make the child aware that religion is a matter of faith rather than universally, publicly agreed belief.
  • Encourage attitudes of tolerance and understanding in relation to religious disagreement.
  • Indicate that morality is not exclusively dependent upon religion.
  • Be alert to even subtle forms of psychological or emotional blackmail.
  • Ensure that the affective, emotional and dispositional aspects of the child's religious development take place in appropriate relationship with the cognitive aspect of that development.
  • Respect the eventual freedom of the child to refuse to participate in religious practices.

Schools could work in partnership with the family and the religious community by providing a context of relative stability of belief, practice and value as a base to develop students' self-determination (McLaughlin, 1984). This can be achieved by promoting spiritual education through all areas of their curriculum, ethos and climate (OFSTED, 1994). Universal themes and values from both religious and non-religious sources may be introduced to encourage students to reflect on, question and apply the values learnt. Instead of teaching religions in their institutionalised form, religious beliefs and practices can be presented in schools with the aim to develop an empathetic awareness of and a reflective approach towards different religions. At the community level, more dialogues among adherents of different religions to discuss controversial issues and clear any misconceptions are also encouraged. An example of such inter-religious exchanges is a dialogue on understanding Islam organised by the People's Association Malay Activity Coordinating Council (Mesra) in Singapore. The dialogue was attended by both Muslims and non-Muslims. Sensitive issues such as the meaning of jihad and the involvement of Muslims in terrorist activities were discussed honestly and constructively (Zakir & Rajan, 2006).

In embracing the “teaching from commitment” approach, which avoids the pitfalls of teaching for commitment (with its problem of indoctrination) and teaching about commitment (with its problem of a truncated and superficial account of religion), the aim is for religious faith to be acquired not indoctrinatively but autonomously and meaningfully. What is recommended is a “culture of tolerance” where religious education takes place in an open and inquiring way. This is in line with the view advocated by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2001) that such a culture puts an emphasis on the “comparative experiences, encouraging the dialogue, hence developing each person's identity in a wider, richer context, characterized by different identities, backgrounds and perspectives, all equally stimulating”.

Notes

1 I refer to “religious education” throughout the chapter in a generic sense without specifying the content and nature of religious beliefs. My focus is on the problem of indoctrination in religious education, which is relevant to all religions.

2 For example, Plantinga (1983), drawing upon the ideas of Protestant theologian John Calvin, avers that God's existence does not need to be evidentially proven as all men possess the sensus divinitatis, that is, the innate knowledge of God. Alston (1993) argues that a person's religious beliefs—such as that “God is speaking to me”—may be directly justified by religious experience or what he calls perception of God.

3 The phenomenological method sometimes uses the term spiritual education instead of religious education, as the latter is more popularly associated with the confessional method. For example, an Office for Standards in Education report (OFSTED, 1994) distinguishes spiritual development from religious development in this way: “Spiritual development relates to that aspect of inner life through which pupils acquire insights into their personal existence which are of enduring worth. It is characterised by reflection, the attribution of meaning to experience, valuing a non-material dimension to life and intimations of an enduring reality. ‘Spiritual’ is not synonymous with ‘religious’; all areas of the curriculum may contribute to pupils' spiritual development” (p. 8). For a debate on spiritual education and its relationship with religious education, see Carr (1995, 1996, 1999) and Mackenzie (1998).

4 Halstead (1995) proposes that cultural and religious communities should be given the right to establish their own schools each of which would offer a common citizenship education but a distinctive cultural education. This solution rests on his distinction between political liberalism and cultural liberalism. It is, however, debatable whether such a demarcation is possible. For a critique of Halstead's solution, see Burtonwood (1996).

5 Thiessen (1993) is more concerned with Christian commitment, but his argument is applicable to other religions that value genuine and autonomous faith in the adherents. Although Thiessen claims to argue for teaching for commitment (as reflected in his book title), his conception is actually more like teaching from commitment, since he allows children to freely choose or reject the religious faith. I think his conception is better understood as the effort of parents and educators to aim for commitment while teaching from commitment.

References

Ackerman, A. B. (1980). Social Justice in a Liberal State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Alexander, H. A. (1996). Rationality and redemption: Ideology, indoctrination, and learning communities. In F. Margonis (Ed.), Philosophy of Education. Retrieved 12 February 2005 from http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/EPS/PES-Yearbook/96_docs/alexander.html.

Alston, P. W. (1993). Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Bartkowiak, J. (1999). Fear of God: Religious education of children and the social good. In U. Narayan (Ed.), Having and Raising Children (pp. 193–207). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Burtonwood, N. (1996). Beyond culture: A reply to Mark Halstead. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 30(2), 298–299.

Carr, D. (1995). Towards a distinctive conception of spiritual education. Oxford Review of Education, 21(1), 83–98.

Carr, D. (1996). Rival conceptions of spiritual education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 30(2), 159–178.

Carr, D. (1999). Spiritual language and the ethics of redemption: A reply to Jim Mackenzie. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 33(3), 451–461.

Crittenden, B. (1982). The scope of parents' rights in education. In Philosophy of Education 1982: Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Annual Meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society (pp. 325–333). Normal, IL: Philosophy of Education Society.

Halstead, M. (1995). Voluntary apartheid? Problems of schooling for religious and other minorities in democratic societies. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 29(2), 257–272.

Hirst, P. H. (1973). Liberal education and the nature of knowledge. In R. S. Peters (Ed.), The Philosophy of Education (pp. 87–111). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kazepides, T. (1983). Is religious education possible? A rejoinder to W. D. Hudson. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 17(2), 259–265.

Kunzman, R. (2003). Religion, ethics and the implications for moral education: A critique of Nucci's Morality and Religious Rules. Journal of Moral Education, 32(3): 251–261.

LaFollette, H. (1996). Freedom of religion and children. In R. E. Ladd (Ed.), Children's Rights Re-visioned: Philosophical Readings (pp. 159–169). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Laura, S. R., & Leahy, M. (1988, April). The fourth dimension of space: A meeting place for science and religion. Journal of Christian Education, Paper 91, 5–17.

Mackenzie, J. (1998). David Carr on religious knowledge and spiritual education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 32(3), 409–427.

McLaughlin, T. H. (1984). Parental rights and the religious upbringing of children. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 18(1), 75–83.

OFSTED (1994). Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development. London: Office for Standards in Education.

Plantinga, A. (1983). Reason and belief in God. In A. Plantinga & N. Wolterstorff (Eds.), Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (pp. 16–93). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Tan, C. (2004). Michael Hand, indoctrination and the inculcation of belief. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 38(2), 257–267.

Tan, C. (2005). Indoctrination. In W. Hare & J. Portelli (Eds.), 35 Key Questions for Educators (pp. 51–53). Halifax, Nova Scotia: Edphil Books.

Tan, C. (forthcoming). The teaching of religious knowledge in a plural society: The case for Singapore. International Review of Education.

Thiessen, E. J. (1993). Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination and Christian Nurture. Montreal and Kingston: McGill—Queen's University Press.

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2001). The role of religious education in the pursuit of tolerance and non-discrimination. Retrieved 2 February 2005 from http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/7/b/cfedu-basicdoc.htm.

Zakir, H., & Rajan, T. (2006, 27 January). Frank dialogue on understanding Islam. Straits Times (Singapore), p. H6.

Further Reading

McLaughlin, T. H. (1984). Parental rights and the religious upbringing of children. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 18(1), 75–83.

Tan, C. (forthcoming). The teaching of religious knowledge in a plural society: The case for Singapore. International Review of Education.

Thiessen, E. J. (1993). Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination and Christian Nurture. Montreal and Kingston: McGill—Queen's University Press.

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