The Role of Religion in School and Society

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The Role of Religion in School and Society

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali

I want to begin with my own sense that more and more research is showing that spiritual awareness is innate in people, that it is not acquired, it is not a virus that we catch somehow through social interaction of one kind or another, it is deeply wired into our psyches. Now you will remember the research that was done in the 1970s / 80s by the Alastair Hardy Institute in Oxford tried to show not only the psychological but in some ways the physiological basis for religious experience and one of the projects that they did was, what at that time was called ‘Research with Working Men in England’. I don’t know what you’d call them now. But it was men and that’s the point. They discovered that a very large percentage of English working men had had some kind of spiritual experience in their lives but they also discovered that they were unable to socialise this experience partly because of the culture of the pub, or the sports field or the factory floor.

Recently quite a lot of research has been done by Professor David Hay and his collaborator Doctor Kate Hunt in the University of Nottingham, among people who do not attend any place of worship, and once again this has shown the innateness of spirituality amongst such people. It’s not very articulate because they do not stand within any kind of religious tradition of course. Nevertheless, it is very clearly there.

Professor David Hay has also done some research with another collaborator, Rebecca Nye in Cambridge tending to show the innateness of spirituality in children. It is not something they acquire from adults but they have it from the beginning and indeed the research tends to show that adults distort and suppress their spiritual awareness if anything. The research of David Hay and Rebecca Nye adopts an approach which is what might be called sociological, but their research has been supported from the psychological point of view by Robert Coles in the United States, who also has shown that spiritual awareness is there in children from the beginning, so the innateness of spiritual awareness is something I would like to start with and you will see the importance of that for what you do.

In my own experience, I find this again and again with people from no religious background whatsoever who suddenly have dramatic experiences of one kind or another. Now you hear about those who have dramatic experiences, no doubt there are others whose experiences are not so dramatic, nevertheless they occur and sometimes they do something about these experiences and at other times perhaps they don’t. But religion is not just about the individual, certainly as far as the individual is concerned religion can and does provide a structural meaning for people in the living of their lives and that is very valuable but religion has also been, and continues to be in many parts of the world about social cohesion. In other words the glue that sticks society together and where that glue loses its strength then there are obvious social consequences resulting from it. So religion is very often at the base of a people’s law, their institutions and their values. Now there is a fashion these days of course to ignore this and to somehow believe that in a neutral kind of way discourse is possible in the understanding and the promotion of say, legislation. I come across this in Parliament all the time that the only rules of discourse are formal, there are no values underpinning what we do and to some extent it is public opinion that matters where it happens to be at a particular time, in a particular way. I’ve just finished as the Chair of the Ethics and Law Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority who are responsible for advising the authority on a whole number of issues having to do with the early embryo very often. The only way in which any kind of decision could be made about this was the weight of public opinion rather than any kind of informing principles in national life.

So I would say that contrary to the post modern stance that there is no big story at all and that no meta-narrative should inform what we do in our social and national life, that in fact in most situations there is actually a particular tradition which informs what has come to be the law and what have come to be the values of a particular culture. I think it is foolish to ignore this obvious fact and to pretend that there is some kind of neutral vantage point which will give us value free belief.

Now the social role of religion is not simply that of cohesion, though sociologists like to believe that, and there is truth in it, but there is also a prophetic aspect to the social role of religion. This is seen very clearly in our cultures in the role that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have played particularly. But it is true also of other religious traditions, Buddhism, for instance, can be seen as a kind of social protest against caste dominated Hindu society and certainly the emergence of Sikhism must be seen as a kind of social criticism whatever else it has been. In the same way, there have been anti-caste movements within Hinduism itself. So there is a prophetic aspect to the social function of religion as well and this has given people the capacity not only to cohere together in terms of society but to criticise society when they have felt this was needed. It has given the poor, from time to time, the resources to challenge the wealthy, the powerless to challenge those with power, individuals the resources to function in society in a prophetic way, so I think the cohesive and the prophetic aspect of religion in terms of social function are both important from our point of view.

Now you may say you are going on as if religion is wholly a good thing. We know that religion has caused conflict, has caused wars, it has caused suffering, it has caused oppression, of one group or another and one has to be honest and to admit that is so, religion can and does go wrong. I was in Bosnia at the height of the conflict in Bosnia, I was sent there on behalf of Christian Aid to see whether we could work with Islamic belief and to ensure that relief was made available to people regardless of confession. I have to admit we were only partially successful in that effort, but the close proximity of the conflict in Bosnia made me see how religion allied within a particular nasty kind of chauvinistic nationalism was responsible for the suffering of the country at that time, and what one can say of the Balkans, one can also say about other parts of the world, of course. Even in post-Gandhian India for instance, the emergence of a chauvinistic nationalism which depends on a particular kind of interpretation of one aspect of Hindu tradition, I never thought would be possible but it is now a force to be reckoned with, particularly politically, religiously and socially.

So religion can and does go wrong, in this of course it is not different from other basic aspects of human character, love between people goes wrong and what disaster that can cause. Nationalism is wonderful when it is celebrating victory in the World Cup but of course there are signs of nationalism that people find completely unacceptable, and so if religion can and does go wrong it is not wholly unlike other basic characteristics of humanity. Having said that I think it is also perhaps worth saying that religion is not the only area for conflict, it is perhaps not even the main one, if you consider the major conflicts of the twentieth century of the last century, what were they? They were caused by national socialism, by Nazism, a secular ideology albeit informed by the alleged pagan roots of National Socialism, and Stalinism, which may have caused more suffering than the Nazis. Again as a result of secular ideology, the cultural revolution in China which aimed to wipe out all religion altogether. Pol Pot in Kampuchea and of course the Ba'ath Party in Iraq which was founded on secular Arab nationalism, and the sort of religious veneer Sadam Hussain tried to give the Ba’ath party in its latter days was a very recent invention designed to appeal to certain sorts of people. So we acknowledge the down side of religion in its social aspect but also to say that there are many other things in human society that cause conflict and suffering.

Religion, to go back to its positive aspects, is also a force for peace making. During the same visit to Bosnia, I was speeding along on my way to a town called “Nagorny Vakuf”. It was a town that had particularly been devastated by the conflict and as I was speeding along the road, I was overtaken by a British armoured carrier, it came up and blocked my path and its occupant said ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Nagorny Vakuf’. He said. ‘Well if you carry on where you’re going you’ll end up in Kingdom come because all that area is heavily mined, so you follow me’. I followed this armoured carrier and it got me to Nagorny Vakuf. As I say, a town particularly divided and devastated by the conflict, each side knew who had killed their relatives from the other side in a small town, and yet there was a community there as it happens, a Christian community in this case, already working for reconciliation. Now on the face of it I wanted to say at the time this is a hopeless task, you will never do any good here because the division is so deep and people are so raw. The San Egidio community works from Rome, a community of young people committed to peace-making throughout the world and in some cases, such as in Mozambique through their mediation they were the largest single factor in ending the civil war in Mozambique. The Alexandria initiative where Jews, Christians and Muslim leaders have come together to promote peace in the holy land, the Rabbis for Peace Movement in Israel is another instance that one could give of people of faith working for peace. Perhaps there are as many instances of religion contributing to peace as we can give of religion being a factor in the conflict.

However, this peace making aspect of faith has to be highlighted and strengthened in our world I believe, through dialogue, because it is only through dialogue that people discover each others intentions and can encourage what is best in a particular religious tradition at least I have found that and dialogue can be of many different kinds, as you know. Children in our schools need to be made aware of this. There is, what a teacher of mine long ago called ‘discursive dialogue’ that is where people from different religious traditions learn about each others’ beliefs, and that is of great value. I suspect that a lot of what goes on in religious education in the classroom is about that kind of understanding, giving people some knowledge of the beliefs and practices of religious traditions. It is not however the only kind of dialogue and it may in some circumstances not be the most valuable so there is also what is called ‘interior dialogue’ where people share one another’s experiences and in the sharing of that experience they find both what was common and what is different. Here it is not at one remove, you’re not just studying an object but you’re meeting a person, many people for that matter. I do hope that even in classroom situations, that kind of dialogue, that people are at least made aware of it, if not engaged in it, because of this huge importance later on, for living among neighbours who may be different from ourselves.

There is then the dialogue which is for the building up of a community, where people living together decide that they must bring their insights, their values, their beliefs to bear on the need to live together in a way that is constructive for the community in which they find themselves. Now in a world which is hugely mobile, where people of many different kinds, from many different cultures and faiths are rubbing shoulders with one another daily, this is a vital, absolutely vital, aspect of dialogue and no faith tradition is excused from this dialogue, no one can opt out and say ‘Well, I’m not going to do it’. Then in relation to this is the dialogue about fundamental human freedoms. We cannot engage our friend, our neighbour, our colleague and in dialogue and yet deny them the very freedom that makes the dialogue possible.

So dialogue as an aspect of the faith encounter is extremely important for our schools and indeed for society generally. Put another way; you could talk about the dialogue of the neighbourhood, or the dialogue amongst scholars, or the dialogue where political traditions become aware of religious and moral questions and there are a whole number of ways of doing this, but the importance of dialogue for our times cannot be denied.

When there is this dialogue, certain issues are raised. There is the overarching question about the role of religion in society, what should it be this role? Some people, for instance in the Islamic world, want to give the impression that the role of religion in society must be coercive, and in some Christian traditions also that has been an attitude in the past, if not today. However, as far as Islam is concerned, it seems to me that Islam has never been theocratic and that the people who have wanted to be theocratic in Islam, the Kharjites with the phrase: ‘No rule but that of God alone’, have found themselves very quickly on the margins of Islam and this has always been the case with most Muslim societies because Islam in society has mostly functioned with intermediate bodies, intermediate organisations whether the judiciary, the Sufi orders or the Caliphate itself, of course, which was intermediate between God and ordinary Muslims. So the theocracy argument certainly in relation to Islam failed in terms of history. Some years ago I conducted a dialogue in writing, if that’s the word, with the man, who was then the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Pakistan, Justice Nasim Hasan Shah and in the course of this dialogue (it is now published so anyone can examine it) the Chief Justice said in his response to some questions that I’d asked that he felt that an Islamic state was a state where Muslims would be encouraged to be good Muslims but not forced to be Muslims, and I thought that was a very good definition of an Islamic state. In this connection when people of different kinds talk to me about an Islamic state, I always say to them “will it be an Islamic state such as the one intended by the Prophet of Islam when he promulgated the constitution of Medina in which explicitly the different religious groups in Medina were to be treated equally and if not, why not?” So the conclusion of this dialogue with Chief Justice Nasim Hasan Shah was that the role of religion should be that of influence in a society rather than coercion but you will see that influence is different from having no role whatever. Those who pretend that faith traditions should have no role whatever in the way in which society works, are simply fostering another way of looking at the world. To say there is no big story informing social life is itself a big story. There is no such thing as a neutral, value free sort of vantage point from which we can judge others.

I think this is a crucial aspect that has to be brought to children’s attention, you know, what is the proper role of faith in society? Of course in doing that you have also to consider what is an improper role. So coercion would be improper, influence would be proper. Secondly, we need to clarify for ourselves and also in the classroom, the relationship between faith, morality and legislation. I mean this is constantly coming up, people will say, “Well, I don’t have a faith but I’m more moral than you”. A proposition I’m very happy to accept of course! I’m sure there are people who have no faith, or say they have no faith but actually are exemplary in their moral sense, I’ve no quarrel with that. The question that I would wish to ask there is, first of all, is that it’s not just a question of being moral, or living morally, or having a moral sense, but of being able to give an account of that sense. It is not just who we are and what we are but whether we can account for it and of course traditionally it is faith traditions that have given an account of the origins of this moral sense. Secondly it is also faith traditions, on the whole, that have systematised, what our moral sense demands for us in our personal and social living. The Ten Commandments may have been removed from the Supreme Court in Alabama but they’re still at the basis of what most people believe and how they live, and it is very difficult to imagine anyone improving on the kind of moral contract in such a short space of something like the Ten Commandments. So the relationship of faith to morals is a real one, though it is not straight forward of course. But then what is the relationship of morality to law, to legislation. We are constantly told in broad sheet leaders and by politicians that they are legislating not moralising. Of course that may be true, but in fact, as Lord Denning has seen very clearly in some of his major judgements on these issues, there is a real relationship between morals and law, though again it’s not straight forward. Law, particularly in the area of human freedoms, has to have a sound, moral underpinning: the force of law is not just coercive but also moral. People will obey a law if it is seen to be in accord with their moral sense otherwise they will not, and much experience throughout the world has shown us that in so many ways. The main principles governing law making have been based on liberty and on protecting people from harm. Now both are profoundly moral ideas, because liberty presupposes the existence of a person who is a moral agent and who has an enduring dignity about them, but which cannot be violated whoever they are, however poor or rich, black or white, or whatever they may and the idea of harm of course, is not just the idea of individual harm. Sometimes judges think that it is, but actually Lord Denning was quite clear that the idea of harming extends to social harm and particularly the harm to the basic institutions of society without which society would not flourish and would perhaps not survive. Somehow this relationship, complex as it is, our young people have to be made aware of it.

I believe there is the question of the justifiability of conflict. We live in a world where there are new kinds of conflict. New challenges to world order, to regional order, to national order and in the dialogue between religions and nearly every religious tradition has a view of this, for the Christian it’s the idea of the Just War, for Islam it is the idea of Jihad which is not at all what the press makes it out to be. I once said to a senior defence official in the United States something about Jihad and he raised his hand and said “Bishop, we know what Jihad is, you don’t need to tell us”. But, of course, the idea of Jihad in Islamic jurisprudence is a very complex one and a very useful one for us today, I’m just sorry that he didn’t want to know about it. In Hinduism, of course, the idea of engaging in conflict to uphold justice is a very prominent one and our young people, as they are exposed to different religious traditions, need to be challenged in their thinking about the circumstances in which conflict might be justifiable and how to bring the resources of the faith traditions to learn the justifiability, or not, of conflicts in new forms, the war against terrorism for instance.

Another big issue is that of reciprocity: if Muslims are free to have a Mosque in London then Christians or Jews should be free to have churches and synagogues in Riyadh or Jeddah, wherever it might be. Now I’m not against this argument, but what I mean by reciprocity is the common commitment of all faith traditions engaged in dialogue to fundamental human freedoms wherever they are, wherever they happen to be influential.

The question of exchange is also very important. In Western countries there has been the arrogance of technology since the Second World War and it has been assumed that if you foster exchange between the West and other parts of the world that is technologically based then you will somehow create a better, more prosperous, more peaceful world. This assumption I believe was shown to be fatally flawed on September 11, 2001, because technology is morally and spiritually neutral at the very least and so since then, with the Government and this country and also in other parts of the world, I have been promoting vigorously the need for a more broadly based system of exchange, and this relates also to schools. Exchanges in terms of information, of pupils or students or teachers, of knowledge, of research, must be more widely based in terms of culture, history and religion and not just technology. Technology is not excluded, I’m not antiquarian in that respect. However, if we do not engage with the things that clearly matter to people, then we will have missed any opportunity we have in the encounter with people of other kinds.

These are the issues regarding the role of religion in school and society to which we should be giving some of our attention. SACRES, in particular, need to consider how these can inform the development of RE curricula and how they can be tackled imaginatively in the course of collective worship.


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