The writer argues that the introduction of religion to school curricula will help pupils understand each other better. Picture: Sandile Ndlovu

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya explains why he believes it is important that religion, including atheism, be taught in public schools.

Pretoria - A story is told of how a visitor to Northern Ireland arrived at a pub and was met by suspicious eyes. When a patron, let’s call him Paddy, finally struck up a conversation with him, it was to ask him whether he was Catholic or Protestant.

Not knowing which would be an acceptable answer in that neighbourhood, he replied saying he was atheist.

Paddy insisted: “Whose god don’t you believe in, the Catholic or the Protestant one?”

Such is the nature of religion.

It is a matter that excites passions, sometimes to ridiculous ends.

That is why I believe it is important that religion be taught in public schools.

If for nothing else, to remove the mystery and prejudice that comes with ignorance of others’ belief systems.

There is a difference between teaching people what religion to follow and teaching about the basic tenets of that faith. If, based on what they learn, they choose to follow a particular faith, then let it be for the individual or their family to deal with.

Public schools should remain secular.

I disagree with those who say removing religion is a cause of ill discipline in schools and among the youth.

Discipline and lawlessness are societal problems and schools happen to be part of that society.

Religion has time and again proven itself not to be just a matter of private morals and ethics.

Many of humanity’s greatest disasters, including apartheid and Stalinism were premised on one or other understanding of religion.

Atheists like pointing to the many wars caused by religion – and they are right. There is a genocide in the making in the Central African Republic where Christians and Muslims are pitted against each other in a battle to the death. The same is playing itself out in northern Nigeria.

Even Buddhists, generally taken to be a peaceful lot, were recently implicated in violent clashes against Muslims in Sri Lanka.

These examples and those of people willing to eat grass because a pastor said so, give atheists a belief that they are intellectually and morally superior to believers.

Atheists forget though that the likes of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge and Joseph Stalin, both of whom rejected religion, went on to murder millions of their own people.

Conversely, there are those who conclude that to be an atheist is to have no moral or ethical compass. They incorrectly assume that just because one rejects the idea of a deity, one is prone to harming others.

Teaching religion, including atheism, is therefore about opening the eyes and ears of students to a reality that exists around them, hopefully so they can tell early on if someone seeks to use it for partisan, divisive or selfish outcomes. One of the reasons atheism should be taught, is that secularists often assume the same self-righteousness as those of faith in a god. It is also common ignorance among atheists to conclude that reason and faith are incompatible.

If religion was taught more, atheists and believers of other faiths would perhaps get to know a little more about someone like Abu’l-Walid Ibn Rushd, a 13th century Muslim scholar credited by some for the rediscovery of Greek philosopher Aristotle’s work, which eventually led to the European Renaissance of the 15th century.

Teaching religion would expose students to the fact that while it is true that the Catholic Church had pioneering scientist Galileo kept under house arrest until his death for being guilty of the flamboyantly labelled crime of being “gravely suspect of heresy”, the same church has since 1936 ran the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that counts among its members dozens of Nobel prize laureates for their contribution to science.

Just this week, when Muslims all over the world celebrated Eid, someone somewhere had to explain themselves to a boss why they would be taking a holiday on Monday.

Given that most Jewish South Africans or their descendants arrived here from Lithuania, many assume that Jews are necessarily Caucasian.

Many black Muslims have had to answer why they go to an Indian ‘church’.

There is hardly a Rastafarian who has not been stopped by the police and body-searched for possession of dagga because for many cops, this faith starts and ends with smoking the “holy herb”.

The point is that there is just no simple answer to what religion is and what it can do. If we are to eliminate this from being exploited by fundamentalists – religious and secular – the state must not treat religion as a private affair.

The state must place at the heart of the curriculum the quest to increase understanding of our neighbour rather than to proselytise.

Ultimately, understanding what makes our religious neighbours tick can only increase the much vaunted social cohesion.

It can help the faithful and those of no faith, realise that they have more that ties them than divides them.

Do I hear an amen…

* Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is the executive editor at the Pretoria News. Follow him on Twitter @fikelelom

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