This is a response to an article written by Dr. Fred Sheldon Mwesigwa (Bishop of Ankole Diocese) that appeared in the New Vision of Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010 titled, “Teaching religion has not been accorded importance”.
In his article, Dr. Mwesigwa wondered why in an ultra-religious society like Uganda, religious education was not a compulsory subject at secondary school level, yet in the example he gave of many secularized European states, the reverse was true. In those countries, he found that religious education at secondary school level was compulsory – and on these grounds, he issued a call to action to make teaching of religion a priority in Uganda’s statutory instruments.
He also argued that:
“..teaching of religion ought to be fronted as a compulsory subject in view of its historical, social, cultural, moral and even political ramifications.”
I think this is a brilliant idea. Young people should be taught aspects of ALL religious traditions – and their core tenets, as well as how they spread through history. My experience of religious education in secondary school was limited to Christianity and Islam, of which I could only choose one option. This is not right. Christians should learn about Islam, and Muslims should learn about Christianity. But why stop there? In the increasingly pluralistic and religiously diverse place the world has become, students should learn about other prominent religious traditions, like Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, Jainism, Sikhism, Bahai and lest we forget our cultural heritage – even African traditional religions.
All these world religions have played a significant role in world history and in shaping society. Compulsory secondary-school “religious education” for the modern age should therefore take this diversity into account, lest it becomes theology or a tool of indoctrination in a specific faith, rather than an all-encompassing education in religion as a purely academic subject. This is especially relevant to Uganda, since of our constitution clearly states that “Uganda shall not adopt a State religion” (Article 7).
Dr. Mwesigwa made a statement that I found quite bizarre. He said:
“In other words, despite the rhetoric of a growing secular Western Europe and falling numbers of church attendance, religion is alive through its maintenance as a compulsory subject on the curriculum.”
The statement is bizarre because his argument doesn’t lead him to the conclusion he thinks it does. Today in Europe, church attendance is at an all time low, and the number of non-believers is steadily increasing. The fact that religion is taught as a compulsory subject in those countries, and yet religiosity is declining, suggests that even if you force people to study religion it in no way guarantees that people will be religious. So religion is ‘alive and well’ only to the extent that it is exists in the school curriculum, and not because those who study it necessarily find it believable, since after leaving school they proceed to live increasingly non-religious lives. What does this say about the religion being studied? It suggests that many people increasingly don’t find it compelling enough to be believed!
Indeed, this is precisely what is happening in Europe. Heightened interest in religion (as a subject) has led to an unprecedented amount of skepticism towards religion in developing countries. I personally attribute my abandoning religion altogether to the vast amounts of time I spent studying my former religion, Christianity, in lieu of other religious traditions that exist. Once I realised the existence of a myriad of mutually contradictory religions it became difficult for me to accord my own religion a ‘special’ status. And since I found that Christianity was equal to other religions in as far as its degree of its falsifiability was concerned, I saw no good reason to keep believing it over other religious traditions which made equally non-falsifiable, and equally non-verifiable, supernatural claims.
So Dr. Mwesigwa should be careful. Should Uganda make religious education compulsory throughout secondary school, it might make people ask more questions about religion than they ordinarily would have – which could then lead to the kind of decline in religiosity we are seeing in Europe today.
Of course, the solution to this foreseeable ‘problem’ is simple. Rather than keep compulsory secondary-school religious education academically all-encompassing and theologically neutral, he can opt to have it creed-specific (as it has been since colonial times). Of course it then ceases to be religious education, and instead becomes religious indoctrination.