11 June 2016

East Africa: Religion Divides Us, Let's Throw it Out of Public Schools

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Violence, bigotry, and corruption are all on the rise. Troops, tanks, laws and counter-intelligence have all failed to eliminate these threats. If the next generation is to be saved, drastic action is required, beginning with ridding our public schools of religious instruction.

This is in recognition of the fact that many of the dangers facing society today emanate from within each country's borders. Indeed, even when it comes to terrorism, the greater danger today arises from radicalization of the youth in our towns and villages.

That radicalization must not be seen in a narrow-minded perspective that condemns Muslims and treats Christians as without blemish. The latter tend to be equally parochial in their worldviews, treating their sectarian beliefs as God-given and all others as suspicious.

This process of biased mental formation begins right from early childhood within our communities. There is therefore room for increased campaigns to encourage and appreciate diversity in our midst. That doesn't mean asking anyone to dilute their own beliefs, but rather to be more open when interacting with others who hold different views.

As children grow and join the education system, there is much that can be done to prepare them for lives of service to all humanity. Schooling not only gives skills, but also influences attitudes. When it comes to the latter, unfortunately, the strong grip of religion does not allow a holistic approach to the issues we face in the contemporary world.

This problem is particularly relevant when it is considered just how much religious organizations control academic institutions in the region. In fact, many of our most prestigious high schools and middle-level colleges were started by missionaries from the earliest times in the region's colonial history.

Today, these institutions largely attract public funding and support, despite retaining their religious leanings. They get teachers, equipment, books and scholarships from public sources, which is reason enough to demand that they should pay greater heed to public rather than sectarian interests.

But even in public schools without a religious tradition, there is an insistence on religious instruction. Christian, Islamic and Hindu Religious Education are all examined at various levels of state education curricula. For fear of attracting the wrath of the adherents of these faiths and their leaders, not many people speak out publicly against this wastage of public resources.

While no doubt the contribution of various religious groups to the educational sector cannot be underestimated, we should not remain prisoners of the past. After all, if religious instruction was having much effect, why are we seeing the products of our education systems becoming the prime looters of our economies? Why are our prisons overflowing with rapists, murderers, thieves and terrorists?

Simply, religion cannot bring about a change in anyone's morals. On the contrary, it creates highly opinionated people who look down upon others outside their group. The shallow thinking that characterizes highly religious people has now also permeated some private universities associated with religious groups, with disastrous consequences. While most of the teaching staff may well have the requisite academic qualifications, the uniformity of thought arising from a recruitment system that seeks to bring on board birds of the same feather leads to sycophancy and a dearth of critical thinkers in these institutions.

An education that simply teaches social values would therefore be far more effective in moulding the youth. Beyond this, the practice of any religion is a personal matter that should be kept outside the tax-funded public education system. It also makes sense, of course, to offer studies of the history of religion or its comparative aspects.

Naturally, opposition to this kind of measure is to be expected from various religious groups. It will therefore take strong political resolve to assert the rights of all taxpayers to be taught an education that is devoid of sectarian indoctrination. Our taxes would be well spent teaching children and the youth mathematics, languages, the sciences, and other beneficial academic subjects.

Whether one chooses to believe that their god lives on a mountain or somewhere up in the sky, or whatever other fanciful belief, that religious instruction is best left to parents and religious leaders outside the formal education system. It is wrong and immoral for public funds to be expended on such matters.

Moreover, with the region's youth increasingly falling into the snares of radicalization, governments cannot be seen to be funding the same radicalization that is wreaking havoc in society. By excluding religious instruction - and replacing it with a study of social ethics - we will be destroying much of the foundational ground for the religious fanaticism in our midst.

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