On Teaching Religion at a Humanist School in a Christian Nation

At Kasese Humanist Primary School in Kasese, Uganda I have been assigned to teach English and Religious Education for the month I am volunteering here.  This is a natural assignment.  My Bachelors is in English and my Masters is in Religion.  English is pretty straight forward—verb tenses, how to write a formal letter, and so on.  Religion is a little more complicated.

Uganda is a Christian nation.  (There is a sizable Muslim population that colors the religious landscape here, as well as some smaller populations of Hindus, Bahais, and others, but for the purpose of this post I am only going to talk about the Christian culture.  About 85% of the population is Christian.)  Christianity is not officially established by the state, but in many ways it essentially is.  The government schools are Christian.  Students must take four subjects on the national exam to graduate primary school:  English, Math, Science, and Social Studies (which includes Religious Education).  As part of the exam the students are asked who their Lord and Savior is.  There is a correct answer to this question.  And there are incorrect answers.

At the start of term staff meeting, the head teacher of KHPS explained to the new teachers that we do not pray at this school.  Pray at home if you’d like, but not here.  Then he explained to us foreign teachers that meetings in Uganda always begin with a prayer.  Beginning the staff meeting without a prayer is quite unusual, he told us.

I believe him.  As our bus left Kampala for the seven-hour ride to Kasese the ticket taker lead the bus in prayer—prayers for our safe journey.  About two-thirds of the bus participated.  All of the buses and many vehicles have slogans like “God is Power” prominently displayed across the top of the windshields.  Similar slogans make the names of many businesses or are at least more prominently displayed than the actual name.

But I am not at a religious school.  I am volunteering for a month at a school founded on the principles of humanism.  Reason and science are taught as the foundations of knowledge and the students are encouraged to question everything—especially the assumptions of blind faith.  Yet, to pass the test the students must not only be versed in Christianity, but must declare their allegiance to it.  This school is specifically fighting this forced allegiance, by teaching their students to question it and its foundations.  They are openly teaching science rather than faith as the foundations for knowledge.

Today, the upper level classes—P4-P7—staged a debate that lasted over an hour and a half.  The proposition was, “a person does not need God to be good.”  This is an important proposition for debate.  This is a discussion that has been going on for centuries at every level of religious and academic discourse.  The students, however, rather than giving reasons why or how non-theists can be good without God, gave reasons why God does not exist.  On the other side, the arguments were more expected—about the need for guidance and judgement from God to be good.  My point is not to criticize the students.  They are ten to fourteen years old and were making complex arguments.  And they were passionate.  I was impressed.  It’s not just that their arguments were, to my view, off topic—there was a current of anti-theism that coursed through the debate.  The teacher’s participation only encouraged the anti-theism, except for one teacher who spoke up to support the opposition.  Whether she personally believes that one needs God to be good—which I suspect is the case—or whether she was playing devil’s advocate, I am glad she was there.  The purpose of debate is to hear all sides of an issue.  Without her, the voice of the teachers—the voice of authority in the school—would have been uniform.  I was struck by the religiosity on the part of both the religious and the humanists—if I may stretch the meaning of religiosity to cover humanists as well (If “religiosity” is defined as commitment to “belief”—with or without theism).  To be fair, this is a private school in Uganda, not a public school in the United States.  My wish is that the advocacy for humanism was on the merits of humanism alone—without the component of the perceived demerits of religion. One can be good with God too.  And one can be bad without God as well.

I have been told that in order to fight extremism, one must be extreme.  In order to combat the pervasive and coercive Christian culture in Uganda, those who are not religious must be just as forceful in advocating their position.  There is no room for nuance when the playing field is already so extreme.  I disagree.  I know that Ugandan’s coercive Christianity is a violation of the human right to practice one’s beliefs freely.  I know that the correct course is to raise a generation that questions authority and blind faith.  I disagree that one must tear down Christianity and religion generally to meet this goal.  Besides the equal human right the Christians also have to practice their beliefs, this kind of education only serves to keep people apart.  Humanists should work to bring people together—especially the people with whom they disagree.

Which brings me back to the classroom.  My religious education students have not heard of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Bahai, or Judaism.  I was surprised by Judaism.  The only two religions they are aware of are Christianity and Islam, which are both rooted in Judaism.  When I informed them of this, they scoffed.  When I explained that there was one Bahai temple on each continent and the African one was in their own capital city, Kampala, they reminded me that they’d never heard of it.   When I defined polytheism they stared at me in disbelief.  More than one god?  You are joking.

I have decided to teach comparative religion.  They can and will learn about Christianity and Islam from their regular teachers.  For this month, at least, they will learn who Shiva and Guru Nanak are.  They will discuss karma and enlightenment.  They will encounter turbans and stupas.  And they will not criticize these beliefs and practices.  In my classroom they will only encounter them, not construct arguments to undermine them.

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6 thoughts on “On Teaching Religion at a Humanist School in a Christian Nation

  1. Wendy, I commend your efforts to encourage students to not only improve their own religious literacy, but to learn how to engage with beliefs other than their own (or their teacher’s) and discuss the meaning of those beliefs. More importantly it gives them a greater scope of human history, creativity, and cultural sensitivity.

    Sometimes I worry that atheistic humanists harm our own movement and community by forcing every conversation to be about whether or not one believes in God. The question posed in your classroom’s debate is – as you mentioned – an incredibly important one, and one that has encouraged lively debate for centuries. It’s disappointing that instead of taking the opportunity to demonstrate and explore the ways in which religion impacts one’s life and how one’s life can be similarly impacted by non-religious means (or it completely different ways), the teacher’s encouraged students to end the conversation before it was able to really begin.

    It sounds like you and your team have the chance to influence how these students understand the role that humanism can have in interfaith work, and that is an amazing opportunity!

  2. Wendy, you complain about the “coercive Christianity” in Uganda, as being a violation of the human right to practice one’s beliefs freely. May I suggest you also turn your attention to the many parts of the world where Christians (and sometimes others too) are harshly persecuted just for being Christian, and where public expressions of Christian faith are stamped on by the authorities. This happens not only in many Muslim-majority nations, but also in secular contexts too (N. Korea, some post-USSR states) and in some predominantly Buddhist and Hindu areas. In comparison with these ugly violations of human rights, Uganda seems positively benign. However, all credit to you for seeking to get your students to engage educationally with the whole field of religion!

  3. Joanna, since I posted this I spent one class period exposing my students to their Jewish roots. They were rather open to the idea of another Abrahamic faith. They accepted it much more easily than the idea of reincarnation or the idea that science and religion can coexist, which we debated during the Bahai lesson.

    Mike, I am not denying that Christians are harshly persecuted in other places. In fact, in Uganda they have been persecuted also. Under Idi Amin, Christians, among many others, were directly and indirectly persecuted. In the years following his departure some Christians retaliated violently against their Muslim neighbors, many of whom had not prospered during Amin’s reign. It is a complex history that has led to this present circumstance. I did not go into that history because of the short format available here. Similarly, I see no reason why the persecution of Christians, and all oppressed people, should not be discussed. I think it must be discussed and stopped. But this post was about the specific circumstance of a humanist school operating in a nation that requires students to pledge allegiance to Christianity in order to graduate.

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