Is it possible to critique systems of religious education without shocking sensibilities or touching sacred cultural symbols? The way children learn about their religion can lay the foundation of their abilities in critical thinking.
When children are made to think that their religion is the only perfect faith, their biased orientation becomes a problem for their future. When children are taught that people of other religions are condemned to go to hell, the God of these children acquires the attribute of vengeance. When children learn that a certain community is evil because their religious leader “said so,” the children acquire the habit of immediate submission to authority. When a child learns that his/her community is “chosen” by God, he or she is likely to feel the privilege of superior status. When a child is forbidden to question the deeper meaning of a specific citation in the “Holy Book,” that child’s intellectual horizon shrinks. A spiritually inhibited child is trained to suppress doubt, a precious human faculty that drives scientific discovery and builds the roots of freedom and democracy.
Considering the impact of misguided religious education on personality, can we conceive of the phenomenon of spiritual child abuse? Negative spiritual child rearing practices would qualify as a form of child abuse or child neglect, depending on the extent and intent of the agent of socialization. Regrettably, when religious authorities are faced with the concept of child abuse within the context of religious education, they turn defensive and label the charge as sinister. The defensive posture of those who wish to deny the impact of religious malpractice is often based on the premise that religion can do no harm.
In many societies religious education is a key to adult socialization. Let us take the case of Middle East society, where I grew up. In analyzing our society reformers tend to avoid acknowledging the elephant in the room: fanatic religious education. Since spiritual education is ethnocentric in many religions and cultures, albeit in varying degrees and forms, there is a universal tendency to underestimate the significance of this issue. Regrettably, the problem of malpractice in religious education is somewhat morally neutralized since each religious community and each culture pretends that fanaticism exists elsewhere, and not in its own backyard. Bigoted religious education is not merely an educational issue. Religious inquiry easily evolves into political inquiry. Fanatic guidance suits fanatic regimes. Most political regimes in the Middle East expect that when people learn to question religious authorities they acquire skill in questioning political authorities. Intellectual curiosity: like a germ it multiplies, it mutates and it moves from one domain to another at a rapid pace.
When people start posing intelligent questions about the absence of rule of law, the phenomenal longevity of rulers, enduring military occupations, the squandering of national budgets and resources, the bulging of prison populations, the overspending on wars and the under spending on social welfare programs, when all matters are open for questioning, rulers are terribly threatened.
Religious education should be a laboratory for freedom of thinking rather than a venue for parking the intellect. Middle Easterners ponder painfully the injustices in their political regimes but they seem to have no creative solutions, solutions that emerge from mindsets that challenge authority. Submission to religious authority often is transformed into blind submission to political authority. In a recent article entitled “How low can we sink?” Omar Abou-Ezzedine exemplifies passionate lamenting of the political Arab predicament in which freedoms are suppressed by political authorities. This is what Abou- Ezzeddine says in a recent article circulated online: “.. the unremitting descent of Arabs (specifically Arab ruling elites) into ever deeper circles of indignity, ineptitude, and vice, one is left besieged by an overwhelming mood of depression, a towering feeling of shame, an unbearable sense of inadequacy, and a relentless urge to rebel, all of which are engendered by the mere fact of being born Arab in this day and age.” Abou-Ezzeddine is naturally perturbed that our people have tolerated local and colonial oppression too much and for too long. He adds, “Arabs, thanks in large part to the lack of effective guidance from the top, have declined history’s invitation to attend the feasts of science, freedom, and renewal that humanity has celebrated.” The challenge is to establish a vision for the future: how to end autocracy and foreign intervention. Where do we start the process of creative empowerment of people at the earliest stage of development? The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) issued three consecutive annual reports in recent years about the Arab world. The Arab authors of the UNDP report summarized the regional problem in three key deficits: restriction of political freedoms, a gender gap and a flawed orientation toward knowledge. The etiological role of religion in politics was nowhere sufficiently treated in the UNDP document. The reports do not give a clear idea of where to start in order to make a breakthrough in Arab reform. One can cite many Arab contemporary thinkers who write, like Ezzedine, with accuracy and passion about Arab docility in reform. But the connection of political docility to regimented religious socialization has been a taboo subject.
Without overstressing the significance of religious education in nation building, it may be fair to say that religious socialization in the Arab world should introduce children to the habits of free thinking rather than position a damper that blurs facts, dulls curiosity and narrows their channels of discovery.
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