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Belief Systems - the toughest strand to get right?

Fionnuala Ward, Primary Education Officer

Educate Together's ethical education curriculum at primary level is, of course, the Learn Together with its four strands: Moral and Spiritual, Equality and Justice, Belief Systems and Ethics and the Environment.

Belief Systems addresses the main world religions: Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism. Of all four strands, it’s probably the hardest to get right and certainly the one that induces the greatest degree of insecurity in teachers and principals alike, along with the occasional all-out panic-attack.

We can overdo Celebrations for a start, generally to the detriment of the more difficult Beliefs and Values. Religious celebrations are usually based on an interesting, even exciting, story and lend themselves so easily to English, drama and the visual arts that it’s hard not to get caught up in a display-driven frenzy.

But overdoing celebrations feeds straight into an exoticisation of religions, probably best summarised as the ‘what weird and wonderful traditions, costumes, stories’ approach.

The assumptions on which the Belief Systems strand is built aren’t without their issues as well. It’s now claimed by many academics that the West’s perception of Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism is mired in a Judaeo-Christian framework. They would argue that the whole concept of religion is Western in its premise and in no way lends itself to an understanding of the nuances of non-Western beliefs and practices.

Studies also indicate that many Western-based ‘World Religions ’ courses spend far more time on Islam, Christianity and Judaism than Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and other Asian beliefs. So where does this leave an Educate Together teacher, Learn Together in hand?

Possibly confused.

Looking at my own teaching, I probably did fall prey to the Islam, Christianity, Judaism dynamic. There were plenty of resources for a start and coming from a Catholic background, maybe intuitively I did relate to them differently.

Christmas, of course, has always presented a challenge. As an important Christian celebration, it should of course be acknowledged. However, as with all the celebrations, it may well eat up more time for its corresponding belief system than it strictly should. Added to which, culture is intrinsically mixed up in the very fabric of an Irish Christmas. For many of us, there’s something deeply comforting about the traditions and rituals of Christmas which inevitably evoke childhood memories.

But by indulging in these traditions and rituals - carols, nativity plays and the like - are we reneging on our responsibility to teach the main world religions as fairly as possible? Can we really look pupils from other belief systems in the eye, and tell them that, of course, we give just as much time and just as much exposure to what they believe?

Does say Wesak in Buddhism or Baisaikhi in Sikhism get a similar time in the sun, so to speak?

Just to add to the myriad of issues around this strand, a new and genuinely exciting academic school of thought has developed. There’s now a department in UCC which looks at the study of religions from a human sciences and cross-cultural point of view. 

And none of above even touches on how best to address atheism, agnosticism and humanism – a challenging and very different area of learning.

Teaching about belief systems is not for the faint-hearted. Nor is it for the gung-ho either. Teachers are much more reflective nowadays. Armed with a willingness to engage in an examination of practices, it is possible to keep those panic-attacks at bay.

Well, maybe that insecurity for a start.

Some resources for the teaching of the Belief Systems strand:

Address: Educate Together, Equity House, 16/17 Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin 7, Ireland - Charity Number: CHY 11816