In my home town, the Wetherspoons has a larger Sunday morning congregation than the church. Being an atheist there is about as notable and controversial as having a head. In secondary school, the small minority of pupils who did practice a faith (and these were the same small minority who were not white, generally) were the ones who were different. The normative stance on religion was indifference more than hostility – religion figured in such an insignificant way in the lives of most of us, that it barely registered as something that could be important in shaping our reality. Religiosity was a world of extremes from our fairly ignorant and generally quite godless position – religion meant Westboro Baptists and Jihadists.
From my own memories, religion got in the way of what was ‘really important as a Year 10, which was playing basketball, making sure you were wearing Rockports/Timberlands, playing the right games and sharing recognition of the same Peter Kay quips.Slamdunks over Islam. Shoes over Jews. CoD over God. ‘Mi biscuit’s fallen in mi brew’ more than …’Hebrew’.
I look back at this critically now, and I see the utter lack of exposure to difference as the reason why many people living in English towns like my hometown end up nodding along to Nigel Farage – people feel safe around those who they presume are ‘like them’, and without anything to suggest otherwise, people’s perceptions of religious others – of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus – will remain hazy and misguided. To a degree, people cannot be blamed for their ignorance of that which they have not experienced. Without having had exposure to Muslims, for example, people will be more inclined to build their understanding of others out of the racist jokes, tabloid fear-mongering and normalised contempt that they access. Whilst ignorance is forgivable, prejudice and persecution are not, and it is fair to say that racism was common.
A memory I have of being in primary school is of receiving visitors to assemblies, to talk about difference. I remember somebody coming in to talk about being Hindu, and I remember somebody coming in to talk about Africa. In my memories of these artificial encounters with difference, these Q&As had the tone of Victorian anthropology about them. Children were encouraged to ask questions which showcased ignorance rather than challenged it. “Why do you run cornershops? Is Pakishop racist?” With that, the school had done its bit for diversity. Box ticked – we had an Asian lady in.
The way that schools educate about difference can very easily solidify it, consecrate it as an insurmountable barrier and serve merely to outline how Other people are, without casting any sense of reflection on the fact that our ‘own culture’ is never questioned. The word ‘tolerance’ sounds too brusque; we shouldn’t tolerate those whose values are different from ours, as though this is an act of generosity on ‘our’ part. Rather, an education in difference should be in recognition and respect for the contributions, cultures, values and practices of people whose religion, nation or culture is different from our own. This is not about a ‘melting pot’, nor of complete cultural relativism. It is about appreciating that understanding ought to lie beneath opinions. Consider how many people conflate arranged marriage with forced marriage for example, forming a negative opinion of religious groups out of an ignorant commitment to opinion before facts.
When I think about my own pupils, I am aware of wide dynamics at play, and I need to articulate to myself, as much as to them, what I am trying to achieve when we talk about religion and of difference.
In the classes that I have taught, I am the one individual in the room who does not actively practice a religion. The majority of my pupils practice Islam, with a sizeable minority of them practicing Hinduism and Sikhism. Christianity too is actively practiced – their religiosity too goes beyond naming oneself a Christian and waiting for Christmas presents; they go to church and they pray. Religion is a main organising principle in the lives of my pupils – asked to describe themselves, many would describe themselves as their religious affiliation before their gender, nationality or language.
It is hard for me to think about how they think about my lack of religion. The closest I have come, as analogy, is a bit like if I had a missing finger on one of my hands. They might not notice it themselves, but once they have noticed, every time I do anything with my hand, they are looking at it. Where once I was just ‘teacher’ or just ‘man’, I am now ‘teacher with missing finger’ or ‘man with deformity’. I lack something that is so essential to their lives, yet so taken-for-granted, they cannot imagine themselves not having it. It’s like eyelids. I cease to be teacher, I become Teacher With No Religion.
Every time we discuss religion, in any context, we relocate to our standpoints before we engage in dialogue. I ‘touch base’ with the fact that my perspective might be different, as somebody without a religion, and they firm up their view on an issue according to what they know to be their own religion’s standpoint. With music, for example, which is a core part of our primary school experience, we have the regular discussions about whether music is haram or halal.
I firm my position up, stating that whilst I understand it may be prohibited for some of them, I find music to be something beautiful, expressive and enjoyable, and whilst I am not seeking to force it into their ear-holes, we will be listening to music regularly, we will be singing and they will learn an instrument. As well as that, it is in the National Curriculum, which is the teacher’s holy text. Some children might be nodding along as I say this, whilst others are waiting patiently to give their rebuttal. Some children explain that they have been told it is against their religion, and that they have been instructed not to listen to music. Some explain how it is forbidden from scripture. Some explain the repercussions, that if you open your ears to music, you are letting in Sheitan. Some children explain about how some ‘music’ is ok, and that they love listening to nasheeds. One says ‘I love Busta Rhymes’, which both surprises and amuses me.
This isn’t an ideological battle, with me ‘representing’ the Godless and ‘opposing’ an army of Muslims. My position is ever changing, and my mind is open, though I am as close to certain as I can possibly be that I will never believe in a higher power. The children’s views change, and their views are very different from each other’s. My aim in the classroom, as a teacher with no religion, is not to undermine their faith. It is not, I would say, even to encourage them to challenge it. Who am I to decide that their faith is something to be challenged, whilst we take for granted the Christian festivals which sculpt British society, despite the decline in Christian faith practice?
I see my role as encouraging them to ask questions of themselves, their beliefs and of the way they relate to other people and other faiths. Asking these questions is actually as likely to bolster and fortify the faith they have as it is likely to challenge or undermine it. When we discuss Islamic hadith, we can acknowledge the fact that the teachings of the Prophet lay a foundation for a compassionate existence, whilst acknowledging that our own religion (or lack of it) may have slightly different values. Whilst the hadith are not within my tradition, and whilst I shall certainly not be converting to Islam, I can learn of these and better my knowledge of the teaching which underpin Islamic belief – the same can be done by those of any faith. Likewise, we can share parables, fables and teachings from all other forms of religious texts, appreciate their message and meaning – to see their worth – whilst maintaining an unwavering belief in our own different faith, or whilst continuing to construct meaning without the lens of religious belief at all.
Some religious instruction, across all faiths, may suggest that asking questions of your faith is wrong. This prohibition, I think, is wrong, and it sells the intellectual capacities of the believers short. The Sikh who explores his or her own faith and finds the answers within Sikhism will become only stronger in their relation to their faith, for example. Unquestioned obedience and complicity does not suit the educated mind, and it is absolutely wrong for those without God to presume that to believe in a higher power implies some sort of mental deficiency. The more that people talk and ask questions of faith, the greater a force for good religion will be able to become in the lives of individuals. Through talk, debate and reflection, we can realise which elements of religious practice are equitable and which are not – which are just, and which are prejudiced, which are timeless, and which are archaic. Some say you cannot pick and choose which parts of a religion to follow. I would say that texts and beliefs are time-specific and in order for the meaning of a message to remain consistent, paradoxically, sometimes the message itself needs to change and be reinterpreted.
Difference is, I suppose, not a thing to be taught – a learning episode like when a Hindu woman was brought in to face a round of prejudiced questions by ignorant children, these children being praised for asking ‘open’ questions by their teachers. Difference is a value in itself, and it requires a commitment to challenging presuppositions, to respecting others’ faith even if actively, vocally subjecting it to criticism, and beneath all of that, it is predicated upon a commitment to fully understanding others, and to seeing their worldviews as something worth acknowledging.
It is not fluffy pluralism and it is not saying all religion is fantastic, which is not my view at all. On the other hand, nor is it seeking to decimate faith through the bombardment of reason.
When I think of what I want for the pupils that I teach, growing up in an increasingly diverse global city, it is that they will not fear those who are different from them, that they will not denigrate or persecute those different from them, and that they will respect the fact that there are many ways to be a good person. I want them to have a commitment to fairness and to that unshakeable feeling of justice that children seem already to have – they know right from wrong, irrespective of what else is pressuring their interpretation of a given action, event, choice or news story. I want them to treat others with dignity and, ideally, I want them to be able to forge friendships across religious and cultural divides, as they often do in the classroom. I want them to be a good person, essentially – as long as this happens, whether they grow up to be a good person who is Muslim, or Christian, or Hindu, or Sikh, or atheist is not really my concern.