First published on the Starts at 60 website.
Kids join Islamic State (ISIS) because they are hungry for a passion. In the grey world created for them by their adults, they want something exciting to believe in, some dramatic good they can achieve, something great they can create, a cause to give their whole life to. Of course they do. They are adolescents.
And they are also ignorant.
Teenagers these days know so many things, and they can Google what they don’t know, but we have failed them dismally in teaching them about religion and about the religions expressed in cultures around the world. For various reasons, we have been afraid to have any religion taught in schools, and yet this is the very learning area that would prevent the radicalisation of young people.
I mean, of course, religion taught well, and taught by competent teachers. This is so urgent as to be the fourth ‘R’ of the 21st Century: young people need to know about religion alongside reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.
They need to know why billions have embraced religion and found that religion provides wisdom, comfort and direction for their lives. They need to know what motivated Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and what produced the luscious religious art of the Renaissance. In a word, they need to know something of the passion, commitment and engagement in life that religion brings to many people.
They also need to know why millions reject religion. Religion is not just passion. It’s not just a response of the heart. It requires thought and discernment as well. Agnostics have reasons for questioning, and atheists have reasons for believing that religions have got it wrong, and students need to grapple with those reasons and see if they too are convinced.
It’s our fault that our young people don’t know about religion, don’t know its complexities, don’t know how rule of law, democracy, and science all came about through the work of devout Jews, Christians and Muslims, and how the modern world could not have come into existence without religion.
They have not been introduced to the proposition that morality, morality like reverence for life, arises from the pages of the scriptures of the great religions.
It’s our fault as a community. Rectifying that error will not be easy. When he was Minister for Education forty years ago, Kim Beazley Senior proposed a National Curriculum with nine Learning Areas, one of which was Religion. He foresaw that Religion needs firstly to be taken seriously as a curriculum area.
Countries such as Denmark that seem to be doing better in embracing minorities, including Muslims, are currently strengthening their ‘identity-carrying subjects’ such as history and Christian studies. Australia will get a similar result through serious teaching about all religions.
Politicians, principals and academics should publicly champion the teaching of Religion Studies as a national priority.
The Year 11 and 12 courses that now exist like ‘Religion and Life’ in WA need boosting into greater visibility in order to create a bigger demand.
We need to identify competent teachers to mentor other teachers who, though highly trained in other areas, feel inadequate to teach religion. There are such master teachers, particularly in church schools and in professional associations like the Australian Association for Religious Education.
Universities should review teacher training programs to make sure that they prepare teachers thoroughly to teach Religion. Sadly, the Universities I know have dropped successful courses because administrators have been indifferent. That should change!
The aim should be to make the teaching and learning of Religion as engaging and fascinating as religion – and the debates about it – are.
Schools need to make sure that there is sensible space in the time-table for Religion. Students cannot take seriously a subject that is allowed only 45 minutes a week. Imagine if Science or Maths had only one period in a week! ISIS has had runaway success in meeting its educational aims. As a community we can do better than ISIS.
In other words, our community needs a plan to end the ignorance by creating and nurturing a new, a ninth, Learning Area. Every student who sees through the extremism of ISIS because she learns that Islam is something different altogether is a treasure saved for Australia.
Ted Witham is Immediate Past President of the Australian Association for Religious Education and a retired Religious Educator.
Sexuality and Marriage –
Discussion Starter for the Lenten series at St Mary’s, Busselton
I am not sure whether I have drawn the short straw in getting this topic. Whatever I say will be wrong!
There are two questions to ask about sexuality:
· What are the boundaries?
· What is the most life-giving expression of sexuality?
Some of the boundaries are prescribed in our Book of Common Prayer. A man may not marry his mother. A man may not marry his sister. These taboos also help with the question about being life-giving: It is not life-giving to have sexual relations with mother or sister or daughter.
We all struggle with questions of what life-giving expressions of sexuality might be. What is life-giving sexuality for someone who is widowed? I include chosen celibacy among those life-giving options, but I know older Christians who find themselves single give other answers to that question.
What is life-giving sexuality for a young person? It’s too easy to answer that question in general terms, but when the question comes to us as giving support or advice to a grand-child or nephew, it’s very different. Not only do most of us wrestle with the question of our young loved ones who choose to live together before marriage, but many of us have young relatives who want to set up house (or at least a relationship) with someone of the same sex. What is life-giving for that young one? The one you know and love and want the best for. Where are the boundaries for that person?
When I was ordained priest in 1975 and started marrying people (as you do), I discovered a secret. Over half of the couples I was marrying lived at the same address. Other couples asked in front of me, “What address do we put?” I had been brought up to believe that living together before marriage constituted living in sin. Yet all these co-habiting couples were being married and no-one was complaining or raising moral objections.
Over the last fifty years we have lived through an enormous change in marriage due to the invention of the pill and the sexual revolution of the sixties. At the end of World War II, most couples subscribed to the idea that living together before marriage was wrong. Now in 2012, a completely different ethic is argued. Young people today believe marriage is an important, even sacred, commitment; a commitment to one person for life. This commitment is so important that it can be made only after a period of living together.
Many Christians, myself included, now accept this ethical view as a way of Christian marriage. The boundaries have changed – or at least, the goal-posts have moved, which may not be exactly the same thing. But it does mean that if I am asked if it is life-giving for a young relative who wants to move in with some else before marriage to do so, I am now almost certain to agree.
The other change that started probably in the sixties was the acceptance of different sexualities. At first, homosexuality was seen as a mental illness and was included in the Diagnostic Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Treating homosexuality as an illness proved not to work. It was removed from the Manual in 1974. Nowadays psychiatrists see homosexuality as a normal minority variant of being a human, like left-handedness or blue eyes.
Removing this particular stigma from homosexuality has helped to reduce some of the violence against people of different sexualities, but there is still a long way to go. What is life-giving, and the Church should be providing vigorously, is a loud voice against the persecution of homosexuals, bi-sexuals, transsexuals and other people different only because of their genetic make-up. I think it’s important for the Church to add its voice to campaigns like ‘It Gets Better’ and “This Is Oz”. Search for them on the internet. Violence, especially violence against the vulnerable, is out.
But should the church also change its view on homosexual practice? At their Lambeth Conference in 1998, the bishops of the Anglican Communion said that sex takes place only in marriage, and therefore homosexual people, like every other unmarried person, must be celibate outside of marriage. I think the Church has changed its mind about sex taking place only in marriage – at least, when it is thinking about a male and a female. But doesn’t it also follow that same-sex couples should be allowed to live together and express their sexuality?
This is a dividing line in the Anglican Church today. Where do you draw the boundaries? What is most life-giving for real couples? I suspect there are different opinions here at St Mary’s: some of us believe that sex can take place only in a marriage and then between and man and a woman; some of us believe that marriage need be between two people and they could be of the same sex. I would imagine that some of us hold to the line that True Love Waits, as Buddy Holly sang, while some would say that it is ethically better for young people to co-habit first.
What keeps us in the same Church is that we recognise firstly that people have different views about these things – Wayne and I disagree on gay marriage, for example — and secondly that we are mature enough to respect the different views of others. More than respect: we challenge each other to show that what we believe is based on what is life-giving, and where the boundaries are.
I would send us all back to Genesis Chapter 2, where Adam seeks for a partner with whom he can be intimate; and to Galatians 3:28 where St Paul proclaims that in Christ there is neither male nor female. These passages can’t easily be used as proof-texts of any particular position, but they are each springboards which can help us think through these vitally important issues.
26 February 2012