Skip to content

Religion Conference

2 June 2008

I’ve just returned from the conference of the Association for the Study of Religion in Southern Africa (ASRSA), which was held last week on the Durban campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

It was the first time I have been to the conference of that particular body, and apart from a brief business meeting most of the time was taken up with the reading of papers on a variety of topics.

There were a couple of papers on the legal aspects of religion, one on the religious rights in the Constitution, and another on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s proposal about the concorporation of some aspects of Shari’ah into British law.

There was a fairly large group of papers on the teaching of religion in schools, one of the most interesting of which was read by an old friend, Janet Jarvis, whom I had not seen for more than 20 years. She had done a study of religion teachers in three schools in the Durban area, and classified them into the Progressive, the Pedantic and the Perplexed.

In that group of papers, however, though some spoke of “defending the discipline”, no one actually did defend it. There is a subtext there, which was sometimes alluded to, but never faced squarely, and that is whether religion should be taught in government schools or not. I was hoping to hear arguments about why it should or should not be taught, and in that i was disappointed. It’s a touchy subject, because one of the objects of the Association for the Study of Religion in Southern Africa seems to be ensuring that there are jobs for academic students of religion, and most of those jobs will be as teachers of religion in schools. The Association therefore has a vested interest in teaching religion in schools. This is one of the factors that drives academic politics in university faculties of theology and religious studies.

When I worked in the Missiology Department of the University of South Africa (Unisa), it was notable that the Departments of Old Testament and New Testament dominated the theology faculty. That was because before 1994 Biblical Studies, or some variation of it, was a school subject, and in some education departments a compulsory one, so those departments had a captive audience of student teachers, who were compelled to take Biblical Studies, whether they wanted to or not, and others for whom it seemed a soft option. The Department of Religious Studies had its eye on this captive market, which they lobbied to take over with barely-concealed self-interest, and at one point the Department took itself out of the Faculty of Theology and Into the Faculty of Arts.

With all these vested interests, it is very difficult to find open debate on the desirability of teaching religion in schools, and so, though I was somewhat disappointed, I wasn’t particularly surprised that at the conference, despite some talk of “defending the discipline”, the issue was carefully skirted.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that “religion” should not be taught as a subject in government schools. It could be taught in other subjects, like geography and history. It would be difficult to teach the history of India, for example, without some knowledge of Hinduism and Buddhism, of China without, in addition, some knowledge of Confucianism and Taoism and traditional ancestral veneration. The history of the Near and Middle East, and much of Europe and Africa would be incomplete without some understanding of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and so on.

When it comes to articulating my view, however, I’m not quite sure why I think that (which is why I was a bit disappointed that no one else articulated it at the conference). I suppose one reason is that “religion” and “religions”, as we use the terms today, and as they are studied by academic religious studies departments, are the product of a particular worldview and outlook: that of Western Modernity (the book to read is “Religion” and the religions in the English Enlightenment by Peter Harrison). It was Western scholars who, formed by this outlook, gave the name “Hinduism” to the mosaic of cults and philosophies found in the the Indian subcontinent.

On the other hand, perhaps inconsistently, I believe it is possible, and even desirable, to study religion at a tertiary level. One reason is that at the tertiary level it is voluntary, and not a compulsory subject. And also, at the tertiary level, the worldviews and frames of reference employed by scholars are themselves more likely to be questioned and studied, so that there is a variety of viewpoints.

My own paper was on Christian understandings of paganism and witchcraft and was part of a panel of three, the others being Witchcraft in the African context: the politics of analytical discourse, by Mpilo Pearl Sithole, and
The modern pagan witch by Dale Wallace. I thought the three papers complemented each other rather well, but perhaps that is something that needs a post on its own some time.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 2 June 2008 9:48 pm

    Here in the United States the teaching of religion in public schools could be a major problem. There is pretty much no way anyone could present the material in a “neutral” fashion. Conservatives would use “Bible as Literature” as a chance to evangelize, and liberals would use “Religion” to make all religions look the same, and equally irrelevant. No good either way.

  2. 3 June 2008 9:22 am


    One of the reasons for the fall of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union was a religious revival, and one of the reasons for the religious revival was that one could not properly understand Russian literature without an appreciation for Russia’s Christian history. It was not so much the Bible as literature, but religion in literature — reading authors like Chekhov, Dostoevsky and others.

    Isolating “religion” (in the Western modernistic sense) from the rest of life and studying it as a “phenomenon” doesn’t seem to cut it, in my view, at least. But learning about it through other subjects, such as geography, history and literature, seems to me a much better way of going about it.

  3. 3 June 2008 9:30 pm


    I can agree. The Enlightenment in the West did a lot of damage even as it did some good. It attempted to kick God up into the attic and separate “religion” from the rest of life…and to a significant extent it succeeded in these attempts.

    The tricky thing in the U.S. scenario is the conflict between “secularism” and “religion” that seems to refuse any possibility that there can be common ground.


  1. Christian understandings of paganism and witchcraft « Khanya

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: