Thu, 11 Mar 1999

Redefining religion at school

By A. Chaedar Alwasilah

BANDUNG (JP): Idul Fitri, the Muslim day of festivities following the Ramadhan fasting month, was marked earlier this year by infighting in scattered areas which has continued.

Recent clashes between believers of two major religions in Ambon, which have claimed lives and casualties, raises the question: What then is the impact of fasting during the holy month of Ramadhan on social life?

This nagging question leads to a broader question: What is the function of religious education anyway? How could religious believers kill each other?

Idul Fitri literally means the day of purity. Essentially, Muslims after performing the fast are reborn anew, devoid of spiritual ills such as hatred, anger, greed, hypocrisy, enmity and intolerance. Actually, fasting is not the best equivalent of the Arabic shaum or imsak, which literally means restraint from those negative attributes.

The officially recognized religions have been incorporated into the curriculum since Indonesia was established. Our curriculum stipulates the teaching of religion at all schooling levels from elementary to tertiary, thus recognizing the importance of religion for Indonesian citizens.

Indeed, Indonesians proudly claim they are a religious people. However, such stipulations and claims do not necessarily guarantee implementation of religious teaching. Rampant social ills such as student brawls, communal clashes, land appropriation and so on are evidence that religious education has failed to accomplish its supreme mission, namely to furnish students with knowledge to be put into operation in daily life.

At this juncture it would be advisable to ponder what is wrong with religious education. Religion is treated equally in the curriculum together with math, physical education, English and other subjects.

This curricular policy relegates religion to a weak position where religions are perceived as earthly phenomena showing no spiritual or sacred overtones at all. In other words, due to the formal and academic approach to their teaching, the sacredness of religion has been eroded and growing indifference about it is on the rise among students. Religion is people's most sacred phenomena which is mostly inner, most highly reverenced and most carefully respected by followers.

The late Y.B. Mangunwijaya, popularly known as Romo Mangun, reminded the whole nation of practices of educational mismanagement during Soeharto's administration.

First, its biggest mistake was an overemphasis on the quantity of knowledge about orders, religious jurisdictions including theories, dogmas and rites, all of which constituted orthodoxy. This orthodoxy was bombarded on our schoolchildren to the neglect of orthopraxies of religions.

The most essential aspect of religious education is how to teach and make students appreciate and internalize their faith (iman) and implement it in social life.

All of this seems to stem from a misconception of equating religions with faiths, which are principally different. Taqwa or piety has two dimensions -- ideological and operational.

Religions in Romo Mangun's words are a vehicle or medium, and never an end. Teaching religion as indoctrinated in schools today is like teaching about a car, which by itself takes students nowhere. In his assertion, rampant corruption among bureaucrats, communal clashes and student brawls are indicative of a failure in putting the ideology into operation.

Second, in criticizing the dual sociopolitical role of the military in the past, Romo Mangun warned us not to learn moral lessons from the military. It is universal that the military is professionally trained to terrorize, sabotage and be proactive toward the enemy. By the military yardstick, to kill is better than to get killed.

When the military holds power to steer education, they use education for indoctrination. Schools and offices are tailored to be the front territory where resisting voices and criticism are to be washed away indiscriminately.

In schools, the practice of scheduled ceremonies with flag raising and the pronouncement of the state ideology Pancasila is evidence of military intervention in our school system. As everybody recalls, civil servants were obliged to attend ceremonies on the 17th of each month, where seven declarations of allegiance to the Soeharto regime (Sapta Prasetya Korpri) were ritually pronounced.

As a result, in the mind of the young generation has been inculcated the spirit of winning the war and destroying the enemy. No wonder there is no attitude of fair play, no love for truth and conscience and no willingness to apologize.

It is high time to wipe out the military zone from our school map. Let us unlearn educational and moral lessons as taught by the military.

How should we redefine the function of religious subjects in schools? Listed below are major observations of how religious education should be viewed.

* Children from early days of schooling should be made aware of, and accustomed to, seeing differences of religious faiths and practices. The earlier the awareness is established, the better. Muslims in this country constitute the majority and they, by definition, hold greater responsibility in building the nation. It does not suggest, though, that followers of other religions do not hold such responsibility. All the religions teach a set of directions for living together in a society where other religions coexist.

* In schools, of utmost importance is the practice of religion. "We do not need to prove religion to men, but to prove to them that they are religious," said George Tyrrell.

It is sensible to say that the communal clashes and other social ills cited above are not necessarily motivated by religious sentiments. Instead, they are caused by fragmentary understanding of religious teachings. No religion on earth teaches its followers to abduct and kill people, burn houses of worship and destroy public facilities.

* Religious teachings are to be operative in life outside the school walls where teachers do not have any direct control over students. Morality and religious practice are exemplified by parents, public figures and people in general. They function either as partners or rivals of religion teachers. This being the case, religious indoctrination will be counterproductive; therefore, classroom interactions should be designed as a arena for understanding religious implementation and clarifying conflicting social values prevalent outside the class.

* Among education's aims is to develop creative human resources who are physically strong and spiritually sound. The more religious they are, the more creative they will grow. While technology creates new devices and new rules, religious development creates higher-order realities.

Spiritual knowing in conjunction with technological sophistication form a great strength allowing human beings to envision better futures. This suggests that classroom interactions should be a meaningful discourse where science, technology and religion meet. Often, religion is accused of taming technology.

* Our national history shows that nonformal education such as Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) and missionaries of other religions have been much more successful in preparing community leaders and propagating religion. The nation is indeed indebted to volunteers, teachers, propagators, informal leaders and social workers at religious institutions and non-governmental organizations whose devotion, dedication and commitment have been taken for granted by the government.

The writer is a lecturer at the graduate school of the Teachers Training Institute, Bandung, West Java.