Intrareligious exclusions

Besides the exclusion of some religions from the official curriculum, there is the other challenge of intrareligious exclusions. Religious inclusivity is again challenged because denominational diversity becomes a hindrance. Thus, a student’s knowledge acquired in KE is, in reality, an ontological or denominational view of a particular religion or worldview. Such happenings engender a distorted risk of presenting a distorted view of a religion and, consequently, RE is failing in its civic responsibility as a curriculum area that is best placed to inculcate pro-social values towards citizenship in a world of religious diversity.

In the Ghanaian study, we brought up the issue of denominational/sect differences in Islam during a focus group with Arabic teachers. Here is what ensued:

researcher : So, given the different sects of Islam, whose ideologies do you teach? Ghana teacher i: Islam is one. The differences in sect is not a problem to us because the belief does not change.

Ghana teacher 2: Let me tell you, even for us Muslims sometimes it is difficult to identify who is Shia. One of my good friends was a Shia but I didn’t know for a long time. We were attending radio programmes and teaching Islam and there was no problem. It was later that that someone told me he was one of them. From that time, I ceased walking with him.

researcher: Why did you have to cease being friends with him?

Ghana teacher 2: You see, the Caliphs after Muhammed were Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman before Ali. Shias only believe in Ali and not any of the three before him.

It is intriguing that even as the teachers argued that Islam is one, it became clearer that this view is an overly simplified one and potentially a case for misclusion. There are denominational differences in Islam just as in many other religions. Teacher 2’s decision to sever ties with his long-time friend upon finding out he was a Shia speaks volumes of how he will treat a Muslim student who identifies as such. While these Muslim teachers did not see denominational diversity as a challenge in their teaching about Islam, there is no doubt about such challenges occurring in the teaching of AIR. Some scholars have, for instance, argued that AIR should be presented in the plural form (as African Indigenous Religions) because of the diversities existing therein (Awolalu, 1976). Whilst we can talk in general terms about the features of AIR, the beliefs, values and practices differ from community to community.The question then arises: whose AIR gains prominence and whose are neglected by the curriculum?

Similarly, there is no gainsaying the denominational diversity in Christianity. Christian doctrines vary from denomination to denomination. Issues surrounding the day of worship, baptisms and festivals divide Christians more than bringing them together. During our research, some students remarked that the Christianity they learn about in schools is not their own faith but that of Catholic Christianity. These students were Seventh-Day Adventist Christians, a denomination that champions worship on Saturday rather than Sunday. During our focus group discussion, these students described their classroom when they were learning about Christian worship:

Ghana student 4: We learn all about Christianity but I think it is more about Sunday worshippers than Adventist.

researcher Why do you say so?

Ghana student 6: Yes, it’s true. All the Christian festivals listed like Christmas, Easter, Ascension etc., we don’t celebrate but we learn about all those.

Ghana student 5: We are not offended by that because those do not turn argumentative. It is only when we get to Sabbath part that we debate.The teacher brushes over it and we bring it back and engage in debates. Sometimes other teachers walking by would stop and join in the debate.

From these narratives, it becomes clearer that including Christianity, Islam and AIK in the curriculum only satisfies religious inclusivity up to a point. In fact, it creates more complications that require skilful manoeuvres in the classroom discourse to stay focused. Christianity, Islam and AIK do not present a homogenous set of beliefs. The diversities inherent in the umbrella terms of Christianity, Islam and AIK are enormous, challenging the quest for inclusivity even further.Teachers are called into action on a regular basis when ideological conflicts in one religion occur. How do teachers teach about a religion as an entity and also explain differences in the beliefs espoused by various denominations? For instance, with regard to this issue about the Sabbath, the official textbook has this to say:

.. .Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy: For many this means that Sunday should be a day for God and Christians to Church. In some Christian traditions, especially the Roman Catholic tradition, it is a strict obligation to attend Sunday Mass.

(Anti et al. 2001,75)

The official text in this instance cites attending Sunday Mass as an explanation of what it means to keep the Sabbath holy. As the data from the students suggest, this is just one interpretation of many among Christendom. For others who worship on Saturday, like the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the 7th day Theocracy, and 7th day Pentecostalists, this interpretation does not apply. Even among these Saturday Sabbath observers, they differ in terms of what counts as keeping the day holy. Imagine a classroom with Catholics, Pentecostalists, and other Saturday Sabbath keepers, where teachers are supposed to interpret this passage from the official textbook. While observers will applaud the religious diversity displayed in this class, the teachers here will be constantly set on edge in their attempt to walk in the right line (Marshall, 2003).

Resolving value conflicts

Again, it is not only intra-religious conflicts that teachers are called upon to resolve that challenges inclusivity. Resolving value conflicts between and within religions also presents an inherent problem. In the context of Malawi and Ghana, teaching about religion is not just an academic discipline.The subject has the other mandate of developing learners into responsible morally upright persons who are capable of making sound decisions (Anti et al., 2001). With different religions espousing different sets of moral codes, inclusivity here becomes more of a problem than a solution.

Practically, teachers are set up to make a choice when value conflict arise, yet such action would be deemed unprofessional. Consider this instance. One of the central values of Christianity is forgiveness. Christians are admonished not only to forgive friends and well-intentioned individuals, but also avowed enemies as stated in Luke 17:4 of the Bible: “even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying‘I repent’, you must forgive them” (NIV).

Conversely, AIR also espouses a belief in blessing friends and well-wishers and cursing one’s enemies.This point is made evident in the official textbook when it states: “occasionally, people curse their enemies when they pray and offer prayers on behalf of others who need help” (Anti et al. 2001, 71). In the instance of teachers developing values in children based on RE content, which of these two should a teacher espouse? As might be anticipated, teachers are more likely to choose the values of the religion with which they identify (James, 2014; Schweber, 2006).

Teacher agency, identity and religious education

Inclusivity is also practically challenged by teachers’ religious identity. The quest for religiously plural schools is premised on the fact that teachers, acting as agents of the state, are, and will behave as, religiously neutral. There have been calls for faith bracketing as a solution to being an objective RE teacher. However, such an expectation is more of a facade and an idealistic expectation. Scholarship has challenged the practicality of this expectation, highlighting the notion of teacher subjectivity as being more realistic (Schweber, 2007; Sikes and Everington, 2003).

Having worked with teachers throughout this study we have come to the conclusion that: “Teacher identity consists of multiple layers and manifold patterns which cannot be structurally determined. Its varied influence is contingent on extenuating factors which includes schools’ religious ethos” (Addai-Mununkum, 2019, 55). In the context of Malawi and Ghana, where a significant proportion of the schools are church-affiliated, the religious identity of the teacher adds an additional layer of complexity already occasioned by school and students’ religious positionalities. In such situations, it is not difficult to see how the misclusion of non-normative religions might occur.

A teacher might be positioned as a religious insider, an outsider or an insideroutsider, teaching students of differing faiths about a different religion in a school that espouses a different faith ideology. It might be comparatively easy to expect teachers in such contexts to bracket their faith and to be religiously inclusive. The most important questions teachers here will ask is ‘How do I do it?’ Even if they attempt to bracket their ontological stance or prior assumptions about others’ religion, how do they deal with the religious ideology of their school? How will the dialogical approach occur in this context? Even for those teaching in a secular or non-affiliated school, how will they manage the different and often competingexpectations between self and professional life? Perhaps Wilna Meijer’s (2006) proposal about the possibility of KE being “a matter of initiation into knowledge without distorting religion, because the two are not identical” (95) might hold the key that can help teachers navigate the treacherous waters in dealing with inclusive RE.

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