Start interfaith studies in primary schools

11 Jun 2019 / 19:19 H.

WHEN can we ever get interfaith studies launched in schools to “foster unity and promote religious sensitivity for cultures different from our own” as mooted by Malaysian Youth Council president Jufitri Joha last month?

In response to his proposal, Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism president Datuk R. S. Mohan urged that a start be made at primary school for students to cultivate better understanding of other religions from a very young age. However, Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik recommended focusing on getting more cross-cultural programmes organised.

Reading between the lines, these sentiments reflect growing public anxiety that religious conflict may reach our shores after hitting eight nearby countries with majority Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian populations. For now, Malaysia remains a lake of calm waters in a boiling continent.

Oddly, shopping centres have become patriotic institutions consistently organising a diversity of cultural and religious celebrations including festive-themed music. Every season, the malls promote harmony by spreading cross-cultural awareness. Take it one notch higher and stage interactive live displays to widen public understanding.

What then is the role of schools? They should be the primary centres for deeper learning of cultures and religions. Surprisingly, they have not considered interfaith knowledge to be an important subject despite the fact that Malaysia has a unique annual calendar. Hardly a month passes without some cultural event or religious holy day.

The danger of conflict will grow so long as our people remain insular and learn only their own religions because provocateurs can exploit these fears. What fears? A 2017 survey has revealed that Malaysians view their fellow believers more favourably and they see people of other religions to be less like them. It is the classic “we” and “others” psycho-state that can degenerate into a deep state of fear that “others” are threatening our religious identity and faith.

Why is there a fear of “others” in our midst? The primary reason is that faith communities have allowed preachers to insist that their religion is the best way or the supreme way of salvation, and this automatically creates fear that interacting with “others” – unless it is to convert them – may weaken the strength of your belief.

Running parallel to this is a conviction that all other religions are sailing in darkness, like the Titanic, towards an iceberg. Get close to them and you may sink too. That’s why most parents never allow their children to visit other places of worship even if they are along the same road. Malaysians are steadily losing the sense of human oneness, and the warning indicators of discord, distrust and division are already flashing.

Let it be said upfront that all religions promote two ways: the Carbon Way and the Diamond Way. The Carbon Way is better known as the hidden inner way of spirituality, and the Diamond Way as the flashy outer way of religiosity. Hold a diamond ring in one hand and a pencil with the graphite tip in the other. Ask a thousand people which item has greater intrinsic value. If someone tells you that the two are one, he is spiritual. Remember your chemistry: the plain graphite and the glittering diamond are both 100% carbon, and hence identical in essence.

Walk into a jewellery shop and see the wide array of diamonds. An expert can tell you the differences influencing their respective values. These differences are characteristic of religiosity – highly visible and externally varied. But nobody can show you carbon because it is the unseen. Teach your students to acknowledge and appreciate the invisible substratum beneath all religions, including the Orang Asli and Orang Asal cultures, and you will have shown them the best or supreme way.

This is where our faith schools are failing big time in the area of team building with other religions: they excel in pointing out theological differences, but theology is a diesel engine whereas interfaith studies encompassing religiosity and spirituality are solar sparks lighting up the world. Interfaith teaching requires wisdom, but the longer we delay the nearer we get to a cliff edge.

The writer champions interfaith harmony. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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