Religious Studies lay groundwork for civil engagement in society

In responding to Ms Clara Chua Sieo Peng's suggestion (Re-introduce religious studies in school; Forum Online, Oct 5), Mr Francis Cheng advised caution and supported his concerns with the problems of implementing Religious Knowledge in the 1980s (Best to keep religion out of schools; Oct 9).

I find his anxieties misplaced.

Religious Studies has since moved away from focusing on the "Great Religious Traditions", and has taken a sociological turn towards human societies.

Both the GCSE (Religious Studies) and International Baccalaureate (World Religions) expose students to the diversity of how religious traditions are lived. The subjects are secular and help learners appreciate the religious capacity to enhance life and further promote responsible citizenship.

While Mr Cheng is right in stating that the multi-religious fabric of society can be fragile, I do not follow his conclusion that the Government should keep Religious Studies out of the school and "stay secular".

In fact, Comparative Religious Studies introduced in schools can prepare the ground for a future where civil engagement among religious believers, and even non-believers, is normalised and common. This can only be good for our multiculturalism.

Healthy religious communities engage in public life. They network with other communities of faith and civil society to serve the public good. They draw in resources from the outside for internal reform and renewal.

Conversely, religious communities confining themselves to their own bubbles spell trouble for a multicultural society on the whole.

They demarcate clear insider-outsider boundaries, often even narrowing the circles and distinguishing between true and false believers.

This is the divisive tendency which turns the strength of our religious diversity into social fault lines.

With Comparative Religious Studies introduced to our young, we reduce the conditions for such a tendency to thrive.

Lee Tuck Leong (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2017, with the headline 'Religious Studies lay groundwork for civil engagement in society'. Print Edition | Subscribe