Study of religions not the same as religious studies

Ms Maria Loh Mun Foong ("Leave religious studies out of secular schools"; last Saturday) argued against the inclusion of comparative religion in schools, in a reply to Mr Syed Alwi Altahir's letter ("Religious studies can help foster good values"; March 7).

Ms Loh argued that including comparative religion in a school's curriculum could lead to abuse, as an overzealous teacher could end up proselytising to a classroom of children.

While Ms Loh's concerns are largely valid, she seems to have missed the point about the inclusion of comparative religion in classes, mistaking the study of religions with religious studies.

Comparative religion, or the study of religions, can be done from a secular standpoint, systematically analysing different features of the different religions of the world.

The term "religious studies", on the other hand, is sometimes used for the study of one religion from a religious standpoint, for example, Islamic studies or Bible studies.

Teaching students comparative religion provides them the opportunity to engage in the study of religions from a young age.

This would enable students to better understand their own religion and the religions of their friends.

This is as opposed to fostering good values, which should instead be conducted during civics and moral education lessons.

I disagree with Ms Loh that we should refrain from including the study of comparative religion in the curriculum of secular schools, based on the simple fact that greater understanding leads to increased social cohesion, while ignorance leads to deep mistrust.

If children learn about the core tenets of all religions at a young age, they would be more able to distinguish between the extremist minority and moderate majority, should the need arise.

Lastly, before comparative religion is introduced into the school curriculum, safeguards have to be put in place to prevent classes from being hijacked by teachers of any one faith.

The creators of this subject should also consider including the history of atheists, agnostics and secular humanists as a chapter to be studied, while also making sure it is clear that these schools of thought do not constitute a religion.

Wayne Wee Woon

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2016, with the headline 'Study of religions not the same as religious studies'. Print Edition | Subscribe