Ethical education is indispensable for the well-being both of individuals and societies. For the individual, this kind of instruction motivates him to work towards self-realization, which means getting aware of his potentialities and trying to actualize them. Moral education also prepares the individual to conform, intelligently and critically, to social norms and values, not only within his own society but also in the world at large.

On the other hand, the well-being of a certain society and of the world community as a whole necessitates that peace, freedom, justice, human dignity, and related values be brought to the fore and taught to individuals worldwide.

In schools, ethics can be taught in four ways, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages. But all depends on the teacher to make this kind of instruction advantageous. These ways are: (1) Teaching ethics as a separate subject, of equal “legitimacy” with other subjects like chemistry, physics, mathematics, grammar… (2) Teaching ethics informally within the framework of a daily meeting to be held, for example, before classes- say, between 8:00 and 8:30. (3) Teaching ethics as an indirect component of all that is taught at school- science, literature, history, etc. (4) Teaching ethics by example, which implies that a school has to consider the moral component in choosing its teachers- that is men and women, in all fields of learning, who can serve as models to be emulated by students.

However, ethical education is never to replace religious education, despite countless overlaps between the two disciplines. For, in the final analysis, one may be thoroughly moral without being necessarily religious.

Since religion is a major determinant of behaviour for many people, since it is related to the divine order which, for believers, comes at the top of all other orders, and since it has left its indelible mark in law, literature, education, and many other human pursuits, it should form an irreducible subject-matter for all systems of education. Religion is to be taught at all public schools- that is at educational institutions, whether private or official, that prepare their students to pursue university education or vocational learning.

Public schools around the world are divided in so far as religious instruction is concerned. Some have omitted religion altogether from the curriculum. Others offer ethical instruction as a replacement of religious instruction. Still others, especially in Muslim countries, consider the public school as the ideal place for teaching dogma.

Omitting religion is not at all equivalent to being neutral or remaining silent towards it. To cancel from the curriculum a topic like religion is rather to teach that it is unimportant, and that one can do without it.

Replacing religion by ethics is equivalent to evading the subject in a bad way. Although ethics is extremely important and irreplaceable as we have said, and although it shares a host of common issues with religion, like the concepts of freedom, duty, responsibility, right, wrong, good, bad, values…, yet the central concept in religion, namely God or the ultimate, need not be operative in all ethical theories or practices. It suffices to mention three major intellectual figures of the twentieth century – George Edward Moore, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Camus – as an example of how can one build up a solid system of values apart from religion.

Coming to dogmatic or doctrinal religious teaching in public schools, we find that this is still practiced in all Muslim and Arab countries. In view of the sanctity of the subject-matter, more emphasis is laid on what is taught than on who is taught, taking into consideration that what is taught is not less than divine revelation or the Word of God.

This kind of traditional religious instruction has four major characteristics:

1- By insisting on what is learnt at the expense of the learner, doctrinal instruction overlooks the psychology of human development and turns out into indoctrination. Here the subject-matter is usually imposed on the learner regardless of his intellectual capacities at the different stages of learning and of his psychological motivation, and without taking into consideration the requirements of critical and creative thinking.

2- Traditional religious instruction rests on the presupposition that one’s own religion, namely that which is being taught, is the only true, or the perfectly true, religion, whereas all others religions, or only some of them, may contain glimpses or portions of truth, yet not the whole truth. This preferential approach may form a detriment to social integrity and to world peace.

3- This approach to religious instruction overlooks other religions, though they might be elements of the social diversity to which the school belongs. Thus members of the same society, and of the world community, come to ignore one another’s religions, and by thus doing to think that they are better than others.

4- The traditional approach to religious education evades basic questions about religion that almost every learner raises at one stage or another. These are questions like the following: What is religion? What does it add to the individual’s awareness of the world? Does it provide the learner with information as do the various sciences like chemistry, physics, and biology? Is there an authentic conflict between religion and science as many learned persons have asserted? How can the human mind determine the truth of religious statements? Upon what criteria can one intelligibly say that a certain religion is “better” than another?

Taking all these facts into consideration, the author of the present article has suggested an alternative view towards the teaching of religion in the public school, put forward in his well-known tetralogy (in Arabic) comprising the following books: (1) Religion and Society (1983), (2) Living Faiths (1993), (3) A Philosophy of Religion (1994), and (4) Unity in Diversity (2003). Here are the main points of this view:

– Religion is to be taught in the public school, that is in the school preparing its students to enter universities or vocational institutions, at the primary, intermediary, and high levels.

– Ethics is also to be taught in the public school, as an autonomous topic, at all levels. Although religion and ethics could be merged into one larger topic, each is to have its autonomy in the sense that any one should never be offered as a substitute of the other.

– Religious instruction in the public school ought to be “descriptive” rather than “dogmatic”. Descriptive religious instruction is based on that field of learning called Religious Studies rather than on Theology. Accordingly, what is to be taught under religion comprises material drawn from fields like the history of religions, the philosophy of religion, religious art and expression…

– This kind of instruction is indispensable for the learner to know that, besides his own (received or “inherited”) faith exist other faiths in the world, equally legitimate and containing, like his own faith, positive elements. It is also indispensable for it makes the learner aware of important issues concerning the nature of religion, the scope of religion and its relation especially to science, the logic of faith and reason, the difference between religion and ethics, and a host of other questions.

– All this forms a prerequisite for dogmatic instruction, that is the teaching of a particular religion to its adherents. This prerequisite provides the believer with logical tools to better defend his own faith not against other faiths but as it stands in itself. This building up in the learner of “positive” attitudes rather than “polemical” attitudes contributes to social integrity, world peace, and other values that belong intrinsically to all the great faiths.

– Once the preceding steps are taken into consideration, dogmatic instruction can then be safely taught in special institutions belonging to this or that faith. For my own part, I prefer a division of labour where “descriptive” teaching is given in public schools and “dogmatic” teaching in private denominational institutions. Yet if it is still difficult in some communities to effect a separation between “public” and “religious” school, both kinds of instruction could be offered under the same roof. In all cases, however, each kind of instruction – descriptive and dogmatic – should pay attention to the questions, concerns, apprehensions, and approaches, of the other, and try to be complementary rather than competitive.

One point remains to be clarified: The descriptive study of religion that we advocate allows students to come out with a comprehensive notion of religion based on common elements, which are abundant indeed, among religions. Such a notion is one of the decisive factors necessary to achieve human unity and peace. However, what we advocate is never to be taken as a superstructure to replace religions in the name of a theoretical synthesis. For the individual does not usually choose his religion as a result of studying and comparing the living faiths. Rather, faith is normally propagated through family inheritance. So the aim of descriptive religious education – far from being the encouraging of the learner to choose the faith that suits his mind and heart from the pantheon of world religions – is to form a critical understanding of his and other religions, capable of deepening his convictions, modifying what he deems wrong or aberrant in the religious practices of his community, with a better comprehension and respect of other religions.

* Adib Saab, the author of this article, has been, for more than three decades, Professor of Philosophy at Saint John of Damascus Institute of Theology (Orthodox) at Balamand, north Lebanon, where he taught ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy, besides the history of religions and the philosophy of religion. He is the author of several books in philosophy, as well as collections of poetry.

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Samira Awad
Samira Awad
17 years ago

This article carries a prophetic voice in the time religion is abused to heat up emotions and is diverged from its divine goal into an instrument to achieve personal benefits here and there.
I see this article as a candle and I call whoever is interested in getting more of its light to return to the tetralogy of the author. This call is directed to instructors and people involved in educational planning especially at the school level.

Georges El-Damaa
Georges El-Damaa
17 years ago

MORAL AND RELIGIOUS EDUCATIONI have read all the four books of Professor Adib Saab. They stand apart as a landmark in contemporary Arab culture. The present article is an excellent synthesis of Saab’s theory concerning religious and moral instruction. The genius of this philosopher is manifested mainly in his staunch defense of true religious belief: not of this or that specific faith but of theism in general, and at the same time in his staunch defense of a brand of secular state as the sole guarantee of human values, including religious values. I only wish that the books of this… Read more »


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