REA 2013 conference: teaching religion and good citizenship

“We need to cross borders and join forces for a more humane world,” said Seibren Miedema in his President’s Address during the final plenary session of the 2013 Religious Education Association (REA) annual conference. Miedema is professor emeritus at Vrije Universiteit (Free University), Amersterdam, Netherlands, and president of the REA.

“Learning to work, to live, to play together should be possible,” he said, “and should start in early childhood.”

When Miedema was goring up in the Netherlands in the 1950s, the society was “pillarized”; that is, everyone living in a given Dutch town tended to belong to the same church. I happened to sit next to him during the pre-conference session, and he said then that he didn’t really encounter anyone from a different denomination (let alone a completely different faith tradition) until he was in his teens. In his President’s Address, he said that pillarization began to break down in the 1960s, as society changed rapidly and people of different faiths began engaging in, e.g., social justice work together.

Coming from that Dutch background, Miedema now believes that state-sponsored schools can and should play a crucial role in fostering inter-religious dialogue. He spoke about “the impact of the schools’ contribution, in terms of the selected subject matter and of the arrangement of pedagogical relations and situations by the professionals, on the personal identity formation of students.”

Miedema said he agrees with the position that the “binding role” of religion in society is of “utmost importance” and “should not be neglected.” This position is opposed to the official position in, e.g., France. Miedema reminded us that John Dewey, one of the intellectual founders of the REA, believed that schools should cultivate the religious side of children.

From a pedagogical point of view, rather than speak narrowly of “religion” Miedema prefers to use the term of “worldview.” A worldview is defined as “the way one looks at life,” and religion is one aspect, albeit a very important aspect, of worldview. To think in terms of worldview helps remind us that religion is not just about belief; furthermore, everyone, whether affiliated with a specific religious tradition or not, has at least a personal worldview. And thinking in terms of worldview pedagogically helps avoid strong exclusivist approaches on the one hand (e.g., with Christian fundamentalist approaches), or strong secularist approaches on the other hand.

Speaking pedagogically, Miedema distinguished between teaching into religion, teaching about religion, teaching from religion — or, as he prefers, teaching about and from religion. This is the distinction between subjectivity (teaching into a religious tradition), neutrality (teaching about religion from a perspective of unatainble neutrality), and finally intersubjectivity (teaching about about and from religion).

Miedema argued for a maximal view of citizenship, which is a “transformative view.” Thus, he sees connections between citizenship education and religious education (or what he would call worldview education, where religious education helps teach students “living together in difference.” Thus he strongly believes that religions, or worldviews, should have an “accepted place in the public sphere.”

“Students really want to learn from one another,” he said, “and are interested in the worldview of their fellow students.” Such learning can diminish “fear and anxiety of the Other.”

In short, religious education — worldview education — is good for an open society.

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