Science and Religion in Schools: The Importance of a South African Project

What is variously thought of as the dialogue, the discussion, the debate—and usually the conflict—between science and religion began in Europe in the fifteenth century at the beginning of what is usually known as the modern period. This was the time when the sciences as we know them today began to develop as part of a more comprehensive process in culture and consciousness that is termed secularisation. At that time, the dialogue and the conflict was between science and Christianity, as the dominant religion in Europe. But now this interaction has spread across the globe and other major religious traditions are involved. It has become a major field of academic research with a huge volume of literature being produced and conferences being held all over the world. But the field of science-and-religion is by no means only an academic matter. In the United States, for instance, as well as in the Muslim world, it has become a powerfully political matter. And in South Africa since the ending of apartheid, we are experiencing a multitude of problems caused by the coming together of the dominant global scientific secular culture and the traditional religious culture of the majority of South Africans.

It is, in fact, this gap between the world-view produced by contemporary science, and that in terms of which the beliefs of all the major religions of the world are formulated, that is the underlying problem in the science-and-religion field. In dealing with this gap two fundamental issues stand out.

The first is the need in a secularized culture to show that there is an objective standard for truth and authenticity in religion. It cannot be just assumed that in this sphere ‘anything goes’. And such a standard can be found in our experience of ourselves as subjects and agents, those who freely commit ourselves to a religion and are therefore responsible for it. The fact that all religions are an expression of, and concerned in their different ways with the fulfilment of, our nature as human subjects also provides a basis for fruitful dialogue and cooperation between them.

The second, and related, issue is the need for all religions to recognise the truth, however partial, of the well-founded results of the sciences, and try to integrate them into the world-view implied by their faith. In this connection it must be recognised that scientific truth is essentially limited. This is not only because each science deals with only an aspect of reality and in a way that is inherently abstract and ideal. More importantly every science presupposes the existence and activity of the thinking choosing human subject that produces its methods and judges its results. There is thus a realm of reality that transcends the reach of science because it creates it, a dimension of human subjects that is normative for all our thinking and choosing, not only in science but in morality and religion as well.

I have emphasized the importance of recognizing the creative role of human subjects in both science and religion, because I believe that it is only if we do not ‘lose touch’ with this crucial dimension of ourselves in our study of the science-and-religion field that we will escape the alienating effects that misconceptions of both science and religion can have. It is misconceptions of this kind that have created the gap I have spoken of above.

And it is in an attempt to bridge that gap that the John Templeton Foundation has sponsored the Science and Religion in Schools Project in the U.K. The aim of the project is to bridge that gap as it exists in the minds of teachers of both science and religion in schools, so they in turn can do the same for those they teach. The spectacular success of the project in the U.K. has encouraged the idea that other countries would benefit from similar schemes. One of these, the one I am concerned with, is South Africa.

South Africa, because of its recent history, provides a unique opportunity to test the world-wide viability of such a project. This is because South Africa is a microcosm of the contemporary world, first world and third world, a scientific secular culture and a traditional religious one, in one society.

In terms of the new South African Constitution, South Africa is an explicitly secular state. That does not imply any devaluation of religion but simply that the state is not linked to nor can favour a particular religion. A vast majority of South Africans practise some or other form of religion. Amongst world religions, Christianity is the most practised, followed by Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Bahai’i, Buddhism and others. African traditional religions are however the most practised, often in a mixture with another religion, usually Christianity. The religious milieu and the ethos of South African society thus involves a real experience and recognition of diversity in religion.

This ethos is also informed by South Africa’s recent transition to a post-apartheid society. South Africa is unique among the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa in that here the European colonists stayed. The dominant culture is thus the scientific secular culture of Europe. The native culture of the majority of South Africans is, however, traditional African culture. Apartheid was the attempt to keep these cultures separate. The post-apartheid project of ‘nation-building’ involves the attempt to bring together in a fruitful contact all that apartheid kept apart. There is thus a real social dynamism towards unity in diversity, which also makes itself felt in the sphere of the different religious and ideological traditions.

It is in this connection that I judge the notion of ubuntu, the central ethical notion in traditional African thought, to be of the first importance in our search for a unified society. Ubuntu, which means humanity as a quality of character, is the expression of the conception of human nature embodied in a saying such as umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, a human is human through (other) humans. This conception is common to all the several indigenous languages of South Africa. The idea that one can only exercise, develop, and fulfill one’s humanity through one’s relations with, indeed through the gift of, others is importantly true of individuals. I believe it can be applied to groups, religions, cultures as well.

The project of developing a unified democratic society in which different cultures can feel at home has demanded profound changes in our educational system, at every level. These changes are also influenced by the need for economic development within the present globalising world-economy made possible by scientific discoveries and technological advance. The new curriculum in our schools thus emphasizes the acquisition of intellectual skills and qualities of character that make life-long learning and vocational mobility possible.

In this social and cultural context we would define the aims of a South African Science and Religion in Schools Project in the following way: We want to help teachers to enable learners to develop a coherent and critically grounded world-view and set of values that can give meaning to their lives and direction to the energy that authentic faith inspires.

To this end it is necessary for learners to come to understand the well-founded world-view the sciences supply, as well as to appreciate the value of the insights and wisdom that religions and traditional cultures contain.

It is also necessary to help them to a familiarity with and expertise in the huge variety of technologies (from health-care to communications and everything between) now important for an integrated and productive life.

Finally it is necessary to help them develop an authentic spirituality for living, an outlook and character that is inspired by the vision and formed by the values that religions and even secular ideologies can provide.

Within the new educational framework there are three learning fields on which a South African Science and Religion in Schools Project would focus.

The Natural Sciences Curriculum

In this field, the project would aim to help teachers to enable learners to become familiar with the well-founded world-view produced by the sciences (cosmic and human evolution, the atomic structure of matter, the germ theory of disease, etc). At the same time, we would make it clear that every science (including the human sciences) is created and judged by human subjects who, in that respect, transcend the dimensions of reality studied by the sciences. The project would encourage the attempt to point the relevance of each science for humanity, and the use to which relevant technologies can be put. Learners should be encouraged to evaluate morally the technological applications of science.

The essentials of scientific method as a source of knowledge should be made clear, as should the limitations of this method. But learners must be made aware of other sources of knowledge, such as indigenous culture, philosophy and religion—especially as regards insight into our own humanity, its capacities and values.

The Religion Studies Curriculum

In this field, the project would aim to help teachers to enable learners to gain insight into religion as a universal expression of a transcendent dimension of our human nature. Learners should be encouraged to become more conscious, consistent and critical in their thinking about different faith traditions, including their own. This would enable them to develop a more authentic appropriation of whatever faith they have inherited or made their own. In particular, they should be helped to integrate the world-view produced by the sciences with their understanding of religion.

Learners should be encouraged to evaluate morally the various practices of different religions, and the responses of different religions to important social and political issues. They should be introduced to the possibility of creative dialogue between different religions and encouraged to adopt a sympathetic but critical attitude towards religious diversity.

The project would favour the teaching of religion studies in such a way as to foster in learners the cognitive, volitional, and emotional abilities from which a mature faith could be developed.
The Life Orientation Curriculum

In Life Orientation the project would aim to help teachers to enable learners to become aware of themselves as responsible agents in the community of their fellows, able to commit themselves to ideals and values that they themselves have chosen, and to express these in a realistic way in practices and projects that contribute to the common good, whether of their own small circle or of society as a whole.

As a means to this end, the project would focus on the common source, in the transcendent dimension of our human nature, of all knowledge (including indigenous knowledge) systems and religious traditions. This would provide insight into the valuable richness of our humanity, as well as the respect for different cultures and the rights of others that this entails. It would also enable the learner to clarify their own values and beliefs and so form an authentic spirituality that would give meaning and direction to their lives.

An authentic spirituality of this kind ought to form the foundation of Life Orientation, enabling learners both to mature as individuals and in their relationships with others. It would also help them to identify important social and environmental issues, and give them the confidence and respectfulness needed to cooperate with others in addressing these.

The above is an outline of the aims that would inform a South African Science and Religion in Schools Project, and of the way in which we would try and overcome the gap I have spoken of in our local context.



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