Religion as an identity totem

Whether compulsory or as a complementary subject to religion, the teaching of ethics provides an opportunity to create a common ethical ground for an increasingly pluralistic society

18 April 2017, 9:27am
It may suggest an instinct to defend a traditionally Catholic ethos, in apparent defiance of the more ecumenical views of the Archbishop
It may suggest an instinct to defend a traditionally Catholic ethos, in apparent defiance of the more ecumenical views of the Archbishop
Our survey on Sunday revealed interesting discrepancies in the way religious beliefs are approached in our education system. 

The primary focus was on the teaching of religion in schools, in the wake of the controversy created by the proposal to offer Muslim students the same treatment given to their Catholic counterparts: i.e., that of learning about their religion in the same time dedicated to the teaching of Catholic religion to other students.

It would seem the Maltese public is split down the middle on the issue of teaching Islamic studies in state schools. Care was taken in framing the question, so as to to avoid the misunderstanding of TV sound-bites which triggered irrational fears of Islamic lessons being imposed on Catholic students. 

Even though it was made clear that the proposal is aimed at Muslim students (who do not attend religion classes at present anyway), there remains strong opposition among broad swathes of the population. 

Nonetheless, the survey suggests that more educated respondents and younger people are not ill disposed to the idea. But it also reveals an overwhelming majority against the teaching of Islam in Church schools: especially among those categories which are more likely to send their children to these schools.

This appears contradictory on numerous fronts. There is a clear contrast between the views expressed by the Archbishop, and the general opinion held by considerable portions of his own flock. The survey also exposes that people who have no problem with Islam being taught in state schools, also object to the same happening in church schools. This creates a distinction in public perceptions of state and church schools which is hard to really justify on any practical or rational (as opposed to emotional or hysterical) level.

The fact that respondents who attended church schools and private schools are more prone to this contradiction suggests that for some, what is good for the goose is not good for the gander. But it may also suggest an instinct to defend a traditionally Catholic ethos, in apparent defiance of the more ecumenical views of the Archbishop.

None of this is taking place in a vacuum. The survey also shows that a vast majority is in favour of retaining Catholicism as Malta’s official religion in the Constitution. A majority would not vote for a Muslim or even an atheist candidate in an election. 

But among 18-34 year olds a contradiction is emerging; while a strong majority would vote for an atheist candidate, a vast majority of young people would not vote for a Muslim standing in a general election. This suggests that Islamophobia also risks becoming a totem mark, despite the church’s efforts to promote inter-religious dialogue. 

Strong support for retaining Roman Catholicism as Malta’s official religion was registered among all age groups and levels of education. This seems to fly in the face of indications, on various fronts that Malta is becoming a more secular society. Significantly, support for Catholicism as an official religion is also strong among respondents who do not attend mass on Sunday. 

The survey also shows that a vast majority of under 35-year-olds do not attend mass, but this does not necessarily make them more tolerant towards religious minorities, especially vis-a-vis Muslims.

One can, of course, read various interpretations into all this. It does however appear that that in a time of change, Catholicism is becoming more a badge of identity, than a way of life which defies racial and ethnic stereotypes. This may suggest a tension between the more open Catholicism preached by Pope Francis (and echoed by Archbishop Charles Scicluna) and a resurgent traditionalism, which may accept more civil liberties but still defends its cherished symbols of identity. 

If so, religion risks becoming more of a totem for Maltese identity, than an ethical guide for choosing right and wrong. Such an attitude had already emerged in the outrage provoked by the suggestion of removing religious symbols from public buildings. The teaching of Catholicism to the exclusion of other religions may serve as another rallying cry for a resurgent nationalism that is often xenophobic in nature.

On a more positive note, the survey shows a relative majority in favour of making the teaching of ethics in schools a compulsory subject. Most who favour this option also want religion to be taught as a separate subject. 

Editorially, this newspaper is likewise of the opinion that government should introduce ethics as a compulsory subject, while offering religion as an option. In this way both Catholics and Muslims (and anyone else) will learn the same values, while also being given the opportunity to learn on their own religion if they want to do so... provided that this teaching is provided by officially approved educators, and conforms to the national curriculum.

Whether compulsory or as a complementary subject to religion, the teaching of ethics provides an opportunity to create a common ethical ground for an increasingly pluralistic society: where people can learn about choosing between right and wrong on the basis of a perspective based on universal values. 

Such a perspective can effectively counter the politics of exclusion and intolerance, and promote a healthy dialogue between people of different religious views.