In defense of religious studies for students in Tanzania

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What you need to know:

  • In nation after nation, religious rights are being rolled back in place of secular and atheistic ideals.

The Tanzanian government, through the Ministry of Regional Administration and Local Government (TAMISEMI), has added 8 new combinations for religious studies for A-level secondary school students.

This follows the introduction of 49 new subject combinations, bringing the total to 65.

The decision has ignited controversy as people question its rationale. Critics view it as prioritising religious beliefs over science and technology, jeopardising national development.

This debate hinges on two main concerns: the role of a secular government in religious education and the relevance of religious studies in a world driven by science and technology.

Before we dive into those arguments, let’s acknowledge that our critics are in good company, for sentiments against religion are on the rise around the world.

In nation after nation, religious rights are being rolled back in place of secular and atheistic ideals. Evolutionism, Marxism, humanism, modern psychology, etc., which are primarily atheistic in thinking, continue to drive a march towards a faith-less world.

Karl Marx, to whom the words ‘if there is God in heaven I will go there and dethrone him’ are attributed, would have been proud.

Many people oppose religion because they believe that it is antithetical to science.

They consider science as an ingenious tool for understanding our universe, and indeed it is, so, why advance any opposing approach? Unfortunately, this is the false equivalency fallacy: being dissimilar to science doesn’t make something unscientific. This is a grave error in categorisation.

To appreciate religion, one needs to appreciate the nature of reality. There are profound questions that science cannot answer. When Richard Dawkins famously suggested the universe created itself from nothing, the audience's laughter highlighted the absurdity of such an explanation.

Religion provides alternative narratives to existential questions such as where we are coming from, what are we doing here, what is right and wrong, and why there is suffering in the world.

In answering these questions, religion doesn’t have to be unscientific – indeed, some of us argue that when it is patently unscientific, that is the very definition of a false religion.

Throughout history, religion has played a crucial role in civilising the world. Samuel Huntington, the author of The Clash of Civilizations, argues that all major civilisations arose through the presence of a dominant religion.

Indeed, Huntington went as far as to argue that the absence of such religions and subsequent civilisations in sub-Saharan Africa underscores the undeniable link between religion and cultural development. Make that of what you will.

It is important to understand that religions are neither inherently good nor bad. The goodness or the badness of a religion is determined by the principles that that religion propounds.

Many people stumble here because they insist on lumping all religions in one basket – they are either all good or all bad.

That’s rather simplistic and religious studies would equip students to navigate such complexities.

Going back to the Tanzanian issue, we need to understand that it is almost impossible to understand how different people view their world apart from religion.

Whether it is Afghanistan, where a jihadist group enforces one religion with all zeal, North Korea where a nationalist government suppresses religion with an equal zeal, or Palestine-Israel where two ethno-religious perspectives clash, it is extremely difficult to understand our environment apart from religion.

Many of us use our faiths as lenses through which we see the world without knowing. This is why studying religion matters.

Some hold the notion that studying religion is all about memorising Biblical or Quranic verses.

That is a poor conceptualization of what the study of religion entails. I had the pleasure of spending time in a bible school in my former life where I learnt that religious studies delve into history, philosophy, and the cultural tapestry woven by different faiths.

Majoring in Physics and Mathematics wouldn’t have exposed me to the ideas of men such as Nietchze, Kierkegaard, Huxley, Freud, and many others.

Studying these diverse perspectives broadens one's understanding of the world and fosters critical thinking.

Finally, why religion in the world of science and technology? This question has already been answered – religion doesn’t imply entertaining unscientific views.

Many men of science were quite religious and they didn’t see no contradiction between their pursuit of science and adherence to their faiths. Many still hold to that position too.

South Korea, a global leader in technology, witnessed a surge in Christianity alongside its economic rise. By 2005, 40 percent of South Koreans were Christians, up from 1 percent in 1900. This demonstrates that scientific advancement and religious faith can coexist harmoniously.

Throughout history, from ancient empires to modern nations, religion has fostered a sense of community and purpose, channelling collective ambitions towards great achievements. Many nations have made huge progress when they were religious than not.

Dismissing religion as irrelevant in a tech-driven world highlights the need for the very thing that critics are advocating for, religious studies.

We may not know what has motivated the government in its decision, but let’s be clear: it is unwise to underestimate the power and importance of religion.