Effective Interfaith Education for Social Cohesion

By: Katherine Marshall

May 25, 2021

There is no global consensus about whether and how to integrate interfaith approaches in education programs, including core curricula and extracurricular activities. Indeed, the topic is contested in various settings, especially where religious institutions are viewed with some suspicion. Thus it is not surprising that systematic treatment of interfaith topics in national curricula range from nil (no effort whatsoever) to curricula and foundational education values permeated throughout by the teachings of a specific religious tradition. Examples of excellence are rare, though creative efforts in a number of settings offer insight and promise.

Basic starting questions here are why, whether, and how an integrated approach building on religious histories and underlying values might enrich education overall. Can they, for example, enhance development and peace-building strategies?

Why: The most fundamental reason to focus on interfaith approaches is to help societies to bridge social divides that may be aggravated or even caused by religious differences. Interfaith knowledge can avert the social tensions that can lead to conflict and violence as well as political divides that detract from efforts to develop flourishing societies. The knowledge and skillsets that interfaith education aims to develop can prepare young people to contend with a fast-changing, diverse, and interconnected world, in their own communities and transnationally.

Whether: It is increasingly understood that while religious institutions and beliefs play declining roles in some societies, in most world regions they have central social roles, deeply involved in economics, politics, and culture. With plural societies increasingly the norm, citizens need to learn to live together with different communities. Effective and well-integrated interfaith curricula can provide meaningful knowledge about different communities and their beliefs and avert any appearance of seeking conversion or something approaching indoctrination.

And How: Participation by educators and communities in designing curricula and pedagogy can enrich programs and ensure that they are appropriate to the context, including underlying tensions, patterns of discrimination, and historical memories reflected in different narratives.

Effective interfaith teaching can contribute to the overall quality of educational programs, particularly advancing goals for social cohesion and common understandings of civic values well-rooted in local history and culture. The ideal is to foster and deepen the lasting formation of civic values and knowledge and relationships that can sustain lifelong learning and communication across social differences.

Three broader goals (3 C’s) can be integrated in reflections and design. Interfaith education can help students to reflect on their ethical compass and core values as students and citizens, linking personal moral teachings with the society’s broader shared values. Ethics education can also build on and enhance curiosity and openness to learning about other ways of approaching problems and life markers. And compassion for others, the counter to indifference and hostility, is an ideal outcome of working in systematic ways to know about and to know others.

Many governments and educators need convincing that interfaith learning and more values-based education should be a priority objective. They also need evidence as to how this can be a practical, mainstream approach, not an optional add-on. This demands both political will and solid evidence. The COVID-19 crisis should bolster both, offering vivid examples that inequalities and mutual distrust are destructive forces, while cohesive societies work far better. As debates continue about how to “build back fairer”, documenting successful practices and highlighting what it takes to strengthen social cohesion should underscore why integrating meaningful approaches to core civic values and cross-community knowledge and understanding are vital parts of the education venture.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published by Arigatou International on April 20, 2021.   

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