Approach to the question

To know well one's own culture and one's own religion is important; so also is knowing something about the culture and religion of those one lives with.

We can presume an interest in learning one's own culture and religion, provided the programme is interesting and well taught. We cannot presume the same interest in learning about another culture or religion.

If students are offered what they already know they will be bored. If they are subjected to what is unpalatable, they will react negatively. To be palatable, any teaching about religious or ethnic rights must be founded on truth and be presented so as to be recognized as such, both from the content and from the character of the teacher.

I will try to present a sociological survey of attitudes towards other cultures and religions, ranging from one extreme to another, then an evaluation of attitudes from philosophical point of view. These are background issues that have effect on the whole of education. As for concrete options, I do not attempt to detail any syllabus for primary, secondary and/or tertiary institutions. The main practical question I take up is the question of schools dedicated to a particular religious tradition.

Attitudes that one meets

1. A common attitude since the time of the Enlightenment is to ignore religious and ethnic differences, giving them no public expression and allowing only secular humanistic manifestations of culture and religion. Such was the programme of the état laïque of the several French republics. It is also the dominant U.S. view, whose proponents have erected a "high wall of separation of Church and State" and utilize the public school system and the public media to level differences and create masses of homo Americanus in the secular humanist mould. (1) According to this programme, all new immigrants must give up their former languages and cultures, since these would be a barrier to assimilation.

2. Yet religion sometimes successfully rears its bold head in the contemporary world. Some religions have such social weight that media bashing of these religions or their positions is taboo; that is where the religions have merged with ethnic or cultural traditions, for instance Judaism and, in the past, many Christian denominations. (2) The strongest example is a resurgent Islamic world where the great and only dividing line among peoples is religion. Religions are less protected when they have become disassociated with ethnic identities, as many Christian denominations today.

3. As for ethnicity, most of the post-cold-war conflicts have been between ethnic groups; think especially of Bosnia and Rwanda. In its Nazi extreme, ethnic difference, based on Aryan supremacy, was the great and only dividing line. In the U.S. the ethnic battle has been for the under-dog, and ethnic quota systems have had some success.

4. Another approach is pragmatically to recognize and respect religious and ethnic differences, while insisting on common citizenship and equal rights of all. This is most evident in Britain, in spite of its Northern Ireland problem. Nigerian law tends to follow the British model, although discrimination in practice is rampant.

The philosophy behind these attitudes

1. To abstract from religious and ethnic differences may seem the only solution for a pluralist society. Any recognition of religion or ethnicity would seem to militate against the unity of the citizenry, and could not be immune from favouritism, discrimination and injustice. So some workable common denominator must be sought or created to bond the citizens together in an equitable and peaceful commonwealth. A secular humanism which claims not to be a religion has a good chance to take over as an official unifying ideology in such a society.

What is the profile of this secular humanism? First of all, it eschews religion as a reference point for social principles because in a pluralist society the several religious traditions are not in agreement with one another. Even if there is some unanimity or convergence of thought among these different religious traditions, a secular humanist would consider it obscurantist to subject himself to any principles which claim to be revealed and which, in fact, may be mere survivals of primitive and perhaps barbaric cultural traditions.

Secondly, a secular humanist eschews principles deriving from any philosophical system which purports to have discovered a "natural law" or equivalent norms which act as a prop to religious consensus in guiding society.

The secular humanist, therefore, confines himself to an ad hoc pragmatism divorced from any religious or philosophical principles; at most he will quote phrases from religious or philosophical texts that happen to agree with his already chosen pragmatic position. For example, such persons gladly quote Thomas Aquinas and the ancient Greeks who held that a fetus receives a human soul only a few months after conception, even though they otherwise attack the same philosophers for basing their positions on outdated science.

2 . In reaction, many proponents of religious and ethnic rights argue that secular humanism impoverishes both society as a whole and threatens the religious and ethnic communities concerned. In the U.S., for example, they complain that on the general public level religious or common-sense consensus is denied expression, and on the local or private level religious tradition is excluded from education and cultural manifestation. Only the secular side of Christmas is tolerated outside the church and home. Or if the Pope comes on a visit, public TV offers people only clips of his talks, but subjects them to hours of "analysis" by commentators who try to "balance" his message. Coverage may be more generous if there is less doctrine and more folk-lore, such as a St. Patrick's parade or an American Indian ritual.

Secular humanists would rejoice if they could reduce religion to cultural sounds and sights that bystanders could benignly watch and smile at, as they do with Indian rituals. The discomfiting element is religion's truth claims, which defy indifferentism. The truth claims of the Catholic Church have always left others uncomfortable, but the case of Islam is even more disturbing, because it claims to have not merely revealed principles, but a whole blue-print for organizing society, complete to the last detail. Islamic sharî`a leaves no room for philosophical input or natural law, such as might form a common platform with non-Muslims; it merely provides a status of toleration for other religious communities within an Islamic confessional framework. (3)

3. On the ethnic side of the question, there are many generalizations about the virtues and vices of different ethnic groups. However much a person tries to be his individual self, with his own chosen values and convictions, the stamp of his group culture cannot be entirely effaced. Although he would like to be taken on his own personal worth, people cannot help noting his cultural background.

Proponents of ethnic superiority claim that the prevalent cultural characteristics of certain peoples have rightfully entitled them to rule or to dominate sectors of society such as education and certain professions. Justice demands that the free competition of merit, and not quotas, should determine who rises to what level. This position is weakened by the fact of discriminatory cartel politics, which takes ethnicity and not merit as the norm for promotion.

There are those who hold that no ethnic group is superior to another, and all, with due preparation, can equally participate in any sector of social responsibility. Yet they still call for ethnic recognition, even on some kind of quota basis, on the grounds that each culture has its own richness, and due recognition of diverse ethnic culture makes for a beautiful mosaic in a pluralist society. Thus they call for the teaching and use of different languages and the preservation of different cultural heritages.

A special problem is that in Nigeria people living outside their home areas are regarded as "strangers" and not citizens of a minority group. In the Old Testament people were warned to "not infringe the rights of the foreigner or the orphan" (Dt 25:17); on the other hand it was said: "A foreigner you may exploit, but you msut remit whatever claim you have on your brother" (Dt 15:3). For Plato, "the stranger, inasmuch as he is without companions or kinsfolk, is the more to be pitied by men and gods; wherefore he that is most able to avenge succors them most readily, and the most able of all, in every case, is the strangers' daemon and god." (4)

4. The final position, which is to recognize and respect diversity, while safeguarding equal opportunity and rights for all, makes most sense just from a pragmatic standpoint, and over the past few centuries pure pragmatics dictated most edicts or constitutional provisions for tolerance in Europe and America. What needs to be considered is what sort of theoretical basis can support such a position and which principles can guide the resolution of particular problems.

A philosophical basis for tolerance and freedom of religion

The insufficiency of the individual for human development at all levels is the reason why people must come together in community; individuals both need and are obligated to society. Thus solidarity, expressing the relationship of parts to a whole, is the first principle of social organization.

Solidarity by itself might make one think that the individual is swallowed up by the whole and loses his autonomy. Thus solidarity must be complemented by the principle of subsidiarity, which expresses the relationship of the whole to the parts. Thus government must allow individuals and subsidiary organizations as much freedom and autonomy as possible, not arrogating to itself functions which can be performed efficiently at a lower level. Subsidiarity is the principle that guards against totalitarianism. What local government, Church or private initiative can do, the state or federal government should not take over. The disastrous state of government para-statals and education shows what happens when government enters areas which are outside its competence.

A third principle concerns justice between individuals, governing the relationship between one part and another in society. That is tolerance, which is an acceptance of others in so far as they are different, and that not in minor inconsequential matters, but in fundamental outlook, such as religious belief. It is a principle of "live and let live", of non-interference and abstention from coercion with regard to the beliefs of others. (5)

Tolerance, although based on love of the other person, falls short of religious freedom: Tolerance is something a more powerful party offers to a weaker party, and is the non-prosecution of an evil or a wrong. Religious freedom, on the other hand, is based on social equality of all the parties concerned; it says nothing about the correctness of religious belief, but merely assures the civil right of people to choose the religion they wish to follow.

The civil right of religious freedom does not mean that people are free before God to practice any religion they like. On the day of judgement, God will ask if we followed the true religion. If we did not, he will ask whether we made a serious effort to ascertain the truth. If we did not, we will be excluded from Paradise. That is the teaching of Islam (Q 2:217, 3:90-91,106, 3:140, 47:34 etc.) and of the Catholic Church. (6)

But the judgement of civil society is not the judgement of God. The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church, held from 1960 to 1964, declared that it is outside the competency of civil authority to make any determination about religious truth, since that is a matter between each person and his God, and civil authority is there only to assure the temporal security, order and smooth running of society. Besides, religion is not religion if it does not come from conviction; conviction must come from within and cannot be imposed from without. Even if it is clear that a person joins or leaves a religion because of an unworthy motive, such as money, the state has no right to intervene. (7)

Religious freedom includes the right to places of worship, religious education, and public witness to one's faith. It is limited only where religious practice becomes a nuisance, such as undue noise, blocking of traffic, or subjecting people to religious sermons or prayer against their will.

Ethnic considerations

The same reasons that exclude religious discrimination exclude ethnic discrimination within the society at large. Toleration and/or respect for other ethnic groups normally should be easier than religious toleration, because people can more easily rally to reason and ideals than to superficial differences. Ethnic tension becomes acute when it becomes a matter of sharing benefits equitably or when cultures are sharply different and clashing on many points. The bottom line is to recognize them as citizens entitled not merely to basic human rights but rights of citizens of the country.

Nonetheless, non-discrimination does not preclude associations catering for the interests of ethnic groups; these may be exclusive to the same extent membership in a religious organization confers certain rights that are only for members. (8)

Religion and ethnicity as an educational concern

Why should education be concerned with religion and ethnicity? For one thing, both are social forces and potential trouble points, and education should prepare citizens to handle the problems they meet in society.

Another reason is that education is not limited just to transmitting skills and scientific knowledge, but must study and critically examine the cultural heritage of the nation and of humanity, of which ethnicity and religion are essential parts.

A further reason is the expectation of members of particular ethnic and religious groups to know and appreciate their own heritage. People are often much more concerned with their religious heritage than their national heritage, because national heritage tends to be limited to literature and folklore, whereas religion, like economics, is concerned with day to day vital decisions and crises, and is future-oriented, giving plan and direction to people's lives.

Suggestions regarding syllabus and teacher formation

An easy answer to problem of treating religion and ethnicity in education is to add more courses on these subjects. Certainly some basic courses must be there; yet more courses often simply results in overloading and inadequate performance, so that the aim is not achieved. A better solution is to modify the content of existing courses, gradually inculcating needed material, so that the students appreciate adequately both their own religious and ethnic traditions and to a sufficient extent those of others.

A more basic level of attacking the problem is to try to influence the attitude of teachers. No matter what the courses, the teacher's informal communication is the most effective. Here there is a question of conscientizing teachers to certain basic norms; these must be based more on conviction than bowing to a new "political correctness".

The problem of schools dedicated to a particular religious tradition

Religious education is ever so crucial to the question of religious and ethnic tolerance. A common "moral education" does not suffice, and education in one's religious tradition is far more effective. Religious education must have some real "meat" or academic content, and not be simply moral exhortation or story telling.

Religious exercises in schools are not bad, provided they are not imposed, not merely on students of different religions, but also on students of the religion concerned. Very many students revolt against their own religion because of school regimentation.

Religious schools can mean several different things, which are not often clearly defined. The first type could be one founded by members of a particular religious persuasion for general education and formation in the religion of those who founded the school. Normally such a school would have only students of that religion, but others may be allowed, sometimes following the religious instruction and services of the school, sometimes exempted.

Another type is founded and run by a religious community, but is open to students of whatever religion. In such a situation it is hard to maintain the denominational character of the school. It normally should have to provide opportunities for education and worship in all the students' religious traditions. This does not always happen, because it has not been defined which type of religious school this school happens to be.

In any case, parents have the right to see to the religious education of their children. It is not possible to expect every school to provide the religious education of all the religions equally well; the result may be that all are taught poorly. Some schools will better specialize in one religious tradition and do it well.


1. The great proponent of this idea was John Dewey. See the collection of his writings by Joseph Ratner, Intelligence in the modem world, John Dewey's philosophy (New York: The Modern Library, 1939).

2. For a good discussion of "ethnic religion" see Matthew Fox, Religion U.S.A (Listening Press, 1971).

3. See my "Shari'a and Islamic revival in Nigeria," Journal of Religion in Africa, 26:4 (1996), 338-364.

4. Laws, V, 729E.

5. These three principles are developed by Walgrave, Person and society (Pittsburg: Duquesne U.P., 1965), chapter 7.

6. Vatican II: Dignitatis humanae (Declaration on religious liberty), Introduction.

7. Ibid., chapter 1.

8. A good summary of Catholic thought on ethnicity is the publication of the Pontifical Council Justice and Peace, The Church and racism, towards a more fraternal society, 3 November 1988 (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1989, 1997).