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Exploring Religious Pluralism in the Classroom: How to use religious education in schools to combat violent extremism

David Conway, May 2018

The prospect that blood may continue to be shed on the streets of Britain through further acts of religiously-motivated violence remains a major concern to the authorities, as does the enigma of how best to combat such acts and prevent its young people being drawn into committing them. The David Cameron administration decided that the most promising way to do so was teaching all schoolchildren so called ‘British values’, of which tolerance and respect for the rule of law would be typical examples. Yet such values are by no means peculiar to Britain and the British, and so presenting them in schools could very well be deeply alienating to those whose families have only recently settled here from countries of origin with very different cultures and lifestyles.

Combatting religiously-motivated violent extremism through what is taught in schools would stand a much better chance of success if it could draw on the religions of the young people whose immunization against radicalisation is being sought. Religious education still remains a compulsory school subject whose resources for combatting religiously motivated violent extremism have hardly begun to be tapped. There is hardly a better time than now for considering how it might be made to do so, given that the subject is currently under review by a special independent commission.

This essay proposes a way in which in which the teaching of religious education could be harnessed to combat religiously motivated acts of violent extremism in a much more inclusive way than by insisting on presenting the appropriate tolerant and moderate values we would like all our young people to acquire through their schooling as somehow the special preserve of Britain and the British. The proposed way is by religious education being made to consider and discuss the play Nathan the Wise, written by the eighteenth century German playwright and man of letters, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, especially that section of it given over to a presentation of the so-called ‘fable of the three rings’.

Those concerned today about the radicalisation of young British-born Muslims often speak of the need to develop an appropriate counter-narrative that will help to immunise them from the possible appeal of Jihadism and Salafism. Yet however admirable such an aspiration might be, any prospect of success for the development of such a counter-narrative is immediately threatened if it is constrained to be framed, as the British government has lately demanded it be, as requiring Muslims to recognise the need to embrace British values.  As many have noted, the requisite values in question are universal, and have long been espoused in moderate and mainstream version by all three Abrahamic faiths. Lessing recognised this fact early on, as have many others. But, much more than that, key thinkers in all three Abrahamic faiths have long recognised a theistic core at the heart of Plato and Aristotle and have sought to interpret their own religions in the light of it. Learning about these several ways that these religions have received such interpretations within their own faith traditions would foster much better inter-cultural understanding.  Lessing’s parable of the three rings was intended to represent the three faiths in a way that enables their adherents to continue to accept all its tenets, without compromising its own form of particularism, while fully recognising the equal rationality and reasonableness of adherents of the other two faiths doing precisely the same.

Set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, when the city was under the control of the Sultan Saladin during a brief and fragile truce that he had negotiated with Richard the Lionheart, and therefore around 1191 CE, Lessing’s play has four principal characters. Each is drawn from one of the three Abrahamic faiths, plus one deist who espouses only the tenets and precepts of the natural religion supposedly accessible to all through natural reason without need of any special revelation. The play ends with these four principal characters all joining together in an embrace of mutual amity and friendship, all potential friction arising from their different faiths having seemingly been totally transcended.

David Conway considers what possible lessons Lessing may have wished his audiences draw from the play as to how the adherents of the different Abrahamic faiths might be able to achieve lasting accord and how worthy of acceptance any such intended lessons might be today.

About the Author

David Conway is a Visiting Professorial Research Fellow at Civitas. His previous career included having been Head of Middlesex University’s School of Philosophy and Religious Studies at which he taught for over thirty years and was appointed a Professor of Philosophy. His publications include The Rediscovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Quest of ‘Sophia’ (Macmillan, 2000); Disunited Kingdom (Civitas, 2009), which contains a defence of faith schools, and Liberal Education and the National Curriculum (Civitas, 2010) which contains a defence of the inclusion of religious education as a compulsory school subject.


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