By George Koumoullis
ONE area in which Cyprus and Greece differ significantly is over the much-talked about issue of the introduction – or not – of religious studies in schools in place of religious instruction.
Religious studies deal with the study of religion from a secular standpoint. The teaching of the subject allows students to understand religion from a neutral position, not as their faith but from a historical, sociological or anthropological perspective. Religious instruction in contrast is the doctrinaire lesson, dogmatic teaching or propaganda of Greek Orthodoxy.
That religious instruction constitutes an anachronism is understood not only by intellectuals in Greece but also by open-minded high clergy and many theologians. In a recent interview in the Athens newspaper To Vima, the author Nicos Demou described religious instruction lessons as a “heavy indoctrination which more than likely turns children against the Church rather than for it”, noting that it “is the worst possible for Greek Orthodoxy”.
Greece’s Education Minister Nikos Filis argues that reform of religious instruction, which has a confessionary character, was necessary so that it becomes a lesson pursuing the knowledge of religions, with particular emphasis on the role played by Orthodoxy in Greek traditions and culture.
As a former teacher, I would add that religious instruction is a blow to students’ critical thinking. When a student asks his theologian-teacher about something in the scriptures (despite fearing he would be labelled a heretic) which to the student seems morally unacceptable or in conflict with science and the teacher responds by quoting the Christian saying “have faith and do not doubt”, how can the youngster develop his critical faculties?
As a consequence, an environment is created which breeds uncritical students with schizoid personalities and hypocritical behaviour. As the German philosopher Nietzsche said, “faith means not wanting to find out what is truth.”
In Cyprus not only are there no voices supporting the introduction of religious studies in schools but, on the contrary, the reformers are accused of being in cahoots “with the enemies who are eyeing the extinction of Hellenism”, as one female theologian wrote in Politis recently. The respected theologian never revealed to us who these mysterious enemies of Hellenism were so we could protect ourselves from their viciousness.
More pertinently, the minister of education in Cyprus is appointed (behind-the-scenes) by the Archbishop who of course would never approve of such an iconoclastic development. Therefore, any prospects for introducing religious studies would need the minister to cease being the Archbishop’s overlord in education, the chances of which, for now, are non-existent. We do not need a constitutional expert to document that the cultivation of faith in the ‘genuine’ elements of Orthodoxy clashes with the constitutionally protected religious tolerance as well as with the obvious principle of nurturing free thinking.
This month the two leaders Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci will announce the members of the technical committee for education. As the Education Minister Costas Kadis said, “the co-operation that could be achieved through the operation of the committee could bring to the fore broader values and principles that we all consider would be useful to distinguish the young and in general every citizen… values such as acceptance of diversity, respect of opposing views, the cultivation of the democratic ethos and opposition to the rhetoric of hatred…..”
I would like to congratulate the minister for his commendable position. Unfortunately, though, there is a great gap between words and deeds. Both Islam and Orthodoxy taught in Cypriot schools are religions that are in general intolerant and racist as they claim to possess the one and only truth, while those who do not embrace them are considered heretics, heathens and therefore rejects.
It is quite obvious that the lesson of religion, as it is taught in both the free and the occupied areas cultivates the exact opposite objective from the one sought, namely, mocking diversity, showing contempt for the opposing view and making intolerance acceptable. As long as this kind of teaching continues, any efforts at rapprochement will be seriously undermined.
The pitiful conclusion is that someone needs to be a moron to believe that in Cyprus the teaching of religion will be upgraded to a modern, open, non-doctrinaire, non-confessionary lesson. Apart from the veto of the Archbishop there would also be strong opposition from theologians who would have to be replaced by sociologists or other social scientists when religious studies is introduced.
From one perspective I can understand theologians, because for them it is a matter of survival. The possible backing of such a suggestion by them would be as masochistic and destructive as ambelopoulia rhythmically chanting “Long live the people of Paralimni.”
This is why the debate needs to be postponed until “conditions are ripe”, possibly until 2115 or, if we believe the optimists, until 2065.
George Koumoullis is an economist and social scientist