Talking with your children about ... Other faiths

When Scripture Union undertook research into children and faith, as part of the development of Guardians of Ancora, we heard from many parents, carers and group leaders who struggled to know what to say and how to talk with children about big issues.

These ‘Talking with your children about…’ features are part of our response to this expressed need. We hope you find the ideas and suggestions here help both you and your family.

Issues to think about

Britain today is changing. Our cities are very mixed, racially, culturally and religiously. The majority live side by side peacefully and bring a richness of language, culture and difference that would be lost if we were all the same, and one day, as Revelation 7:9 promises, there will be a ‘multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb … and crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb”.’

But today, this multitude does not all worship the Lamb, and across Britain we find a variety of different faith groups. The major faith groups apart from Christians are: Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and Buddhist. Although some have recently moved to Britain to live, many were born here and/or are children of parents born in Britain and are therefore British and Muslim or British and Hindu. It is not easy to explain what an individual person means when they call themselves a Christian, a Hindu or a Muslim, and research has shown that meanings vary for different groups and even for individuals in those groups.

Parents’ questions

Q   What are the requirements of the school national curriculum in regard to the teaching of other faiths?

A   Religious education has acknowledged that there are now many different religions present in the UK, though there is recognition that the main religious traditions of Britain are Christian. Most children attending state school now learn about these other faith traditions as well as about Christianity. Unlike other subjects the RE syllabus is written by a local body called SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education). This body is made up of representatives from education, the local authority and the local faith communities.

National guidelines have been provided to help these local bodies put together a syllabus that reflects both the national and local picture. Even if you live in an area that has no or few members of other faith communities, your children may learn about these religions because nationally we live in a multicultural and multi-faith society.

Your child will learn both about religion and from religion. They will study Christianity and at least one other religion in Key Stage 1 and Christianity and at least two other religions in Key Stages 2 and 3. As well as learning about these different religions, they will be helped to reflect on what they believe themselves and what others believe. They will be encouraged to ask questions and to discuss their own and others’ views.

Religious education in today’s schools is not religious instruction in one particular faith, but an opportunity to learn more about the different faith traditions present in the UK and how faith is important to those who belong to those communities.

Q   Should I let my child visit the gudwara, mosque, temple or synagogue?

A   One aspect of learning about another religion is to visit a place of worship. Although a recommended part of the national framework at all Key Stages, many Christians are uncertain about this and wonder whether they should allow their children to take part in such a visit.

Any decision made should be an informed decision taking into account the nature of the visit, how it fits into the curriculum and which activities will be undertaken on the visit. Parents and carers know their children and how they would cope with such an event, and it is often possible to accompany the class as a parent helper. Bible promises such as Matthew 28:20 ‘I am with you always’ and 1 John 4:4 ‘He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world’ may help in coming to a decision on this issue.

Q   What is meant by an ‘act of worship’, and what does the Education Act require?

A   All pupils attending a maintained school should take part in daily collective worship. Sometimes this is a whole school event and sometimes a class event undertaken in the pupils’ own classroom. The aim of collective worship is to provide the opportunity for pupils to worship God, to consider spiritual and moral issues and to explore their own beliefs.

Collective worship is required to be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’, which means that it should not be denominational but should reflect the broad traditions of Christian belief and accord a special status to Jesus Christ.

Parents and guardians of pupils have the right to withdraw their children from collective worship (and/or RE) and teachers also have the right not to attend collective worship or teach RE.

Schools that believe this requirement (to provide collective worship that is wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character) is inappropriate for some or all of its pupils may apply for a determination to lift it. Collective worship will continue to be held daily but its format would not be wholly or mainly Christian. This does not prevent some worship acts being Christian or Christian festivals being celebrated.

Parents and guardians who are unsure of or concerned about the format of their child’s collective worship sessions could enquire of the headteacher, who would be happy to explain the school’s position.

Q   What are the advantages and disadvantages of faith schools? Should we be thinking of sending our child to a Christian school?

A   The history of education in Britain shows that there has always been a strong connection between the church and school. Today there are over 5,000 Church of England schools in England alone, and these, together with the Roman Catholic, Methodist and independent Christian schools, are educating a large number of the nation’s children. In some areas schools are being set up by some of the other faith communities. In one London borough there are state-run Anglican, Catholic, Jewish and Islamic schools and a private Hindu school.

Some faith schools are set up to educate and nurture the children of the faith community, while others see this as just one aspect of their mission. Lord Runcie when he was Archbishop of Canterbury saw the role of the Church of England school as being threefold:

  • To nourish those of the faith.
  • To encourage those of other faiths.
  • To challenge those who have no faith.

Decisions on which school to choose are always difficult, and will depend greatly on the particular child and the particular schools available. Parents and guardians need to understand what they want from the school and then visit each school to ascertain if the school is able to meet the needs of their child.

Church schools are encouraged to be distinctively Christian, and you may want to ask yourself, ‘In what way is this school distinctively Christian?’ Community schools are also required to ensure that pupils develop spiritually, morally, socially and culturally, and you could seek to ascertain how these elements are met and use this understanding in your decision-making process.

Q   How can we teach our children to be tolerant and accepting of those from other faiths?

A   Schools, especially primary schools, play an important role in bringing children of different religions together. It is a setting which allows friendship between children of different backgrounds to develop, and many children benefit from learning about their classmates’ religious or cultural differences. It is often only in the school setting that they have the opportunity to mix across cultures and learn alongside someone who is different, either religiously or ethnically.

If you live in an area where there are few people of other faiths in the neighbourhood, it is much more difficult to develop an attitude of acceptance, because we all are generally suspicious of things we don’t know. As parents and guardians you will have to work much harder to develop this understanding.

Q  Racism and religious intolerance discrimination are closely connected. How can I help my child to see the difference and reject both?

A   There is not an easy answer to this question. Primarily we need to be good role models and show by our actions and speech that we do not countenance either racism or discrimination because of faith.

If a particular situation arises that you feel needs to be addressed, then spend some time with your child talking about what the Bible says about God’s relationship with the people he created:

  • God created humankind in his image: Genesis 1:27
  • God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son: John 3:16
  • All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God: Romans 3:23

and how he wants those who know him to respond to others. Ida Glaser’s book The Bible and Other Faiths – What Does the Lord Require of Us? (IVP) will help you think through this issue.

Don’t forget to highlight instances of racism and religious discrimination in the media and offer a different viewpoint so that your children are given the tools to discriminate.

Q   Can primary-aged children understand the uniqueness of one faith as opposed to another?

A   Research has highlighted a tendency for primary-aged children to confuse ethnicity and religion. This has led to the misunderstanding that only Asian people are Hindu or Muslim and that all white people are Christian. In turn this leads to confusion about practice and comments such as ‘I am not allowed to eat Christian sweets’ (referring to sweets containing gelatine) or ‘We make tea differently to Christians’ (masala tea – made with spices).

Children can be aware that what they do in their faith community is different in practice to other faith communities, but this is not generally linked to belief and doctrine. One exception is the nature and person of Jesus: Many Muslim children are aware that they do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that this is a Christian belief.

Practical advice

  1. In conversation it is always best not to assume anything, but seek to understand by asking questions.
  2. Build relationships with the families of the children your child is meeting in school, and when questions arise about the belief and practice of other faith groups don’t hesitate to seek clarification from your new friends.
  3. Develop your own understanding of different religions by taking an interest in what your child is learning at school. Use this new knowledge to help discuss as a family what you as Christians believe.

What we can do as a family

  • The Bible has much to say about how the people of God should live alongside those who are ‘strangers’, ‘foreigners’ or ‘sojourners’. Why not look up these words in a concordance and talk with your family about how they help us live lives as God’s people in Britain today.
  • Does your school have refugee or asylum-seeking families? Why not suggest a welcome evening or getting-to-know (your area) evening and share hospitality?

Adapted from Scripture Union Family Ministry Web pages.