Religious Education in Indonesia: An empirical study of religious education models in Islamic, Christian and Hindu affiliated schools

Greg Vanderbilt | CRCS | Book Review

G:/reihe/umschlag/90713-4.dviIn 2014, CRCS’s Annual Report on Religious Life in Indonesia addressed the issue of “the politics of religious education” in the effects of religious education policies and implementation under the most recent curricular reform (2013) on the “public space of the school.” (Report available in Bahasa Indonesia and in English) Since 1966, every Indonesian attending school has been entitled to and required to attend classes on the religion listed on his/her family’s identity documents, which means one of the religions recognized by the Indonesian government.  This instruction is assumed to be necessary for creating morally reliable citizens of Indonesia who revere the first principle of Pancasila, but the report found many difficulties, including related to the quality and content of the classes for minorities within as well as outside the six official religions as well as the increasingly active but often unmonitored role of outside “spirituality” organizations. Because that report was focused on the “public space of the [public] school,” it only implied that the answers to its questions and the factors that shape them might be different in Indonesia’s religiously-affiliated schools, but one of its authors, Mohamad Yusuf, CRCS 2003 batch and now a lecturer in the Faculty of Cultural Studies (FIB UGM), was in the process of finishing his dissertation on the subject.  He successfully defended “Religious Education in Indonesia: an empirical study of religious education models in Islamic, Christian and Hindu affiliated schools” at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, on February 16 of this year.  

Yusuf has been careful to avoid setting up binaries in his research. His fieldwork was carried out in fifteen religiously-affiliated high schools (SMA) in three regions—one Muslim majority (West Java), one Christian majority (North Sulawesi) and one Hindu majority (Bali)—five schools per region, three from the majority and two from the minorities, but paying attention to diversity within each as well, so that, for example, he includes Adventist and Gandhi schools.  His analysis is structured at three levels: the macro, or law and State policy, a textual study similar to CRCS’s;  the meso-, or school-level policy and implementation, based on interviews with school officials; and the micro-, or student preference, based on extensive quantitative analysis of a survey of 799 high school seniors from the fifteen schools. At the heart of his argument are three models of religious education, distinguished based on pedagogy (in their goals, methods, and cognitive, affective, and attitudinal aspects), normative bases, and social contexts. The mono-religious model focusses students’ attention on deepening their understanding of and identities within their “own” religion, often to the detriment of their awareness of other faiths in a plural, but maybe not pluralist, society. The normative basis of the second model, the multi-religious model, is religious relativism and it aims primarily to provide information about other traditions.  Yusuf’s sympathies clearly lie with the third model, the inter-religious model, the goal of which is “to construct religious identity in line with one’s own religion, in dialogue with other religious traditions” while learning both critical analysis of all religions and “effective communication” across traditions (p. 15).

Yusuf’s analysis of the macro- and meso- levels of religious education looks at how policies get made and implemented. He offers the important insight that the State’s preference for the mono-religious model is based on an understanding of rights—including this supposed right to religious education in one’s own religion—as not the rights of individuals but rather the rights of communities to transmit normative values and identities. Even so, there are, for example, many Muslim students attending Protestant and Catholic schools who receive only Christian religious education. As this situation and Yusuf’s meso-level suggest, religiously affiliated schools do not answer only to the State: they find themselves between the State and the religious communities which often are their owners and are subjected to the exercise of three forms of power from each: normative (as in the development of curriculum and the certification of teachers), coercive (as in the sending of inspectors and administrators), and utilitarian (as sources of funds and other material support).  Within these factors, Yusuf found almost no major differences between Muslim, Christian, and Hindu schools, whether in the majority or not: all offer a mono-religious model of religious education, though some also indicate the importance of respecting those who are different. One Catholic high school in West Java did demonstrate the inter-religious model.  

The difference in experience of contact, conflict, and “constrict” (withdrawal/avoidance) in relation to those of other religions leads Yusuf to ask a different kind of question at the micro-level: what do students want? Such a question presupposes what frameworks of imagination students have to make such choices and Yusuf makes a strong effort to pull out important factors, including socio-economic status and relative group size as well as attitudes to one’s own religion, such as whether one considers its sacred texts divinely inspired, and others, such as attitudes towards pluralism as a concept or interreligious marriages. Through multiple regression analysis, Yusuf is able to falsify many simplistic hypotheses and to argue instead that what indicates preferences for mono-, multi-, or inter- religious models, remembering, of course, that almost all students have only experienced mono-religious education environments, is the affective dimension, more than the other dimensions including the cognitive, through which student identities are formed, whether mono-, multi-, or inter-faceted. This reminds us that schools are where identities and commitments are formed and educators at all levels have a significant responsibility to imagine the society they are helping to shape. As instructive as these findings are, one line of future research could inquire into the hopes of the students’ parents, who have lived in the society over some decades as adult citizens and who have made the financial and identity commitment to send their children to religiously-affiliated schools, in relation to these models of religious (and moral) education. Moreover, it would be interesting to research how students’ attitudes are formed over time, either by tracing some groups from diverse samples through school into adulthood or to repeat Yusuf’s study in a few years.*

In our “Teaching Diversity” program, CRCS students have made small experiments at re-imagining religious education in public schools along the lines of what Yusuf calls the “inter-religious” model, joining together to discuss differences, human rights, and individual expression. line with Yusuf’s conclusion that, in general, youth are craving the inter-religious model, we found the students who chose to panI rticipate eager for the chance to express themselves and share with others, and in so doing learn about empathy for and understanding of others and themselves.  

*This chapter has been published separately, with Yusuf’s mentor Carl Sterkens as co-author, as “Preferences for Religious Education and Inter-Group Attitudes among Indonesian Students,” Journal of Empirical Theology 28 (2015): 49-89.  Available at link.

Greg Vanderbilt, The writer is Guest Lecture at CRCS since 2014. He teachs Religion and Globalization, Advanced Study of Christianity, and Advanced Study of Buddhism.



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