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Education as a Security Issue: The Formation of Religious Identities

04/06/2014 14:15 BST | Updated 03/08/2014 10:59 BST

The struggle against religious extremism, acutely in secular societies, presupposes coming to terms with powerful religious identities. Theocracies feature as pariahs in political science. Even putting religious identity into a national census can create a huge bone of contention. The word "identity" sometimes has these bad resonances, sometimes good. It can encompass a big idea: identity crisis, identity politics, sexual identity. Or it can describe a little one, that stock in trade of the movies as the carriage door is opened by a grim border guard with the curt command: "identity papers". The audience knows from experience that a dialogue about the nature of modern nationalism is not about to take place.

There - and they drop easily into the first paragraph - are three big identities that appear on the contents page of contemporary society: national, sexual and religious. It is plausible to suggest that the debate about nationalism, what might be entailed in being Scottish, Bosnian, Israeli, Crimean, Nigerian, Syrian is a reactive bi-product of globalisation. The simple demands of justice for people with an LGBT identity can cross religious and national boundaries. But it now comes a close second for passionate and divisive debate in religious institutions and states.

And yet, is the word "identity" asked to carry too much diverse freight. Many religious leaders would say, if pushed, that religion is about everything - rather than something. At least, I have heard Christian theologians claim that theology is about everything - while sexuality is about something. Where divine law is a core dimension, such as in Orthodox Judaism and Islam, religion can cover everyday life in great detail with specific claims to right living. What exactly nationalism is about is primarily a political question: notably how much pluralism you can afford and how much shared values and institutions you need. Much modern geopolitics is about which identity legitimately trumps the other and who calls trumps in the international arena, and where power and justice lies in all this. The differences between the three big identities make you wonder if one word is adequate to indicate all of them without adding to the problem.

The arena where the idea of identity may be a useful concept, and not a handful of political weather balloons, is in human development. Teenagers ask the "who am I" question as their sexuality emerges, and they become progressively clear that they don't want to be clones of their parents. Prescriptive restraints go against the grain and this is rightly considered the trickiest time for spiritual development. But the dominant economic theory of the day - that which trumps all - at best limits governance to the management of small incremental changes. In a world scarred by inequality, where are human inclinations towards social cohesion and the moral values of justice and reconciliation going to find a home in a national project and a national identity?

The Holy Grail of good citizenship and the life well lived is, of course, people at ease with multiple identities. Liberal democracies offer a range of choices. You can be gay, lesbian, transgender, plain dull old male or female heterosexual, working class (getting harder for the "hard working" majority), a Londoner, Welsh, a European, Manchester United supporter (added value of being a global brand), member of a pigeon fanciers' association (indisputable outreach), opera lover, democrat, actress, academic, acrobat. Then there is political party membership. Most selections from this cursory checklist create no impediment to a political identity. Though combining them with some religious affiliations can be problematic.

Wanting to claim more than three out of the above cluster of identities, is one prescription for political and personal well-being. For the great developmentalist, Amartya Sen, multiple identities are the touchstone of democracy and good citizenship. The ability to hold different identities together, when they involve ambiguities and at times clashes, I would say, is the task of good education for citizenship.

"Growing up" is all about what the religious psychologists call achieving this integrative complexity. And in some ways this applies to nation-states. It is no luxury. Integrating the diversity of identity internally permits the tolerance of an external diversity of identities, essential for a harmonious, democratic society.

One key characteristic of extremists - and there are so few generalisations that can be accurately made - is that they appear not to be able to handle the demands of integrative complexity. When faced with pluralism, diversity and uncomfortable ambiguities, they resort to a variety of defensive reactions: withdrawal, rejection, "othering", and, by mutation, aggression, attack and violence. For globalisation leaves no walled gardens of the soul, no enclaves of pristine tradition and purity, nowhere to hole-up with beliefs unchallenged. We are seeing the impact of these walls coming down on religious identity, but not exclusively on religious identity.

In a culturally globalised epoch, if this profound psycho-social dimension of religious development in education is ignored, we will be in trouble. Or to put it another way, education has become a security issue. This is not a call to instrumentalise religion in pursuit of some narrow definition of national security. Nor is it a compelling argument against faith schools even though they separate children of different faiths during their youth.

This is simply because faith schools are motivated to prioritise the religious formation of their students, the very terrain on which extremism can flourish - yet can also be challenged. Good religious education teachers in the specific ethos and social milieu of their particular faith are the potential allies of pluralism because they are best able to make their students at ease with diversity. Good faith schools can combat ever more sophisticated websites with their glamorous allure of violence for youth as inauthentic and perverse versions of their faith. Secular schools, by definition, to some degree, lack the authority to undertake the sort of thorough insider demolition of violent religious narratives that carry weight.

But whether in faith or secular schools, there needs to be the practice and ethos of a pedagogy for pluralism. This demands not simply offering a superficial understanding of the beliefs of different faiths, but a genuine exposure to the lives of young people of different faiths, listening and learning. This will contribute to ending a growing intolerance, a deepening of students' own faith and the self-confidence needed to tackle the complexities of integrating their different identities as boys, girls, citizens of different countries, and young people of faith. Above all, such an education must offer an attractive vision more inspirational than heroic narratives of hatred and violence.