The common belief that since religion is based on textual sources, rational sciences are therefore unnecessary, clearly running counter to the nature of the Islamic religion.
ANNIE Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, recently criticised an address by City Clerk in New Haven, Connecticut, for prayer to be put back into schools as a way to fight crime.
Condemning the address as offensive, ignorant and unconstitutional, the FFRF president argued that secular nations have lower murder rate than religious ones.
In America, where secular humanism is fairly strong, cases of this sort which reflect a stark conflict between secularism and religion is not something unusual.
There were also many court cases where parents contended against school boards that the strict teaching of the theory of evolution in the respective schools prohibited their children’s free exercise of religion.
This conflict may well be understood considering the fact that in a developed country such as the United States, institutions that represent both conflicting parties – the Christian Church on the one hand, and the secular scientific and academic institutions such as universities and schools on the other – have a long established history.
In Malaysia, such a conflict is not that critical due to the protection given by the Constitution to religions, either Islam, as the religion of the Constitution, or other religions whose practices are guaranteed by the Constitution.
In addition, the Government gives full support for the development of religious education.
Nevertheless, as far as content is concerned, the educational system in Malaysia remains generally dualistic in nature, between the religious and secular.
While national schools emphasise the importance of science and technical disciplines, religious schools – especially the traditional ones,pondok and sekolah agama rakyat – focus more on drilling students on religious subjects.
Although steps have been taken to harmonise the two systems, the gap is still wide.
With the Government accelerating towards achieving developed nation status, where emphasis is on the advancement of scientific and technological achievements, religious schools seem to move in a different direction.
This leaves us with a pertinent question: Can religious education survive in the secular world?
To analyse this question, at least two important basic points should be considered.
First, must religious education necessarily go against scientific development and rational advancement?
In the case of Islamic education, this is certainly not true due to the fact that the great civilisation Islam established was strongly characterised by rational and scientific advancement despite its religious framework.
On top of that faith in Islam does not only mean dogmatic creed which is divested from any rational foundation.
Proper faith in Islam must have an epistemological basis and not simply based on blind following.
The Quran reminds Muslims to contemplate and reason out whatever they observe and do.
In many theological works of Muslims, there are also clear acknowledgement of senses and reason as two of the important channels through which knowledge can be acquired by human beings.
Having established this, we can safely conclude that, in principle, crucial conflict should not exist between religion and scientific discoveries as far as Islam is concerned.
The second point worth contemplating is the more practical aspect, that is, the dynamism of religious schools.
Analysis has shown that the low achievement of religious schools is due to their own weaknesses in equipping their students with rational sciences.
The common belief is that since religion is based on textual sources, rational sciences are therefore unnecessary.
This clearly runs counter to the nature of the Islamic religion as mentioned earlier.
Thus, it is quite common to find that students graduating from religious schools are relatively handicapped in explicating religion in line with contemporary challenges.
This also explains why religious schools, despite their success in inculcating some understanding and values of certain dimensions in religion to the students, are still lagging behind in some other aspects.
Imperatively, appropriate steps must be taken in order to elevate the position of religious schools to a more advanced level.
Two main areas are really crucial – the curriculum and teacher training.
For the curriculum, students must obviously be equipped with the proper and necessary scientific tools that will enhance their rational capacity such as logic and mathematics.
The content of doctrinal sciences such as theology and principles of jurisprudence and tafsir should also be furnished with strong rational arguments.
This is not something new, looking at the fact that such practices were already in place in the Islamic educational tradition in the past.
As far as training is concerned, teachers must be prepared with strong intellectual tools.
The pedagogical method used by religious teachers in class must not only answer the question what religion is, but also why religion is important and how it can solve contemporary problems.
The why and how aspects certainly force teachers to think deeply and find harmony between their explanation of religion and contemporary needs.
If all these can be achieved, we can be well assured that religious schools will not only survive in this contemporary world, but will also become an excellent alternative to secular education.