In those far-off days, as the story goes, the King of Aratta once sent back a messenger to King Enmerkar of Uruk — whose kingdoms existed around modern-day Iraq — to tell him that the Mesopotamian goddess of love, Inanna, had decided to favour Aratta over Uruk. Enmerkar, appalled, began a trade war and a vitriolic back and forth with the foreign king.
The messenger, tired of running between the two kingdoms for years, exclaimed to his lord that he could no longer remember the long speeches that the kings had dictated for each other. The King of Uruk could not afford to lose his trade war nor the affection of the goddess. So, he ordered for a slab of wet clay and a short length of sharp reed to be brought before him. Then, the mighty king took his stylus and, for the first time in recorded history, wrote. The messenger brought the tablet to the ruler of Aratta, who — ashamed of his defeats in the contests and astonished by the novelty of Enmerkar’s invention of writing — swore submission to Uruk and no longer vied for Inanna.
But you’ve never heard that story.
Today, it is easy to forget the importance that religion has had in the development of human society. When we trace back to our earliest stories, laws, and methods of organizing people, we can see how they have stemmed from our earliest beliefs about the universe. From the mundane mechanisms of our calendar to the aspirational names we give to space missions, our inspiration comes from institutions and stories whose first role was to operate in the domain of theology and cosmology.
68 per cent of Canadians identify as belonging to a religion, and the list of religions that percentage accounts for is varied. As citizens of Canada, we live in a land of diversity united under our ethos of the ‘cultural mosaic.’
Given this, I believe that instituting a mandatory introduction to world religions at the high school level can mould a populace that is more aware of the role of religion in modern society and what certain faiths practice and preach, and show the diversity within religions and religious practices. When we teach our children how to read and write, as King Enmerkar first did all those millennia ago, we must also teach them why we read and write. The story of the two kings is likely fiction, but the power of education and the pen holds true.
I remember a conversation with a fellow student about Québec’s 2019 Bill 21: An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, which banned employees in the public sector from wearing religious garments and symbols with the purpose of upholding the doctrine of secularism. The student argued that it would be obviously wrong for a police officer to wear a pin denoting a political affiliation when on duty — why then should religious symbols be any different?
In my view, this argument comes from a misunderstanding that religion can be likened to any other ideology a person may hold. However, religion is not an opinion to be swayed, as it is an innately personal system of belief. Religion tends to inform people’s political ideologies and worldviews but is itself not informed by them. This is paramount to understand. The potency of religious belief means that it is not something we can ignore but something we should always be aware of when we interact with people and ideas in our daily affairs, as well as on grander executive levels in terms of legislation and policy.
In the elementary school curriculum in Ontario, we learned about ancient Egypt and Greece and their respective myths, and we learned about the Middle Ages. But from the ages of about 12 to 17, the only history we were mandated to explore was relegated to roughly the last 200 years.
Naturally, events that transpired and philosophies that were inspired closer to our time have a greater impact on our current world. It is probably more important for the average citizen to know how the World Wars erupted than it is for them to know about the factual details of the Babylonian invasions. But I still hold that to truly, deeply understand how human society has progressed, we must understand how the world was viewed for the majority of the 100,000 years humanity has existed. Not only must we know what was believed but also how it was believed and that it was profoundly believed. We must also know that these profound beliefs cause actions and events we may find difficult to understand and justify.
There are historical-religious reasons why our work week runs from Monday to Friday and why those days are even called Monday or Friday. There are historical-religious reasons why members of government swear oaths. There are historical-religious reasons that contribute to why there is no peace in the Middle East. These religious-historical artifacts cannot be effaced from our society despite our insistence on a secular society. Therefore, to better make peace with this truth, we should make the influence of religion naked rather than hidden behind a gossamer of idealistic rhetoric about a completely secular society.
I recognize that religion is personal, but so are finance and health — and yet we are still taught how to parse through those parts of life in the classroom. The history of religion is an important facet that is essential for understanding how those around us conduct themselves. I believe that world religion should be a mandatory course in the high school curriculum, rather than being an optional one. Why do we teach cultural and media literacy, history, and geography, without discussing the origins of the ideas behind the systems that have led to the very development of culture and history?
We are often exposed to hateful rhetoric and misinformation about others’ beliefs, and it can be easy to generalize or decontextualize ideas found in other belief systems. Thus, I see world religious education serving as a means to prevent blind hate and facilitate cross-cultural understanding.
Sulaiman Hashim Khan is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying English and ethics, society, and law. He is the Religion columnist for The Varsity’s Comment section.