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Sonja Eggerickx, President of IHEU, attended and spoke at the World Conference on Dialogue among Religions and Civilizations “The Contribution of religion and culture to peace, mutual respect and cohabitation” held on October 26-28,2007 at Ohrid, Republic of Macedonia.


Respected audience,

I thank you for giving me the occasion to speak. It is important for people to know about the roots of their lifestance. What is more I think that people need to have a structure of living together. That, of course, can be a good reason for religious teaching in schools. But there is more than religions as lifestance. If this religious education is necessary, at the same time it goes beyond saying that other religions, other lifestances and worldviews are being considered. Without dialogue between them, without respect for the other, only fundamentalism can result from it. If we do not admit that the great truth does not exist, especially our own great truth, no dialogue, no peace is possible…

It is clear that we must agree on a very important item: no one has the right to dictate other human beings how they have to live. Separation between religion and state is important. It is impossible to speak about dialogue without taking into account those who are not believers in supernatural, so I would suggest to speak about lifestances.

In Belgium, in schools organized by official government, you can choose between 6 religions (Roman Catholicism, Protestant Evangelist, Orthodox, Anglicanism, Islam, Judaism) or the non-confessional ethics. This has the big advantage that it is clear from which point of view you are treating ethical and societal items. And what is more it is encouraged not only to give the point of view of one particular lifestance, but also to work together with the other ones and thus confronting each other with each others opinions. It is a form of real active pluralism…

The introduction to the curriculum makes clear what the non confessional ethics means and includes. It is a possible example of how it is possible to develop values and norms without religion.

Non-confessional ethics as a philosophical subject.

1. The aim of the subject ethics is to guide pupils towards autonomy. They must be able to judge and act independently. This autonomy remains for each of us a continuous project. Autonomy doesn’t mean that, as an individual, we shouldn’t need the others. In the same way the autonomous individual doesn’t only care for himself. If we take autonomy seriously as a value, then everybody is concerned. We strive for forms of living together wherein we respect everybody’s autonomy. Latitudinarian humanist values such as equality, tolerance and solidarity are the criteria we use, and a democratic community in which we respect human rights is the form of society to realize this. Human rights are universal rights and we reject each form of racism or sexism.

2. Important in our striving for autonomy is free research .It is a scientific method. But for non-confessionals it is also a way of dealing with philosophical and moral questions. We only rely on human reason and human experience to orientate ourselves in life. It means we remain prepared to inquire into our opinions. Man is fallible and we do not rely on divine revelations which give us an infallible, but non-human knowledge. There is no book nor a tradition of ideology to give absolute answers. This doesn’t mean that books, tradition or existing philosophies cannot inspire us. But they inspire us in such a way that we test and assimilate this inspiration ourselves.

3. Life is an experience and it requires continuous learning. We want to inform ourselves continuously. We do so by taking into account scientific knowledge. But not all questions of life can be answered scientifically only. In quite a lot of philosophical matters alternative choices remain possible and not everybody regards life in the same way. Free research as an attitude towards life implies accepting dialogue with others. This means being prepared to listen to others, to understand the situation of others or exchange perspectives. Characteristic for authentic dialogue is that we can also question ourselves. Dialogue creates a free space in which arguments of authority, manipulation and demagogy are replaced by reasonable deliberation. It implies everybody can speak and opinions are only rejected on the basis of arguments. Therefore we must also learn to deal with contestation.

4. We have not reached autonomy because we have an own opinion. Everybody has some opinion. It is important to deal critically with our own opinions. How have we acquired them? How good are our opinions? This reflection is important to live consciously. Thinking about our opinions is not only theoretical. They are the mental map on which we orientate ourselves in the world and with which we give sense to our lives. They are of great practical importance because they give an answer to different fundamental questions. How do we see ourselves? May we be happy without feeling guilty? Do we see the others as opponents or as companions? How do we deal with nature? Are men and women equal? These opinions which guide our behaviour existentially and politically refer to values. They form the ground of giving sense and ethics. We speak of a world-picture, a philosophy, a daily philosophy, a style of living. Also without philosophical research the world-picture is present. But it is then present as intuitive or spontaneous ‘thinking’ which we experience as an actual situation. Thus we will be and thus we will think.

5. Getting to know different answers to philosophical questions can work inspiringly. They invite us to think and to choose by ourselves. That doesn’t mean that this step will be taken, but the need to judge independently about values and norms increases. One of the most important decisions an individual tasks today is whether to think by oneself or whether to let others think for him or her. That decision determines our educational project, the way of socializing. Not only our own autonomy, but also the tolerance by which we accept the autonomy of others is essential in a humanist educational project: growing towards independence and being able to deal with differences in opinions.

6. It is important not to let independence fall into stubbornness about one’s own right, which is characteristic for an authoritarian personality. The other extreme is relativism of culture. If you consider the relativism of all things, you no longer make choices. ‘He sets his sail to every wind.’ The difference with one who wishes to investigate, is fundamental. The dialogue about values and weighing the pros and cons by oneself is contradictory to the relativism which is a form of indifference towards values. In view of the latter, being able to orientate oneself in life is an important talent. In our present society changes move swiftly and traditions are no longer passed on from generation to generation. If we don’t want to lose ourselves in these swift moves, we must be able to work independently at the identity project. This requires defensibility. Philosophical education plays a decisive part as a clarifier of values.

7. This is not only important in the individual field. Living together is also an assignment, an open process. The creative and critical contribution of individuals is necessary to keep a democracy livable.

Asking questions and having dialogues about norms and values belong to the project of autonomy. It is an open identity project and it doesn’t stand apart from social contexts in which we learn to deal with others and with ourselves. Guiding oneself on the basis of values which we test in dialogue is the definition of an independent moral attitude. The teacher should stimulate this attitude of inquiry. He must be able to convert the class into a ‘community of investigation’. He teaches enthusiasm and self-confidence to think independently and to enter into dialogue with others. This must happen in an open-minded atmosphere and with respect for different worlds of life. He must take the pupils seriously and he must ensure that their needs and questions are met with in discussions. He ensures the necessary interaction and he keeps an eye on the relevance of what is said. The more he has explored the theme himself, the more he is able to recognize the relevance.

Conclusion

I think that in this way we learn children to develop their own values and norms always in consideration with those of the others. Equal treatment and mutual respect for all human beings, whatever their skin colour, their lifestance, their gender, their sexual preferences,…
As education is important, everybody should have acces to it. It is one of the millenium goals as well, and very important in achieving a peacefull world.

Thank you.


Appendix:

The curriculum

In the curriculum the two years of each level have been put next to each other. This is not so for the third year of the third level. In this way the differentiation is clear and it shows that vertical upbuilding is necessary.

The process aims indicate that we must see learning as a process which is started by the teacher. They indicate the direction in which we want to work. There are no specific subject aims for the philosophical subjects. Different strategies are possible to realize the process aims. In the curriculum the themes form a hint for a possible realization. Variation is possible, but it must rely on a thorough analysis of the process aim. The teacher should treat a variety of five process aims.
These five process aims are:
1. Learning to think and to act freely and independently to acquire the largest possible personal autonomy.
2. Learning to think morally, which means that the pupils learn to react against indifference and learn to develop involvement.
3. Learning to recognize the value of humanizing society, in an effort to create a humane world.
4. Learning to take responsibility towards the present and future generations.
5. Exercising giving sense and learning to acknowledge that the individual can never be the only bearer of sense.

The process aims and their specific process aims refer to three main fields which are mutually dependent and which affect each other:

1. The individual being
2. Me and the others
3. Me and the world

These fields play an important part in the differentiation between the different levels. The first field or micro-level is stressed in the first level. The second field or meso-level is treated in the second level. The third field or macro-level gets full attention in the third level.

It is a matter of stress, not of exclusion. It is not so that we never talk about the world. in the first level or that we always talk about the world in the third level. But a being of twelve is different from a being of eighteen. To indicate this, we use a different operator for the three levels. Discovering oneself in order to discover the others is what happens in the first level. We name this process operator ‘breaking open’. In the second level the others are more relevant. The operator here is called ‘socializing’. In the third level it is possible to take some more distance. The reflection which starts in the first level is now deepened and refined. The operator is ‘critique’. When filling in the process aims for the different levels thematically, this gradation of fields has been taken into accounts.

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