The ISRSA were delighted to receive over 150 entries for our competition this year! This was an astonishing response from schools and students, and we were so pleased to read essays of absolutely incredible quality, which were both passionate and carefully considered. Well done to everybody who entered! Please find below the entry from Raghav Kanwar, the winner of the Junior section of the competition. Raghav attends The Haberdasher's Aske's Boys' School, and we thought his essay was simply wonderful. Below it is Zara Hussein's outstanding essay which won the Senior section. Zara attends JAGS and is 14 years old.
Why Religious Studies matters to me, by Raghav Kanwar
Theology and Philosophy is a fascinating subject for me. It means that I have the chance to discuss my opinion on matters. It has broadened my view of a multi-cultural society and helps me to understand why things like certain traditions even exist. It is a subject, for me, which helps one to understand the world and why it is a certain way; it explains the basis of reality through the voice of opinion.
The subject gives a deep history of religion and thought. Why does God exist? Who is God? Who am I? These are the types of things a three-year-old may ask and the thought of them dates back all through history. Medieval people didn’t even believe in science, but in the idea that God controlled all-he punished them with storms and illnesses or blessed them with cures; this may seem like what we still believe today but we usually do believe in science and theological concepts simultaneously. For me Theology helps to conjure an answer about this. It is the basis for science today yet it still remains as a separate thing.
Theology teaches me to understand other religions and cultures and how they work. This in turn helps me to understand how other people may be thinking or why they might react a specific way to something. Alongside understanding things, Philosophy and Theology help you to question reality in challenging ways which force you to think of theories; in other words, you can aim to challenge the notion of actuality-do I really exist? I believe that I do because otherwise I wouldn’t even be able to write this. I agree with Descartes on his statement: “I think therefore I am.”
For me, Theology and Philosophy is motivation to find out more. It is a subject which forces you to do research; you find out more than you originally thought you would. It may seem simple at first-question and answer-they do this because…; in fact, it is captivating and much more complex than that. It means that you need to think, more so than you normally would have to; you need to think outside the box, even if you don’t have to for other subjects. If you think there is something, is there really nothing-or is it simply air, which is, in fact, something? Perhaps, it is something which seems to consist of nothing, yet it still exists. The more you think about it, the more confused and baffled you become; “How can I know the right answer?” you ask. In actual fact it is almost impossible to know until you consider all of the aspects and find a thesis which seems to work.
Theology and Philosophy leaves one with a thirst for knowledge; you need to understand-if one thing doesn’t seem in place you think, “What about the rest of the material world-does that make any sense either?” and if not, you may think something like, “Well then, how do I even exist?” before you stumble upon the likes of Descartes or Aristotle. The subject is one which teaches you, whilst encouraging you to teach yourself. It gives you that little bit more self-dependence. Theology and Philosophy helps to give me the knowledge to understand existence itself.
Why Religious Studies matters to me, by Zara Hussein
Before secondary school, if you’d asked me whether I’d ever consider voluntarily choosing to study Religious Studies, let alone as a GCSE, I would have just laughed at the absurdity of the question. For I was the girl who was read Richard Dawkins novels as bedtime stories, the girl who would almost gleefully eat sausages in front of her Muslim grandmother, and the girl who talked her best friend out of Christianity at the age of 7. It is fair to say that from as early as I can remember, to me, the concept of religion was merely an abstract idea, a coping mechanism for the weak minded and ignorant, certainly not something I was prepared to associate myself with. But retrospectively, I’ve come to realise that it was in fact I, who due to not having obtained the kind of religious education that I now believe we all need, was the epitome of ignorance, dismissing anything short of my own opinion. My uncompromising views may have been influenced by my somewhat unconventional upbringing. My maternal grandparents were Indian immigrants, raising my Mum in a devoutly Hindu atmosphere, and my Dad was born and bred a Muslim, until they both graduated from medical school, converting to Science, and vowing to raise their children as atheists, or as they’d say, rationalists.
As I reached the climax of my primary school years, I once again found myself on a pew during the annual Evensong service. I happened to be the only brown girl, and as far as I’m concerned, the only non-Christian in the entirety of my ultra conservative Catholic primary school. Ordinarily, this would make me feel slightly awkward and out of place in such a setting, as if I were an intruder standing in the midst of a family gathering, a family that I didn’t feel part of, but oddly, something was different this time. Although I cannot recall what it was that captured my focus, I felt my senses awaken and I decided to truly open my eyes. I looked around and tried to see what the others could see. A stunning candle lit church, gleaming with gold, the intricately depicted stories, which I now know are from the Gospel, embellished into towering stain glass windows, the earthy, comforting scent of old stone and wood that would remain with me as a nostalgic token of my childhood, and the organ which sang a familiar melody, but the only difference was, I had finally chosen to listen to the words. This moment came as a revelation to me, although I had no intention of converting to Christianity, I realised that once I had glanced beyond the four metaphorical walls of superiority that I had built up around myself, something that I have come to notice many atheists having done, I could see the magic, the charm and the influence that something as simple as a church service could bring to so many, including myself, and as I scrambled in my pockets in the hope of any stray pennies to put in the collection box for the first time, I felt the narrow confines of my young and impressionable mind, begin to broaden.
Over the next few years, as I began to learn about the many aspects of various religions in my RS lessons from start of secondary school, my desire to understand the nature of religion deepened, I wanted to know more. It was all very well to be interested in religion from an outside perspective, but I never realised how much of an impact it could directly have on me and the understanding of myself and my identity, until I visited India for the first time since being a baby. Each and every house that I was ferried to and from, belonging to some of the countless names hanging off the many branches of my extensive family tree, all had an enchanting aura of spirituality about them: Dimly lit shrines, home to miniature statues, garlands of saffron roses and tiny pots of burning incense, which left great pillows of sandalwood infused smoke, were placed by the entrances of every doorway. From being there, I realised religion provided the essential structure of life for so many, as vital to them as oxygen is to me. I came away from that trip in realisation that my Indian heritage, which I possibly value as the most significant part of my identity, stems from a culture with religion at its heart.
Although I am just at the start of my life, and I have many more opportunities ahead of me to deepen my understanding of the wider world and how it works, not just the small sphere of society that I happen to live in, I undoubtedly feel RS has given me the motivation but most of all, the inspiration to pursue a journey to seek out these opportunities. I am less quick to judge, as I now have a genuine appreciation for the way religion has shaped the world today. It unites people in the form of festivals and common rituals, giving them guidance in their everyday lives, providing boundaries towards discouraging unethical activities. Throughout the entirety of human history, religion has given its followers meaning and purpose, continuing to do so for 84% of us today, it gives people, customs, values, languages, cultures, and identities that we all, including myself, share and benefit from, creating such a wonderfully diverse community of stories and experiences, bringing us together, yet also tearing us apart, as seen throughout history on devastating scales, but also in recent years and in the present, often in everyday situations, which I have come to understand through learning more and more. I think the impact that studying RS has had on me, in opening up a fascinating new sphere of interest, but also in my personal development, leads me to recommend it to anyone, religious or non-religious, theist or atheist, who is prepared to approach it with an open mind. At this time in human history, there has never been a more diverse global community, greatly due to religion. We are becoming less and less segregated across the world, so the ability to understand and empathize with each other is essential to a peaceful, harmonious future.