First published in Resource, Autumn 2001
by Marilyn Mason, education officer, BHA
There seem to me to be two major challenges for RE today. One is to meet the needs of all pupils in the classroom, including those who are not religious. The other to address criticisms of the quality of RE from well-informed sources such as Barbara Wintersgill. I am going to propose some modest changes, and some more radical ones, that might challenge some current RE practice and initiate a debate about the content of RE.
When I talk to teachers and trainee teachers they recognise my description of the disaffected adolescent at the back of the classroom who, if he or she speaks at all, questions the relevance and value of RE: “What’s it to me – I don’t believe any of this?” This high recognition factor is hardly surprising, given the figures for non-belief amongst young people today: in a 1994 survey of 13,000 13-15 year olds, 61% declared themselves to be atheist or agnostic [ 1 ]. Can RE ever be more than a “spectator sport”, as the Chair of one SACRE described it to me, for these non-religious children? Is RE bound to produce metaphysically perplexed citizens like the elderly woman who, after listening intently to a public talk on Humanism, came up to the speaker with evident relief to say: “Now I know what I believe!” I certainly meet a few sixth-formers like this when I speak in schools, students who had never before encountered in school a reflection of their own beliefs.
The problems that atheist, agnostic and humanist children sometimes have, despite their large numbers in most classrooms, are partially caused by the fact that they are less likely than other children to label themselves confidently, and by the fact that they are invisible (though not necessarily silent). They do not wear distinctive clothing, and have no particular requirements regarding diet or religious observances. Many of them have quite firm atheistic views – they are by no means all vaguely religious, the occasional participants in religion or the adherents of “invisible religions’ described in Linda Rudge’s article “I am nothing” – Does it Matter? [ 2 ]But most non-religious parents do not exercise their legal right to withdraw their children from RE and collective worship, because they value the “good bits” – the understanding of other beliefs and traditions imparted in RE, the shared human values and school ethos and culture celebrated in school assemblies – and they do not want their child singled out as a dissenter. Many humanists are sufficiently tolerant to wish their children to be exposed to many life stances (including their own) before choosing for themselves. They would welcome an RE where their beliefs were not marginalised, belittled or patronised.
Young atheists appear to be slightly less coherent in their beliefs and slightly more anti-social in their attitudes than young theists. For example, though 61% say they do not believe in God, only 19% of the same sample deny believing that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God” [ 3 ]. On questions of right and wrong, young atheists tend to be more liberal, and sometimes, more relativist and morally confused; for example 13% of atheists and 7% of agnostics saw nothing wrong in shoplifting, as against 6% of theists and 3% of regular church-goers [ 4 ]. This can make gloomy reading for the non-religious (though I personally find it reassuring that so few young people overall have really poor moral values), and can confirm the worst fears of religious reactionaries: “No religion, no morality”, as an erstwhile Minister of Education put it. Figures like these are often used to demand more religion in schools, though humanists would argue that it is the overly close connection between religious and moral education in our schools over the past century that has contributed to some non-religious students’ disengagement from morality: “the baby has gone out with the bathwater.”
Some young non-believers come from families that have identified themselves as humanist and formulated a humanist philosophy, possibly, but not necessarily, with the help of a humanist organisation such as the British Humanist Association. These young humanists have usually been brought up to be more morally secure that the average atheist, but their values are rarely explicitly acknowledged in school. Adult humanists have often had to work out a worldview for themselves in isolation, unaware that their hard-won concepts are common amongst moral philosophers [ 5 ], humanists and the more liberal Christians [ 6 ]. If RE is supposed to help pupils towards a sense of identity and a formulation of their own life stance, it should not ignore such a large section of the population. RE should encourage everyone to live “examined lives”, lives of integrity and coherence.
Including the non-religious
Including the non-religious in RE is not the same as converting them to a religious view of the world. They may come to understand something of it, but probably always as outsiders. Young humanists, and young agnostics and atheists too, dislike collective worship [ 7 ], often on moral grounds, feeling that it would be hypocritical to join in and seeing it as an attempt to indoctrinate, but they find much of RE interesting. It could be so much more interesting and challenging, not just for them but for all pupils.
Somehow RE must draw in the ethics and life stances of the non-religious, or cede this area to Citizenship. The new non-statutory guidance on RE from QCA [ 8 ] in Spring 2000 offered some encouragement towards inclusion of humanist ideas in RE and I hope that teachers and SACREs will assimilate and make use of its open-minded and inclusive approach, for example the inclusion of non-religious views and the idea that pupils should “learn to understand and respect different religions, beliefs, values and traditions (including ethical life stances)”. The national expectations in RE contain some usefully inclusive descriptions of levels of attainment. Many of the more inclusive statements appear under AT2, Learning from religion, and doubtless reflect much current good practice. Even if SACREs do not adopt some or all of these guidelines, the new levels of attainment will influence practice, as will increasingly inclusive GCSE criteria and syllabuses. Without having to rewrite syllabuses and schemes of work, there is much that can be done do in the classroom to include non-religious pupils. Often all that is required is a note in the margin or a few changes, of emphasis or language, to make lessons and tasks more inclusive. For example, words such as “belief”, “life stance”, “worldview”, “philosophy” or “ethical tradition” include more pupils than “religion” or “faith”, and “reflection” can include pupils who feel excluded by “prayer”.
Rising to the Ofsted challenge
If modest changes would make RE more relevant and less alienating to the non-religious, there are other, more radical changes that could make RE a genuinely exciting and challenging subject for everyone. Pruning some traditional content would enable healthy new growth to flourish, and some hard questions about content need to be addressed. How much of other people’s beliefs do we really need to know in order to understand and live sensitively with our neighbours? Not as much as many SACREs and ASCs imagine, probably. How much of what is taught in RE contributes to inter-faith respect, and how much instead encourages the idea that other communities are really rather strange, with their “peculiar” clothes and taboos and customs? Too much, possibly. And how are “the silent majority” to “reflect on, analyse, and evaluate their beliefs, values and practice” [ 9 ] when they have no place in the syllabus? SACREs need to consider whether the current content of most agreed syllabuses can indeed deliver the aims.
Barbara Wintersgill suggested that controversy, a range of sources of evidence, the opportunity to evaluate, to make decisions, to analyse, organise and synthesise material for themselves, all make tasks more challenging.
One step in the right direction would be to throw away the simplistic descriptions of the six major faiths found in school text books. How many, for example, examine the interesting phenomenon, often described by pupils whose families originate from the Indian sub-continent, that the religious and cultural practices of immigrants to Britain have ossified while “back home” they have moved on? How rigorous and truthful is the detailed but rather static portrayal of religions in RE?
RE’s preoccupation with a simplistic view of living religions has also stopped it looking at the intriguing subject of dead religions. The history, origins and variety of religions would be a rich study indeed, with plenty of opportunity for critical evaluation (much less of a minefield, in fact, to evaluate and criticise a dead religion than a living one) and for comparative study. If you want to give your pupils an overview of religion, where better to start than in the (pre-)history of humanity’s need for ritual, for ways of dealing with death and suffering, for explanations of the way things are. That religions have been major providers for these needs explains their similarities and their endurance, and the ways they have evolved when faced with alternatives or rivals. Festivals and rites of passage offer one way into this fascinating topic. (They also offer an opportunity to examine secular and humanist ceremonies, something of relevance to many pupils.)
A rigorous examination of the words “spiritual” and “spirituality” is long overdue, and not just in RE. What would pupils regard as spiritual? How else might one describe this dimension of life? Is this something that the non-religious can share, or can they share the concept but not the words? Here again would be the chance for some real analysis, for critical research (into “spirituality” in the media or “new age spirituality”), and for active and demanding work organising material.
The political aspects of religion would also offer a good controversial topic, with plenty of tough questions to discuss. Should states be involved in religion or is it a purely private matter? How easy is it to live as an atheist in a religious state or as a religious believer in a secular state? How far should religious and non-religious people impose their ideas and values on each other? Why do religious groups come into conflict with each other so often? How can people with very different worldviews coexist peacefully?
RE’s preoccupation with the “six major faiths” prevents it from exploring the new religious movements that are, for many, more attractive options. A study of these, too, would offer opportunities for critical evaluation and research, for controversy and analysis of contemporary opinions and sources (such as newspaper features and religious advertising). RE should also examine and evaluate other ethical worldviews such as Humanism, Environmentalism and Anti-Capitalism. There are many “-isms” today that offer to their adherents similar satisfactions to those offered by religion: a sense of community and purpose and a set of beliefs and values on which to base one’s life. To pretend, as RE sometimes does, by implication at least, that environmentalism and concerns about global capitalism and world poverty belong exclusively to the religions, is a distortion of the truth, and one that does little for the self-esteem of the non-religious. To pretend, as RE sometimes does, aided and abetted by public figures like Prince Charles, that the only alternative to a religious foundation for life is mindless and selfish consumption, that if you don’t worship God you must worship football or shopping, is simply untrue and offensive. The altruism of the “silent majority” should not be stifled by being patronised or side-lined by RE.
On the other hand, it may be that the Citizenship teacher, or the RE teacher with a Citizenship hat on, is the best person to teach the shared human values that are supposed to underpin Citizenship and the National Curriculum. Many humanists would welcome this – they feel that they and their children have been let down by the moral confusion and moral relativism that is common in RE, and that taking ethics out of RE would be a sensible move. Perhaps a subject called Religious Education can never fully include the non-religious (the BHA has always favoured Religion and Beliefs, or Belief Education). RE teachers might throw up their hands in horror, but much that is genuinely interesting would still be still be left to them in the distinctively religious values and ideas that contribute to the diversity of the religious traditions; these would be supported and complemented by what pupils were learning about their duties, rights and responsibilities in Citizenship. RE teachers would be specialists in the study of religion and major contributors to pupils’ understanding of and “respect for different national, religious and ethnic identities” [ 10 ]. Their specialist subject would no longer be diluted by topics that more properly belong in PSHE or Citizenship, and handing over ethics to a new group of specialists would create space for some new and challenging topics and assignments.
There is also much to be said for introducing Philosophy as an alternative to RE. At Sixth Form level, it would have the advantage of novelty after years of compulsory RE, and might be better regarded. It could be introduced even earlier, and need not be as difficult and intimidating as many assume it is. Some European states have always included Philosophy in the school curriculum, and there have been some interesting and inspiring experiments in teaching Philosophy to quite young children, notably the work of Matthew Lipman [ 11 ] in the United States. Philosophy is by its very nature inclusive: everyone engages in some kind of philosophical thinking, even if unaware of it, and philosophical thinking can be sharpened and developed if thinkers are made more aware of what they are doing. It is also inclusive in the sense that philosophers think about just about anything that can be thought about: religion and belief in God, ethics, politics, personal identity and consciousness, knowledge, truth, proof and evidence. It is a pity that our student are deprived of the opportunity to learn what the greatest thinkers of past ages have thought about these and other issues, unless they are part of the tiny minority who opt to study Philosophy at A Level or university. A philosophically literate population, trained to think critically (a skill that many subjects claim but few deliver) would surely not embrace fundamentalism or superstition or mindless pleasure seeking.
1 Revd Professor Leslie Francis and Revd Dr William Kay, Trinity College Carmarthen, Teenage Religion and Values , Chapter 11, Gracewing, 1995
2 Linda Rudge ” I am nothing” – Does it Matter? A Critique of Current Religious Education Policy and Practice in England on Behalf of the Silent Majority , BJRE 20:3, Summer 1998
3 Revd Professor Leslie Francis and Revd Dr William Kay, Trinity College Carmarthen, Teenage Religion and Values , Chapter 11, Gracewing, 1995
4 Revd Professor Leslie Francis and Revd Dr William Kay, Trinity College Carmarthen, Teenage Religion and Values , Chapter 8, Gracewing, 1995
5 See, for example, Mary Warnock’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics (Duckworth, 1998) which contains an excellent chapter on moral education.
6 See, for example, Bishop Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality (Canongate, 1999)
7 Asked whether they liked school assemblies, 355 pupils aged 5-16 said Yes and 928 said No. 30 said they did not go to assemblies. 1250 thought young people should be able to choose whether to attend or not, 261 thought not. Priscilla Alderson Civil Rights in Schools , 1999.
8The booklet on RE guidance 2000 (ref no: QCA/00/576) costs £3 from QCA Publications, PO Box 99, Sudbury, Suffolk, CO10 6SN, tel: 01787 884444, or can be downloaded from QCA website: www.open.gov.uk/qca/
9 Non-statutory guidance on RE (QCA, 2000), The importance of religious education.
10 National Curriculum: Citizenship (QCA 1999), The importance of citizenship
11 See Matthew Lipman: Thinking in Education (Cambridge University Press, 1991