Religious Studies teaching is pathetic – either improve it or ditch it. By Giles Fraser.

Introduction.

In contrast with many other nation states that exclude religion from their schools (on the grounds that religion is a potentially divisive phenomenon which, if addressed in schools, will ferment more discord than peaceful co-existence), the education system in the UK REQUIRES religion to be addressed. All state-funded schools MUST provide religious education/religious studies (RE/RS) to their pupils/students throughout their school careers, and maintained schools MUST provide a daily act of collective worship which, if the letter of the law is adhered to rigidly, will be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” (if the latter isn’t potentially divisive, I don’t know what is). For over 25 years it has been widely understood that RE/RS MUST reflect that the UK is enriched by many expressions of religion, with the result that it has been normal for almost all schools that provide RE/RS to deliver a multifaith syllabus (at the very least, the vast majority of such syllabuses address Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism). However, since at least 2004, people responsible for the development of RE/RS syllabuses have been urged to aim for even greater inclusion by also offering pupils/students the opportunity to engage with “secular worldviews such as Humanism”.

I welcome the fact that RE/RS MUST be provided in our schools and that it MUST be taught in ways which reflect that people in the UK subscribe to many religions and beliefs (one reason I welcome the current arrangements is because, unless they prevail, when will children and young people ever get the opportunity to engage with the religions and beliefs of others in a reasonably coherent and/or systematic manner?). This therefore means that the vast majority of RE/RS teachers up and down the land are contributing to interfaith dialogue in ways that are rarely acknowledged, and, despite the concerns about RE/RS raised in the article to follow, are often doing so in very innovative and effective ways. And how are such teachers contributing to interfaith dialogue? They are increasing understanding and good relations; identifying causes of tension in relations between people belonging to/subscribing to different worldviews; building understanding and confidence to overcome or prevent tension; and breaking down the barriers and stereotypes which lead to distrust, suspicion and bigotry. This begs the inevitable question: In terms of interfaith dialogue, who are the real heroes and heroines working toward its aims and aspirations on an almost daily basis?

I wanted to remind people about these realities before sharing with you the following article by Giles Fraser, which first appeared in the “Guardian” newspaper in late 2014. Some of the content I agree with, some I do not. But Giles Fraser has hit on something of importance which no one can deny, not even those excellent RE/RS teachers up and down the land (and there are many excellent RE/RS teachers up and down the land, believe me): the subject is in a mess, despite the awesome endeavours of many talented teachers (I blame a lot of the mess on central government education policy, and on senior leadership teams in many of our schools that do not appreciate what their statutory responsibilities are as they apply to RE/RS, or how RE/RS can generate substantive benefits in relation to a host of whole school issues).

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

So: the article itself by Giles Fraser. By all means send me your reactions and I’ll upload the very best.

For years my daughter called it “colouring in”. And I assumed it was some sort of free lesson in the timetable. Much later I discovered this was the period that her school knew as religious studies (RS) – a subject, I am proud to say, that my children have all been spectacularly bad at.

Like them, I glazed over at the sheer inanity of the subject matter: a tepid version of cultural studies where religion is transformed into a calendar of funny festivals, lighting candles and distinctive headgear. And when the curriculum had the temerity to venture into territory with even the vaguest potential for moral or spiritual gravitas, it was obvious that a sort of moral and intellectual panic gripped many of the teaching staff.

Terrified by the potential for offence, terrified also of giving the impression that any one line of thought was preferable to any other, the default position on every subject became a mushy relativism where every conceivable matter of opinion was deemed to be as valuable as any other. Apparently, if you call something a religion, you can say anything you like about life, the universe and everything and it has to be respected. Which is another way of saying that RS became a hollow subject entirely devoid of intellectual debate or moral challenge. And, as a consequence, schools became a production line for children all programmed with the dull-eyed, shoulder-shrugging atheism of indifference (in my experience, the stickiest form of atheism ever discovered).

Which is why I am delighted to support the British Humanist Association (BHA), which is complaining that its own position is not being represented on the curriculum for GSCE and A levels. Back in 2013, the Department for Education issued advice to schools that a range of material could be used in RS lessons, including “atheism and humanism”. In updated advice, this phrase has been removed.

Like them, I am dismayed. Why should the world’s major faiths be so unfairly held back by first being presented to impressionable minds by a pallid watch-glancing geography teacher at 3.00pm on a Friday? Why should humanism have the privilege of looking like dangerous free-thinking, the sort of exciting thing one reads under the bedclothes at night with a torch? No, I say bring it into the curriculum and see it suffer the same fate as all the other worldviews: death by textbook. Or better still, let’s get rid of the subject altogether.

Am I being unfair on RS teaching? Perhaps a little. Some will argue more than a little. But part of the problem is that not enough of those who actually take RS classes are specialists in the subject. And this is just as true in many faith schools as it is in secular ones. Most are teachers from other disciplines just helping out for the afternoon. In schools, RS is a compulsory subject – but no one really wants to teach it.

Not that it was any better back in my day: colouring in a card for Divali or Hanukah is no worse than tracking the journeys of St. Paul around a map of the Mediterranean with tracing paper. Arguably, modern colouring in has the marginal advantage of increasing sensitivity to other cultures – though feel-good multiculturalism courtesy of Caran D’ache has a flattening-out effect that treats all religious traditions as basically alike, and thus fails properly to honour the distinctiveness and specificity of any particular religious practice. How this leads to greater community cohesion is anyone’s guess. In contrast, the traditional Christian-dominated Bible stories approach did at least have the not inconsiderable benefit of introducing children to the foundational texts of the western canon. But this could be just as much a justification for compulsory classics as for compulsory RS.

The fear that most right-thinking liberals have about RS lessons is that they are a means of indoctrination, a Trojan horse that inducts vulnerable children into some dangerous cultic religious practice long before they have had a chance to think for themselves. The thing is, properly done, RS lessons could be a tool for helping children to do precisely that: to think, to question, to argue. It could be a place where the adolescent philosophy of “that’s just my personal opinion” is challenged and moved on. It could be a place where children begin to discover why it is that some will live and die for their belief. But all this is rare. Instead, the secret contained in the belly of the RS Trojan horse is not religious fundamentalism evangelised by stealth, but the steady suffocation of curiosity and intellectual enthusiasm. And it looks like the BHA has fallen for the trap.

P.S. I backed the BHA in its campaign mentioned above for two main reasons. First, as someone in favour of inclusion, what else could I do? Second, if religion as a phenomenon is to be understood in a detached and unbiased manner, pupils/students must have the opportunity to engage with worldviews that contrast with religious worldviews. To understand religious beliefs and practices better, pupils/students must engage with the beliefs and practices of the opposition, whether the opposition is loyal or not. I know it makes sense and you know it makes sense. How else can pupils/students get an education about religion?

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

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