The Future of Religious Education

This paper, attached in pdf format, is my personal submission to the Commission on Religious Education, an enquiry set up by the Religious Education Council to “review the legal, education and policy frameworks for RE” with a view to “improve[ing] the quality and rigour of religious education and its capacity to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain”.

In it I examine the social context in which schools operate, the need for a strictly educational approach to “religious education” – objective, fair and balanced, as a 1975 publication from the British Humanist Association put it – and the reasons why religion and non-religious belief should remain in the school syllabus.  I see it as needing to develop into a subject that contributes valuably to the historical, cultural, social, political and philosophical education of young people.

I am grateful to Brenna Hughes, an RE teacher whom I met by chance when my submission was already in draft, for allowing me to include as an annex to it her RE “curriculum map” as an illustration of the sort of approach that I should like to see adopted.

POSTSCRIPT:

After the Commission issued an interim consultative report in September 2017 I responded with detailed comments but also with these (slightly edited) more general comments:

… [W]hile the present draft statement of the [proposed national] entitlement [to religious education] includes a wide range of desirable content, overwhelmingly it casts the pupil as a disinterested observer and student of other people’s worldviews. This is too dry an approach. It should start by framing the subject in a more relevant way:

“[RE] in schools aims to equip students to make sense of their lives and of the world they live in by helping them adopt, change or develop a worldview satisfactory to them. To this end, it should enable students . . .” [continue as at start of the present draft].

Although this thought is included in the draft, it is subordinated to knowledge and appreciation of others’ worldviews and development of the skill to engage with them. Realistically, for most pupils these aims will be achieved to only a limited extent, which is not of great significance so long as pupils are enabled to develop a conceptual framework within which they can by the use of critical skills arrive at their own positions along with a basic acceptance of diversity. (It is right to regard the subject as an academic one (p.51) but with the limited time available and inevitably marginal position on the timetable the ambitions laid out by the Commission are bound to be achieved only partially at best.)

The suggested revised framing is also desirable in avoiding at the start the formula “religious and non-religious”. Necessary though these descriptions may be, leading with the phrase suggests a fundamental conflict between two camps defined by presence or absence of religion. Instead the suggestion should be of a wealth of ways of making sense of life that may or may not include religious elements. It also implicitly puts too much emphasis on choosing between already established positions rather than on the paths of critical thought that will eventually lead to adopting a position that may, after all, be purely personal.

The report recognises (e.g. at p.20) that the established positions are fraying at the edges but it fails to follow the implications. Religion is today far from being regarded as an unqualified good: a recent survey by Ipsos-Mori found that 62% of people in Britain agree that “Religion does more harm in the world than good” and that only 23% say “My religion defines me as a person”. This decentring of religion has happy outcomes: 85% say “I am completely comfortable being around people who have different religious beliefs than me”1. But it may also leave some people with no articulated beliefs or points of reference when making serious decisions about their lives.

It is therefore essential that the subject serve the interests not just of the shrinking religious minority but of the great majority who have no religion. Only 6% of adults in Britain are practising Christians according to a survey for the Church of England while British Social Attitudes in 2016 found that 53% of people have no religion – but among those aged 18-24 the proportion is 72% and is therefore probably even higher among those under 18 – the decline in belief is generational. As polls for Humanists UK show, a growing proportion of these non-religious people are recognising that their views are in fact humanist. They welcome and adopt the way that Humanism articulates their beliefs and attitudes and increasingly adopt the label ‘humanist’ for themselves. They are certainly unwilling to be slotted into the religious categories suggested by typical present-day RE syllabuses, divvied up as they are between the main world religions as if these were the only mainstream options. These syllabuses, in the words of Mr Justice Warby, “give priority to the study of religions (including some with a relatively very small following and no significant role in the tradition of the country) over all non-religious world views (which have a significant following and role in the tradition of the country)” (see Fox and others v Secretary of State for Education ([2015] EWHC 3404 (Admin)) at paragraph 77).

A far different approach is needed, an approach based on asking how to make sense of life and the world, introducing the notion of a worldview and the role it can play in one’s life and thinking. The several religions and non-religious beliefs would be taken as examples and would be drawn on to help pupils’ examination of a variety of existential and ethical questions. Over the school career the subject would look at the historical, cultural, social, political and philosophical aspects of these worldviews and philosophies. Among those referenced, Humanism should be prominent, as required by its growing demographic significance and by the importance of the broadly humanist tradition from ancient times.

This does not mean that the importance of religion should be downplayed: Christianity in particular has had a hugely formative influence on our society and continues to play a significant role, while worldwide it and other religions shape cultures and wield considerable power. But when today’s pupils in British schools are invited to consider their own beliefs, the demography of contemporary society must be influential in deciding the options with which they are presented and the weight attached to them.