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RE Commission report: A Way Forward?

Commission on Religious Education
The number of students being entered for the public examinations in Religious Studies in England and Wales (GCSE, at 16 and A level, at 18) fell significantly in the summer of 2018, and more than a third of schools are breaking the law by failing to provide Religious Education (RE). The decline can be explained in part by educational policy decisions, for example RE is currently excluded from the EBacc, a group of GCSE subjects which are viewed by government as a performance measure for schools. Policy decisions both reflect and feed public assessments of the value of subjects, and public support for RE is demonstrably low. Perhaps the public imagines (rightly or wrongly) that RE is aligned with religion itself, and thus the subject suffers with the same ‘toxicity’ that Linda Woodhead considers attaches to the ‘brand’ of religion. Whatever the case, confusion about the aims and purposes of the subject in schools is unlikely to support its flourishing.

A report published in September 2018 by the Commission on Religious Education entitled Religion and Worldviews: the Way Forward: A National Plan for Religious Education attempts to tackle these problems. Its central proposal is for a change in the law to ensure that all pupils in England, no matter what type of school they attend, receive their ‘National Entitlement’ to education about religion and worldviews. The report, authored by fourteen Commissioners from a range of sectors (including academics, teachers, headteachers and consultants, a broadcaster and a Human Rights lawyer), was the culmination of two years of intensive consultation with a range of stakeholders, and an ambitious attempt to bring the whole ‘RE Community’ together to push for statutory change. Considering the neo-liberal fragmentation of the education system over the last two decades, and the growth in the number of schools with a religious character, this attempt to achieve consensus on the core content of RE is indeed ambitious. The Commission on Religious Education’s report is not the only one published in recent months suggesting ways forward for the subject. Linda Woodhead and former Secretary of State for Education Charles Clarke, recently published A New Settlement Revised: Religion and Belief in Schools. Though the detail of their recommendations differs, both reports lobby for urgent governmental intervention to secure a place for an academically credible subject on the school curriculum.

At a recent RE research and policy conference #2020RE, Dr Wendy Dossett had the opportunity to chat with two of the Commissioners and authors of the Religion and Worldviews report, Dr Joyce Miller and Prof Eleanor Nesbitt, along with Religious Education sociologist (and convener of SOCREL), Céline Benoit. Their conversation ranged over some of the following issues: the rationale for the move from calling the subject ‘Religious Education’ to ‘Religion and Worldviews’; the inadequacy for the classroom of a world religions approach; the degree to which faith communities are entitled to influence what gets taught in schools; and the anomaly of the so-called withdrawal clause.

Listeners outside the UK context may be unfamiliar with the following terms:
Key Stages (introduced in the 1988 Education Reform Act) are age related periods in education: Key Stage 1 (aged 5-7), Key Stage 2 (aged 7-11), Key Stage 3 (aged 11-14), Key Stage 4 (aged 14-16), Key Stage 5, (aged 16-18).
SACREs: (Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education) are statutory local education authority bodies, including representation from the Anglican Church, other Christian denominations and other faiths, teacher representatives, and elected council members. SACRES support and resource RE in all local authority schools, and every five years review the locally Agreed Syllabus.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


RE Commission Report: A Way Forward?

Podcast with Joyce Miller, Eleanor Nesbitt, Celine Benoit (5 November 2018).

Interviewed by Wendy Dossett

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: RE_Commission_Report_1.1

Wendy Dossett (WD): Hello everybody, and welcome to the Religious Studies Project! My name’s Wendy Dossett and I’m senior lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Chester. And I’m also the TRS UK representative [on] the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, which means I’m interested in the relationship between departments of the academic study of Theology and Religion and what goes on in schools. And we’re at a particularly critical moment in the study of religion in schools [because of significant] public mistrust of the subject. Linda Woodhead has said that religion is a toxic brand. And I think [the] public think that Religious Education in schools is about recommending religion to people, or trying to present religion in a good light. And there’s a lot of competing agendas and imperatives in Religious Education. Numbers are falling at GCSE and A’ level. Obviously that has a knock-on effect for recruitment to academic Religious Studies at university level – so that’s a concern. And this is [an] important moment because, on the 10th of September, a new report published by the Commission for Religious Education came out. The report is called “Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward – A National Plan for RE“. And it invites a new vision for Religious Education in schools, and the hope is that the Government will take account of that new vision and bring about some change. So we want to discuss that. And I’m very pleased to welcome two of the commissioners who contributed to that report. So we have Dr Joyce Miller, who’s an associate fellow in the Religion and Education Research Unit at the University of Warwick. She’s a former senior lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, and she’s a former chair of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales. Hi Joyce!

Joyce Miller (JM): Hello.

WD: We also have – down the line – another commissioner, Professor Eleanor Nesbitt, who’s Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick. And she’s well known for her work on the religious lives of children and intercultural education. And Eleanor was using a Lived Religions approach in her work in Religious Studies and Religions Education before it became a slogan! (Laughs). She’s also the author of Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction. So welcome, Eleanor.

Eleanor Nesbitt (EN): Hello.

WD: And we’re also very happy that we have Céline Benoit with us, who’s a teaching fellow at Aston University, and a convener of SocReL which is the BSA Sociology of Religion group. Céline is about to submit her PhD, and that is entitled: Representing Religion in Schools: Locating the Self and the “Other”. So, welcome to everybody. I’ll just start with what seems one of the most obvious things about the Commission’s report – but I suspect the commissioners will tell us it isn’t in fact the most obvious thing! But the report describes the subject, which has widely been known in schools as Religious Education, as “Religion and Worldviews”. So, this is a big change. And Professor Stephen Parker has said this is the most radical change in the subject proposed since the 1960s. So we really are talking about a potential game-changer, if this is taken up by government. And I wonder if I could just invite the commissioners to tell us a bit about why this change is necessary – Joyce?

JM: I think it’s necessary because, as Wendy’s explained, there are very serious issues about Religious Education at the moment. Alongside falling entries for our examination subjects we have evidence of a huge disregard of the law. Religious Education is compulsory for all children in all schools. And yet, up to 30% of schools don’t seem to be offering it at all at Key stage 4. There are a whole range of other issues. We have few teachers, entries are insufficient to keep the teaching profession afloat in terms of Religious Education. There’s a lack of resources and support for schools. Religious Education in England is extremely complicated because it works on a local level. We have over a 150 Local Education Authorities, each of which is responsible for agreeing what is going to be taught in Religious Education in its own area. This makes it a fragmented and complex approach. This has been the law in England for a very long time. Most recently in 1988 the law was amended, and that was when Religious Education was invented as the term in law. Before that it had been Religious Instruction, religious knowledge. And the 1988 Act made obligatory the teaching of religions other than Christianity in Religious Education in English schools. If we’re now going to have a new and radical approach to the understanding of religion, we need a new name to signify a major change that is now going to happen in our schools. At least, we hope that’s what’s going to happen: that is the intention of the Commission.

WD: Thank you.

EN: Could I add a bit in about the name as well?

WD: Please do.

EN: One of the things that’s significant is, it’s not “Religions and Worldviews”, it’s “Religion and Worldviews”. Because the commissioners felt that it was really important that in school – not just in University – young people should be introduced to the nature of what we call religion: its dynamics, and its impact, and so on – almost regardless of which religion we’re talking about. The nature of religion itself is important. And then, as far as worldviews go, it’s not just that the commissioners want to include Humanism or non-religious worldviews. It’s the fact of acknowledging that every human being has something that can be called a worldview. And so actually this re-naming is way of saying, “Yes, you’re included as well.” You don’t have to be Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or some other organisational community that has a faith label. Actually, this subject is about the creation of the individual worldview, as well as the existence of acknowledged public worldviews.

WD: That’s really interesting. I mean, I guess some people in academic Religious Studies – even though they’re in Religious Studies – might have a critique of the idea of religion as a kind of free-standing concept that is instantiated in these different religious traditions. Are we saying religion is a “thing” that you can study?

EN: (Laughs). That’s really interesting. But if you took any other name like “belief”, or any of the other terms we thought of, I think there could be similar points made. And what’s going to be interesting is that the discussion is reinvigorated.

WD: So, the decision was not to go just with worldviews and drop religion entirely?

EN: Well, it could be argued that religion is a subset of worldview – but is it? Because religions involve community activity; they involve identity; they involve all sorts of aspects of human behaviour which are not generally thought to be necessary, or usually part of what we think of as a worldview.

JM: We also wanted to maintain some continuity. We are not inventing a new school subject that is called Worldviews, because then that would include political worldviews. So we had to constrain and tighten it in some way, and link it to the study of religions. But these conversations about what religion is, where it sits in our highly secularised society, what its link is to spirituality – these are the conversations we want children to be having in the classroom. So they’re not just terms that they hear, and they never get the chance to unpack and explore. They need to understand it at an age-appropriate level, why these questions are important, and some of the conversations that are happening at an academic level. Children are far more capable at exploring difficult concepts than we often give them credit for. And so one of the things the Commission was very keen to ensure, is that we’re not just adding a few more “isms”: 6 big religions, plus Humanism, plus a few others. We’re looking for a much more in-depth analytical understanding of what religion is, what secularism is, what spirituality is, and the ways in which worldviews work, and how people live and how children grow and develop – how all of these are enabled through that study.

Céline Benoit (CB): I think this conversation about religion or religions is really important. And I think going for religion rather than religions allows us to have that conversation about trying to not rely so much on the world religions paradigm, and trying to put every community in a very neat category. And no-one feels like they’re really being represented correctly. Because, you know, you may have Muslim people who say “Well, this is not how I understand Islam. It doesn’t represent what I am doing at home.” But also the plan is to move away from that outsider/insider perspective, where most of the pupils might feel like they’re looking at the “other”, and it’s very spectatorial. And it might be more damaging than . . . . I know that’s not the purpose of RE. But moving away from religions might be quite positive.

JM: I think part of this stems from the debate in 1988, where there was a strong emphasis in parliament on preserving the integrity of religions. And some teachers have interpreted that as having to teach each religion separately – what we call the silo approach. So children have no understanding of religion as a concept, or the way in which religions relate to each other, or the way they influence each other. And so we’re trying to open this up to a broader but deeper analytical understanding of what we have around us in the world . . . that children are entitled to explore.

WD: So is it envisioned that a more kind-of thematic approach would be taken, rather than this kind of silo or systematic approach? Because that as well has its problems, doesn’t it? Because it potentially can re-inscribe the world religions paradigm, that Céline’s just mentioned, in that it kind-of models religions on a kind-of Christian blueprint and says, “Every religion’s got its festivals, and its rites of passage, and . . .”

CB: And rituals and beliefs, yes.

WD: Yes. So, is that a risk with this new approach?

EN: There’s always a risk if you have teachers who don’t feel equipped for the task. And quite a significant part of the recommendations of the report involves ways in which teachers can be strengthened in their knowledge and confidence for dealing with this. But I think, also, one of the pointers in the report is towards understanding the ways in which religions interact. So it’s not saying “You can’t teach about Islam, about Christianity,” and so on. But it is saying, “Look there are people who happen to have one Christian parent and one Muslim parent, or there are people who live as a Muslim minority in a Christian country, or vice versa, and there is interaction between these understandings of the world in the lives of the families concerned. Again, it’s about the nature of religion – that it doesn’t exist in isolation from other ways of being religious.

JM: I think there are issues, as well, about the way in which teachers of Religious Education represent those religions in the way they choose to teach them in the classroom, and how this sits in relation to children’s perceptions of those religions through the media. So, for example, there are many teachers who genuinely believe that they’re addressing Islamophobia through teaching about Islam. So they do the Five Pillars and think they’re making a major contribution to community relations, and children understanding them as their neighbours. Now that may be true, and an understanding of Islam is necessary, but it certainly is not sufficient. So Islam has to be understood in its current social context as well: how Christianity relates to Islam, how Judaism relates to Islam, how our politicians represent Islam in what they say, how the media represents Islam. So we have to move away from a narrow approach to a religion, to seeing it from the child’s perspective – and all the influences that are affecting them and their judgements – so that they can come to a much more informed understanding and have the opportunity for their misconceptions and biases to be addressed. Children can walk away from lessons about Islam being as Islamophobic at the end of it as they were at the beginning. And we delude ourselves if we think that Religious Education can overcome these issues relating to serious racisms in connection with religion.

EN: Yes, this is so true.

CB: I think that’s why it would be interesting to see if the government takes this on board – which I hope it does, because this is a step in the right direction. I think we need to move away from this essentialised approach, and knowledge about a few religions, and think how it’s going to be put into practice, because of what you mentioned, Wendy. There might be some pitfalls in how we could be teaching religion and worldviews. One of the things I wonder, when we put it into practice: how can we move away from teaching about the different “isms”? And it’s creating that space for the teacher, and for the pupils, to have that conversation about what they hear in the media, and what they hear at home as well. And at the moment if feels much more like we’re learning a few key facts about particular religions. But then we will need – and I think the report does mention it – but we need to invest a lot more in teacher training, and in supporting the teachers throughout it. Because it might feel like a minefield to have to go and talk about all these things. And, you know, children are very curious and they will have questions. And from my experience, teachers tend to feel maybe more comfortable going back to telling them a story – a religious story. And then it’s reopening the space for dialogue afterwards.

JM: One of the things we haven’t mentioned yet is the major recommendation in the Commission’s report to set up a new national body to write some exemplary programmes of study that schools can use. And I think that’s going to be really important. And we have been very clear that the people on that body should be there because of their expertise in Religious Education, and not because they’re there representing a religion. And the representation of religion – and Eleanor is much more expert in this than I am – that is a fraught area, a very complex area. And it goes back to people’s sense of ownership and control and power over the curriculum for Religious Education. So there are complex and contested areas.

WD: So, would you see the Commission’s report as a kind-of decisive step away from faith communities having involvement in the construction of the Religious Education syllabus?

JM: I think that I would. But there’s a major “but”, and that is an enhanced role of local religious communities in supporting Religious Education in their localities. We would not go to the French embassy and say, “Please come and sit on a committee, and tell us how to organise the Modern Foreign Languages for French in English schools.” We wouldn’t do it for Geography. And yet we do it in Religious Education. And this now seems an outdated model. The law, in fact, was about the Church of England and other Christian denominations. And there’s been a fudging of all of that.

EN: What I feel is really important, in the light of what you were saying about the need for experts on the national body, is that in the new local advisory networks, if they are implemented, there wouldn’t be the dominance, for example, of the Church of England, but there would be the presence of individuals who perhaps are teaching in higher education, teaching Religious Studies; or maybe from museums or galleries – which are part of the local cultural resources from which children can be educated about religion. So there is a different composition of the local advisory networks, as well as their having a different remit. So, not being burdened with having to produce or authorise an Agreed Syllabus, but being strongly encouraged to be proactive in resourcing schools education in Religion and Worldviews.

CB: I think that’s really important if we . . . . We need to keep these local advisory networks going. Because whilst I am all for a national entitlement – for reasons we mentioned in the report, every child should be receiving the same Religious Education or Religion and Worldviews education – at the same time, because they won’t be involved in looking into the syllabus and that kind of thing, I’m wondering, would there be space for them to still be able to have conversations about the content of good practice and things like that? Because it’s thanks to some of the SACREs that have done such good work that I think we are where we are today. We have been able to move away from teaching about the six major religions, and looking into constructing the syllabus into different ways. So I wonder if there would be space for that kind of conversation.

JM: I think the local area networks can almost invent themselves. If they want to write to write programmes of study as exemplars for their schools, they can do that. If they want to write a programme of study about religion in their local area, they can do that. If they want to produce resources, they can do that. There are huge opportunities for local involvement at a level that is focussed and appropriate for that area. And I think we are . . . I’d like to think we are freeing them up to develop themselves and become stronger, more active, more involved. There is a requirement at the moment, for example, that SACRES should have to monitor the quality of Religious Education in schools. How do they do that? You can look at exam results, but that tells you what happens in Key stage 4. It does not tell you what happens in Key Stages 1, and 2, and 3. So we want to give them the power to do what they can do well – and that is, support local schools in a local, democratic, open, flexible way. So we think there are real opportunities, therefore, to do what they can do well.

WD: Just in relation to the philosophical underpinnings of the report: it strikes me as a report that is more influenced by social scientific approaches to the study of religion than perhaps some other approaches. And I notice what’s not in the report is material on approaches to RE that come from values education or character education, or virtue education – which . . . some people feel that these are areas that RE should be addressing. They should be addressing the character development, the spiritual development, even, of the child. And this report doesn’t seem to envision the subject in that way – which is something I welcome! But it’s something that interests me. Is that a conscious kind-of decision that the commissioners had made?

JM: I think there are lots of questions within that one question, Wendy. Shall I pick up on the spiritual and other things first, and then perhaps we can come back to the social versus theological debate?

WD: Sure.

JM: It’s very important, I think, in English schools to recognise that children’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is a cross-curriculum requirement. It is a whole school issue. And so, RE teachers claiming spiritual development for themselves is not appropriate. It has to be every teacher, every classroom, the whole curriculum, the whole school. What we can do through RE is examine what this word spirituality means, whether it’s linked to religion, whether it’s separate from religion. So we do have a particular role to play. So the same is true of moral education. People may talk about virtue and character. That is a whole school issue, not a Religious Education issue in particular.

EN: Yes, I strongly endorse that.

JM: We have a lot of people saying, “Well, Religious Education’s really important, because then children can understand art, and music, and literature.” That’s children’s cultural development and, again, it’s a whole-school issue. And I’ve got this feeling that if RE teachers stopped saying, “Oh, we can do this,” and said to every department in their school: “This is your responsibility as well,” RE and religion wouldn’t be seen as something separate from the rest of the school, and this odd bit of the basic curriculum as opposed to the National Curriculum. It would be a shared responsibility. And with social education – how we all relate to each other in society, how we all become socially responsible human beings – RE must stop saying, “Oh, this is ours!” We must say, “This is everybody’s.” Because then, I think, RE will actually be strengthened though all of that. And I was also very clear on the Commission – I don’t know about you, Eleanor – but I wanted to try not to tie us to current debates. A little while ago everybody was talking about religious literacy, but that will not continue. Because there are phases in these areas of discourse. We don’t want to be identified with what people were talking about this year, because we’re trying to present a vision for the next twenty-and-more years, perhaps, for Religious Education.

EN: Yes, that’s also very important. And I think what you were saying about RE as it is and was – but it will change its name, we hope – what you said about it almost seeing the cultural, and the moral, and the spiritual, and so on as its preserve, that’s really important. But I suspect the tendency is for other teachers, other members of schools, to be perceiving this to be the preserve of the subject. And one would hope that somehow this report will shift the perception of the specialists in other subjects, and other areas of the curriculum, away from just thinking that there’s one subject where all this can be shunted.

JM: Eleanor, would you agree with me that the social studies approach to religion has been neglected in Religious Education in schools? Or do you think I’m misrepresenting what goes on there?

EN: I think it’s been neglected in the teaching; I think it’s neglected in the resourcing; and I think that a lot of the difficulty for practitioners is the nature of the resources, which – if we talk about print resources – are those that publishers produce on the assumption that you have a publication about each of the religions, separately. And we very much need to have resources which are based on a social sciences understanding of religion. And in school, of course, it is still the case that there may be a non-specialist in secondary, as well as in primary, teaching the subject. And it may be that the head knows that somebody is a good member of a particular faith community and therefore asks that person to teach this subject – which reinforces a misunderstanding of the nature of religions as matters of faith and belief and commitment, rather than having many other dimensions that would be mapped out by somebody who was looking from more sociological or, for that matter, psychological or anthropological perspectives.

JM: The fact is, though, in a classroom, if you were to begin with a social scientific approach, it wouldn’t take very long before children were beginning to ask questions beyond quantitative data. And as soon as you begin looking at qualitative data, you’re talking about what people do as a religious practice, or believe as a religious person. And so very, very quickly you would come to the big questions about a religion: what it teaches, how it analyses the human condition. So I think the social sciences/ theological Religious Studies split is a false dichotomy, in a real classroom with children asking their questions. And children are very interested in questions of meaning and the big questions about religion and worldviews. I think we can have a balanced curriculum that will bring a social studies approach to the classroom, in a better, clearer way than it has been before. So Religious Education should benefit enormously from this, I think.

EN: Yes.

CB: So, what would you say is the main aim of Religion and Worldviews? Because, as you rightly said before, it was religious instruction for a while, then it was about warmer community relations. And we put so many aims and objectives in RE that we didn’t even know what it was for, in the end. So I wonder if you are keeping it vague on purpose, or if you’ve actually narrowed it down a little bit.

EN: It is simply about understanding the nature of religion and understanding the worldviews of people in a diverse local, national and global society.

WD: But does that have some kind of transformative effect on the child? Are we hoping that they will be more open to religion, more empathetic, or are we hoping to develop stronger critical skills? What’s the effect on the child of that understanding?

EN: That would have to be researched. I’m sure we’re hoping that throughout the curriculum, and outside of the curriculum, pupils are being transformed into happy responsible members of our harmonious society. But the study of Religion and Worldviews isn’t to be seen as something instrumental. It’s something of value in itself as an intellectual discipline, as a clue to understanding what’s going on in world current affairs, and so on. But I would think that any responsible professional educator is hoping that their teaching is going to maximise the potential of their students and be beneficial to society as a whole.

JM: I like to think in terms of a sort-of family of resemblance when it comes to the aims and purposes of religious education. And I think as a profession we’ve spent a great deal of time talking about what RE is for and trying to define its aims when, in fact, there are many appropriate aims, and many appropriate emphases. And teachers with different strengths and different academic backgrounds come into teaching this subject. And I think there are a number of ways of approaching RE – a number of ways of looking at what the whole purpose of it is. And we need to remain open and flexible, and recognise that if they’re doing all of those things that Eleanor’s just set out, we’re enabling young people to become more mature, more human, more moral, more aware of others, more able to cope with difference, more understanding of the human condition – and them, as individuals, within humanity. There are many, many ways of doing that. And so I don’t think we should be too precise and we say, “The outcome has to be this.” There are many possible consequences of what we teach, and a good deal of those we’ll never know. Because they come to fruition, we hope, in adulthood, as children grow up and continue to think about these sorts of issues that were raised as part of their Religious Education in schools.

EN: And are actually friends with people from very different cultural and religious backgrounds from their own.

JM: And I love that phrase, Eleanor – I think I might have learned it through you – of children becoming “cultural navigators”. And that’s a phrase from Ballard, isn’t it?

EN: Yes, that was a term I used. And I think certainly one of the first people to use it was Roger Ballard.

JM: And I love that idea of children becoming cultural navigators. In fact it may even be . . . when I worked in Bradford, we talked about children becoming cross-cultural navigators: this ability to respectfully engage in conversation and activity with people from a whole range of other backgrounds. And that is one of the purposes of Religious Education. It’s not the only purpose. I think the government might be interested in RE’s contribution to the emphasis it currently has on integrated communities. And yes, RE can contribute to that. And it’s very important. But isn’t the only purpose. Politically, at the moment, it may be given emphasis. But there are so many more consequences of good RE.

EN: I do have a concern about cultural and religious navigation. Navigation is about avoiding things!

All: (Laugh)

EN: I think we have to use some other metaphors as well.

WD: (Laughs) Yes! Cultural explorers, maybe?

EN: Yes.

WD: If RE – or Religion and Worldviews, as it’s newly envisioned – is academic and it’s non-confessional, shouldn’t every child have it by law? And should it be impossible for parents to withdraw their children from it?

EN: I think a lot of commissioners would hope that. But we also have to be aware of the nature of the law and of precedents internationally, and nationally. And that is why there’s a recommendation that the DfE should clarify the legal situation.

JM: Ideally it would go. And it is anomalous that children can be withdrawn by their parents and teachers can withdraw from teaching it, if they choose to do that. It does make us exceptional in the curriculum. But as Eleanor has said, the law around this is really quite complex, and we do not want to create a situation which is going to put schools at risk of litigation. And that is extremely important. And that was what absolutely put the brakes on this move.

EN: We did have experts with informed legal advice on this.

JM: We did. And the ideal situation is that it remains in law as a possibility, but nobody ever takes advantage of it.

WD: Because advantage is increasingly being taken of it, isn’t it? Often for Islamophobic reasons.

JM: Well, the evidence seems quite limited on that. There has been one survey, but it included a very small number of schools that responded. I think 300 schools, out of the thousands in England. And a small percentage of those reported that there was that. Anecdotally we hear a great deal about that, but there isn’t sufficient hard evidence to support that it actually happens. Would you agree with that reading of the evidence we’ve had, Eleanor?

EN: Yes, I think that’s true. I think we’re concerned about what a future trajectory might look like. And I think we’re also concerned about the possibility of withdrawal from parts of the subject and whether or not parents, or anybody, is required to find some worthy substitute for education in Religion and Worldviews for those students who are withdrawn – if they are. There is . . . it’s a complex area. But I think it’s very easy for people to assume that it’s all to do with Islamophobia or, even more widely, is Xenophobia. And I certainly haven’t seen data that would support that.

JM: I think it’s interesting though, that there are so many parents who don’t want their children to be taught about certain things in case they are unduly influenced by them. And so this again shows the fear that lies underneath people’s perceptions of Religious Education, as somehow – possibly in quite a subtle way – being indoctrinatory or evangelical. And we have not managed to shift public opinion sufficiently on that in the thirty-odd years that modern Religious Education has been in existence.

WD: And, of course, the move to worldviews invites the perception that now Religious Education is going to include Humanism, atheism, etc., etc. And there may be a new cohort of people who might be disturbed about that.

JM: It’s possible. I think we have one cohort who look on religion with suspicion, because it’s religious and they’re secularist, and they don’t want their children to be subjected to it. We have another group where there are deeply held religious convictions, that they don’t want to be challenged. And it’s how, somehow, we find a way of addressing the fears on both sides, so that everyone is confident that we’re having a sensitive but academically challenging opportunity for children to explore what religion and worldviews are.

EN: I think that the more it becomes evident that a national programme of study is not being created by spokespeople for a religious group, the more it becomes evident that that a local advisory network is drawing on the expertise of Religious Studies professionals and not simply relying on insider views and voices, then the less risk there is of this sort of fear and knee-jerk withdrawals from the subject.

WD: A final quick question, if that’s ok? So, the Religious Studies Project audience is very diverse. But what do you think, as commissioners, that people who are interested in the Religious Studies Project, who are interested in academic Religious Studies, maybe Critical Religious Studies, might really appreciate about the Commission’s report – and what might they be critical of?

JM: What I think they should appreciate is the opening up of the subject to make it absolutely relevant to every child in every classroom. We talked a great deal in the Commission about entitlement and equality, but also the idea of inclusivity. Religious Education – Religion and Worldviews – has to be appropriate for every single child, whatever background they come from.

WD: And whatever type of school they’re in, as well.

JM: And whatever type of school they’re in. And if children who would describe themselves as not belonging to a religion can be excited by the study of religion and worldviews, and interested in exploring its place in the world, then they’re the young people who will want to go on to learn more and study more deeply. So I would like to think that it could bring a whole new energy and an opening up of RE. I should think every teacher of Religious Education has been asked the question, “Why do we have to do this subject?” My ambition is that children will stop asking that question, because they will see it’s relevant to them – whoever they are, whatever they believe or don’t believe – that it’s relevant and important, and enables them to understand the world and themselves better.

CB: And I think where the report is key is moving away from the majority of pupils feeling like they’re looking at others, that they don’t recognise themselves in the syllabus.

WD: Well, isn’t it more than 70% of children in classrooms don’t identify as religious?

JM: I wonder what people are going to be critical of? Perhaps . . . . Do you have any insight into that, Eleanor?

EN: Well, I imagine they’re going to be critical of the fact that we haven’t gone far enough, for example, on saying that there should be no withdrawal. But that criticism, as we pointed out, is based on not necessarily understanding what the legal implications are of taking that stand. So I think the commissioners, very, very carefully thought through and tried to balance just about every sentence in this report. And I think it’s very easy for somebody who hasn’t been through that process to take one of the views that was taken into account in the Commission’s consultations and in their ruminations on this, without, of course, having had the whole process of refining and reaching, in a sense, a compromise position. So I think there are all sorts of points at which somebody could say: “Well, it should go further than this.”

WD: Yes. I wonder if there may be . . . . When knowledge is constructed, or the categories that we use become fixed in kind-of policy documents like this, it’s very clear in the document that the worldviews that are being looked are not political worldviews. They’re worldviews that have some relationship to, or are responses to religious belief. So atheism is included as a worldview. But not communism or something like that. And I think a lot of people working in Religious Studies – I don’t know what you think, Celine – might say, “You can’t draw those hard and fast lines quite so easily.” And what you’re creating is a kind-of constructed idea of what a worldview is.

CB: Yes. I think from the conversation we’ve had in our conference today, there was some concern about worldviews maybe being too wide, and maybe being narrowed down a bit too much. But I think we may be also lacking the right vocabulary at the moment. So no-one seemed to come forward with a suggestion that would have been better than worldviews.

WD: We hear, “Oh, it would be better to be Philosophy”, rather than worldviews. But I mean philosophy is . . .

JM: It’s a different subject.

EN: And the other alternative, or another option, was “Beliefs”. But similarly with beliefs, there can be beliefs which probably would be less suitable for this particular subject than others. But, where do you draw the line?

WD: Well, belief comes very much out of the kind-of Protestant Christian model of what a religion is. So I would be really disappointed if it was belief. I think worldviews is a massive improvement on that.

JM: And when we looked at the record of what we’d said, and what had been written down on our behalf, the word that emerged naturally from our ruminations – to use Eleanor’s word – was that word worldview. We could have taken any title and imposed it. But when we actually looked at the texts of what we’d been talking about, it just seemed the natural consequence of our thinking. So it wasn’t arbitrary. We did try the arbitrary exercise, “Shall we call it this, that, or the other?” But then it did emerge naturally, I think, from the conversations that we had.

CB: I think that’s the issue isn’t it? Whatever we pick, whatever is selected as that word that we add to religion, it’s going to be problematic anyway.

WD: Well I think that’s a good point to stop, if everybody’s ok with that. And can I say a very sincere “thank you” to Dr Joyce Miller, Professor Eleanor Nesbitt, and Celine Benoit, for this interesting conversation. And can I ask Religious Studies Project Listeners to visit the Commission for Religious Education’s website where they can find the report? And there’s also some information on that website about getting behind the report if you would like to do that. We’ll put the link to the report on the web page for this podcast. Thank you for listening.


Citation Info: Miller, Joyce, Eleanor Nesbitt, Céline Benoit and Wendy Dossett. 2018. “RE Commission Report: A Way Forward?”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 November 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 28 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/re-commission-report-a-way-forward/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing our podcast archive, or know of any sources of funding for the transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Religious Education in State-Funded Schools: An Academic Subject Like Any Other… and Some!

In many ways I am in agreement with Professor Jensen, and see myself as a partner in the campaign to establish a ‘Religious Studies based’ Religious Education in state funded schools throughout Europe and indeed the world. Since experiencing a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion from Theology to Religious Studies on my teacher training year and Lancaster University MA in the mid-1970s (see Cush 2009), I have spent nearly forty years passionate about the ‘Religious Studies Approach’ and applying it in a variety of educational settings. I have also concerned myself throughout that time with the relationship between Religious Studies as understood at university level, and religious education in schools, both in academic publications (see for example Cush, 1999) and on various professional and policy committees on religious education. I currently represent the university Theology and Religious Studies sector (TRS-UK) on the Religious Education Council of England and Wales and its subcommittees, and was on the Steering Group for the new National Curriculum Framework for Religious Education, part of the recent Review of Religious Education in England (REC, 2013) – full report available at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report. So I am perhaps an example of the ‘publically engaged academic’ Tim seeks, at least in relation to education policy.

Like Professor Jensen, I began my teaching career in a sixth-form college (in Denmark, Gymnasium or ‘upper secondary’), and then moved into university level where I have been involved in both training teachers and undergraduate and postgraduate Religious Studies. Thus we both have much practical experience as well as theoretical perspectives.

I am in total agreement with Professor Jensen – Tim – that religious education should be a compulsory subject in all state-funded schools (see Jensen 2011). A brief note about terminology – I use the term ‘state-funded schools’ rather than ‘public schools’ (which is the term used in US and international English for ‘ordinary’ community schools), to avoid confusion with the English usage of the term ‘public schools’ to refer to certain prestigious, independent, fee-paying, schools. I also use ‘religious education’ as that is the most familiar term in the UK, although I like Tim’s ‘religion education’, which I believe was coined in South Africa in the late 90s, as avoiding the implication that studying religions is somehow ‘religious’. I would prefer another name altogether, possibly avoiding the highly contested term ‘religion’, which can carry negative connotations.

I also agree that religious education should be an academic subject, treated like other school subjects. If only it was treated like other subjects in England, we would not have the situation where it is a subject which is given less time on the timetable (many RE teachers have to enable students to pass their GCSE (16+ qualification) in half the time given for history or geography), where 50% of teachers teaching RE are completely unqualified in the subject, where primary trainee teachers may only have a couple of hours training, where it was not listed in the government’s list of important subjects for 16+ qualifications (the so-called ‘English Baccalaureate), where it is not included in the list of ‘facilitating subjects’ for gaining a place in the more prestigious universities, where trainee teachers are given no bursaries to study in spite of the shortage of specialist teachers, and where the recent Review of the subject had to be funded by charities and worked on by unpaid volunteers because the government provided no funding. For documented evidence on the neglect of religious education, see for example http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf and to illustrate that this neglect is not new, Gates (1993).

I also agree with Tim and the colleague he mentioned, Wanda Alberts, that religious education should be what she calls ‘integrative’ (Alberts, 2007). In other words, the subject should be for all pupils of whatever religious background or none, should be non-confessional (not attempting to evangelise, proselytise, catechise or promote any particular religion or ‘religion’ in general), should be multi-faith (content should include major religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but also smaller ‘indigenous’ traditions such as the Maori, and smaller newer developments such as contemporary Paganism). I also consider that given the fact that c.25% of people in England and Wales consider themselves to be ‘non-religious’ (whatever they mean by that) it is important to include the study of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism. It might come as a surprise to some that non-confessional, multi-faith religious education is still a minority option for states internationally (notably Sweden, Norway, Denmark, South Africa and the UK – and Ireland is thinking about it), most preferring to opt for either confessional religious education in the tradition deemed that of the country (or several separate strands if diversity is noticed) or to leave religious education out of state-funded education altogether, as in France or the USA.

I agree with Tim that multi-faith religious education, if appropriately done, is suitable for pupils of all ages from nursery schools onwards. Attitudes are formed early. I also wish that we in England had the sort of religious education for all students in the 16-19 age group that is found in Denmark, rather than A level Religious studies for the minority that take it and either nothing or a token gesture for the minority. I also agree that it is inappropriate for teachers of religious education to be expected to be somehow more of a moral role model, or more personally religious than any other teacher. Those of us in the subject at any level of education are bored with the predictable responses when introduced as a religious studies teacher/lecturer.

Another point of agreement with Tim is that we should not just be providing information about religious and non-religious traditions, but enabling our students to think critically about religions and to be able to discuss religious and ethical matters in an informed and articulate way (sometimes referred to as ‘religious literacy’). This, as Tim says, should be requisite in any open, democratic society.

I agree that we should have people teaching in schools that are well qualified, have studied the subject at university level, and that the university curriculum should take account of this and other likely careers for Religious Studies graduates, and help to provide skills they will need. Perhaps more controversially, I do agree to some extent with Tim’s aim of inculcating ‘some kind of relativism’, but would prefer to talk of ‘epistemological humility’ (a term apparently arrived at separately and simultaneously by David Chidester and myself) as ‘relativism’ is too misunderstood and explosive a term. What Tim and I mean is people who have their own well-thought out views and perspectives, but are open to accepting that they might just have something to learn from those who disagree with them.

And now for the ‘howevers’…

Although I bounced into the classroom in the 1970s full of enthusiasm to share my ‘Lancaster University Religious Studies’ knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and so on with my students, over the decades, especially working with younger pupils, I have come to appreciate that there are other, and perhaps even more important aims for religious education. As Tim says, it is unlikely that any ‘scientific’ study of religion will not have side effects such as students reflecting on their own beliefs, values and identity, and becoming better citizens of a diverse society. However, in Religious Education as practised in England and Wales, academic knowledge of religions/non-religious worldviews is only one of the aims of religious education. Tim’s ‘side-effects’ become explicit aims. So, religious education should enable students to develop their own ideas on the important questions dealt with in religious traditions. In the words of the National Curriculum Framework (REC 2013) ‘Religious Education contributes dynamically to children and young people’s education in schools by provoking challenging questions about meaning and purpose in life, beliefs about God, ultimate reality, issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human’. Though agreeing with Tim (2011:143) that religions are more than sets of answers to existential questions, and that not everyone is interested in these issues any more than in religions, there needs to be space for pupils to work out their own beliefs and values, in relation to the community or communities they belong to and the wider society. I do however note Tim’s concern that this can go too far, and am myself concerned that a focus on philosophical and ethical issues in England is in danger of pushing out learning about religions in some examination syllabuses and therefore also in earlier school years.

Religions and non-religious worldviews also have much to offer in contribution to discussing some of the pressing issues of our day, such as social justice, equality, wealth and poverty, war and conflict, the environment. The REC document calls these contributions ‘sources of wisdom’, though in an impartial approach we must also enable pupils to think critically about examples where ‘religions’ and ‘worldviews’ have made things worse. Tim also states that in the hands of ‘engaged and dedicated teachers’ (2011:143) such issues arise naturally out of the ‘neutral and factual information about the religions taught’ – but unless planned for, or in the hands of less gifted teachers, they might not.

In order to engage positively with others in a society of diverse religious and non-religious worldviews, pupils need more than just factual information. They also need to empathise with others, and the skills of discussing controversial issues without disrespecting those with whom they disagree. These skills can be honed in the religious education classroom. Although the phenomenological approach to the study of religions has been rightly criticised in some respects, such as essentialism, the practice of epoche and empathy before jumping straight into critical analysis and evaluation have much to be said for them when dealing with matters at the heart of people’s identity.

Tim talked about being bored with observing religion in practice – visiting mosques and gurdwaras.  As a veteran of organising many a field trip, I can sympathise, but without us organising such visits many of our students will never have a chance of meeting some religious communities. Nothing beats actually meeting people to break down stereotypes (OK, sometimes they get reinforced, but that can be discussed), and realising that what we label ‘religion’ is not just about ideas and rules, but community, atmosphere, music, art, who we are, what we eat and how we wash. School religious education did not have to wait for university religious studies to suggest an ethnographic approach to studying religions, this was already happening in the late 60s and 70s (see Cush & Robinson, 2014:7), and more systematically from the 1990s (see Jackson, 1997 and 2004). The part of our undergraduate degree course that I value most is our compulsory seven day residential stay with a community other than the student’s own (see www.livingreligion.co.uk).

I disagree with Tim that school religious education ‘ought to be a miniature of religious studies’ (2007:142), as for philosophical, pedagogical and feminist reasons I am very wary of ‘top-down’ approaches to knowledge. For universities to set the agenda for schools can be patronising (see Cush 1999), and sometimes the flow of information and experience can be the other way round, such as the influence on university curricula in the UK of the stress on philosophy and ethics in schools, or simply when a child from a particular tradition actually knows more than the lecturer in a particular context. I would rather see universities and schools as partners. I also contend that ‘Religious Education in schools is not University Religious Studies watered down to make it suitable for children’ but ‘about the interaction between the religious material and the concerns and interests of the child’ (Cush, 1999:138). Spiritual, or more generally personal, development may be a side-effect of university Religious Studies, but it is an explicit aim of religious education in schools in England, and indeed an aim for the whole curriculum.

Recent development in Religious Studies such as the application of feminist theory, queer theory, and post-colonial theory have undermined the ‘Enlightenment’ concept of ‘objective’ knowledge and stress that ‘the scholar does not so much survey the scene from above but works within the web of his/her own experience and relationships’ (Cush & Robinson 2014: 9). Have our ‘religious studies facts’ been constructed under patriarchy, heteronormativity and colonialism? And how does this change the religious education classroom?

In conclusion, as Peter Schreiner often says (see for example, 2011:30) we all tend to prefer our own system of religious education, partly from a conservative attachment to what we know and are comfortable with, but also because the contexts of different countries, regions and individual schools differ. Although I have some disagreements with Tim Jensen’s approach to religious education as detailed above, I imagine that in practice, in the hands of skilled teachers who have a good relationship with their pupils, Tim’s ‘side-effects’ accomplish much the same as my ‘explicit aims’, and our commitment to a non-confessional, multi-faith religious education outweighs the differences. There is only a small band of Religious Studies scholars who take the time to care about Religious Education in schools (Ninian Smart was one, with his colleagues in the Shap Working Party – see www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/ ) and this partnership must be encouraged.

Bibliography

Alberts, W. (2007) Integrative Religious Education in Europe: A Study of Religions Approach Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

APPG (2013) The Truth Unmasked: the Supply of and Support for Religious Education Teachers available from http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf

 Cush, D. (1999) ‘Big Brother, Little Sister, and the Clerical Uncle: the relationship between Religious Studies, Religious Education and Theology?’ in British Journal of Religious Education 21.3 pp 137-146

Cush, D, (2009) ‘Religious Studies versus Theology: why I’m still glad that I converted from Theology to Religious Studies’ in Bird, D. and Smith, S. Theology and Religious Studies in Higher Education: Global Perspectives Continuum, pp.15-30

Cush, D. (2011) ‘Without Fear or Favour: Forty Years of Non-confessional and Multi-faith Religious Education in Scandinavia and the UK’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.69-84.

Cush, D. and Robinson, C. (2014) ‘Developments in Religious Studies: Towards a Dialogue with Religious Education’ British Journal of Religious Education 36.1, pp.4-17.

Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) (2011) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann.

Gates, B. (1993) Time for Religious Education and Teachers to Match: a Digest of Under-provision St. Martin’s College, Lancaster: REC.

Jackson, R. (1997) Religious Education, an interpretive approach London, Hodder

Jackson, R. (2004) Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy London: RoutledgeFalmer

Jensen, T. (2011) ‘Why Religion Education, as a Matter of course, ought to be Part of the Public School Curriculum’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann. Pp.131-149.

Religious Education Council of England and Wales (2013) A Review of Religious Education in England London: REC, also available on-line at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report

Schreiner, P. (2011) ‘Situation and Current Developments of Religious Education in Europe’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.17-34.

A useful place to find summaries of how religious education is organised in European countries is the website of the European Forum for Teachers of Religious Education

http://www.eftre.net/

A useful source for example of practical materials and cutting edge debate on religious education is http://www.reonline.org.uk/

For Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education see http://www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

Religious Education

For those of us in Britain the question of Religious Education has become an ever-increasing issue of concern. Just last October Ofsted, the regulatory board for all education at school level, reported that over half the schools in Britain were failing to provide students with adequate RE. In the wake of this calls were made for clearer standardisation of the subject and a “national benchmark”. The deterioration of RE is perhaps not all that surprising after it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate in 2011. But the call for improvement raises with it a number of questions. First and foremost, just what exactly should RE entail? Should RE be teaching about religion or teaching religion? Who, even, should be RE teachers? PGCE (teacher training) courses in RE accept candidates with degrees in Religious Studies, Theology, Philosophy or indeed any other topic so long as they can, in the words of one program, show “demonstrable knowledge of the study of religion”. But does a theologian or a philosopher have the same skill sets as an RS scholar? To be sure, they may know the facts of a particular religion but are the facts enough for a satisfactory education? Just what is exactly is it we are teaching students to do in RE classrooms?

In this interview, Jonathan Tuckett speaks with Tim Jensen to try to answer some of these questions and more. Not only has Jensen spoken widely on the topic of RE he has recently headed the EASR working group in Religious Education which has studied the status of RE in Denmark, Sweden and Norway highlighting that the question of RE is of particular concern to any secular state.

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Young People of ‘No Religion’ and Religious Education Beyond Religious Belief

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 30 October 2013, in response to Abby Day’s interview on Believing, Belonging, and Academic Careers  (28 October 2013).

Divided into two distinct halves, Christopher Cotter’s interview with Abby Day begins with a discussion of her research on the nature of belief and what ordinary people in a modern western society actually believe; and concludes with advice on publishing journal articles and acquiring funding for research projects. In my response, I’ll focus on some of the points raised concerning belief, suggest how Day’s work could benefit youth and education studies and, in particular, explain how I’ve found her approach to the study of belief helpful in my own exploration of the lives of young people who identify as having ‘no religion’.

For Day, the concept of belief has often been taken for granted in the study of religion. Rarely do we ask, what do we mean when we talk about belief? As David Morgan has observed, the academic study of religion in the West has been ‘shaped by the idea that a religion is what someone believes’, and that this amounts to a ‘discrete, subjective experience of assent to propositions concerning the origin of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, the existence of deities, or the purpose of life’ (2010, 1). Although there have been a number of scholars and researchers, particularly within anthropology, who have critiqued this view of religion (Needham 1972; Ruel 2002; Lindquist and Coleman 2008), such an understanding persists and remains prevalent within religious education (RE) in secondary schools. Day’s research not only raises questions about what we mean by belief; she also demonstrates how religious identity is often more complicated than assent to propositions. And both of these insights could be of great value to the study of religion and belief at school, as well as to researchers’, teachers’ and policy-makers’ understandings of the nature of belief within the lives of both religious and ‘non-religious’ young people.

The initial impetus for Day’s interest in what people actually believe came from the 2001 Census in England and Wales, in which 72% of the respondents identified as ‘Christian’. In what appeared to be an increasingly secular society, it seemed puzzling that such a large proportion of the population would self-identify in this way. Day decided to explore more deeply what some of these census respondents meant in their adoption of a Christian identity, by examining what they actually believed. Introducing herself to potential participants as a social sciences researcher rather than a researcher of religion, Day also began her interviews by asking people ‘what do you believe in?’ rather than ‘what is your religion?’ It was only at the very end of her interviews that she raised the topic of religious identity in connection with the 2001 Census. This approach enabled her to focus on belief without asking religious questions. And, by focusing instead on values and meaning, as well as what was important to her participants, Day was able to learn much more about how belief functioned in their lives.

Day’s study of belief beyond ‘religious belief’ encouraged me to adopt a similar methodological approach in my own research with 14- and 15-year-olds who report ‘no religion’, exploring how ticking the ‘no religion’ box related to their wider lives without asking questions about religion. I wanted to learn about the people, places, objects, activities and times – the material cultures – that were significant to these young people, as well as to understand their beliefs and values, their methods of constructing narratives of meaning and purpose, and the influence of family, friends and society on their lives and identities. My primary research method was photo-elicitation interviews, in which the photos taken act as ‘prompts and supports to participant narrative’ (Liebenberg, 2009, 448). But I also wanted to avoid any tendencies to take photos that specifically focused on participants’ ‘non-religiosity’ or illustrated their attitudes towards religion. So I embedded the religion question from the 2011 Census alongside questions that collected other seemingly unconnected data and left explicit discussion of participants’ reasons for self-identifying as having ‘no religion’, as well as of their understandings of ‘religion’, to the end of the interview.

Just as Day discovered, however, where it remains important, interview questions about ‘belief’ or ‘life’ more generally still enable participants to talk freely about religion. But, while Day found that religion and religious beliefs played a relatively unimportant part in the lives of some participants who nonetheless chose ‘Christian’ as their religious identity in the 2001 Census, my research with young people who ticked ‘no religion’ indicates that some who self-identify in this way nonetheless find religion and religious beliefs to be significant in their lives.

Day’s research offers valuable insights into some of the reasons people in a modern western society choose to adopt a ‘Christian’ identity when surveyed. For some, it acts as a ‘social marker’ that helps them to feel secure within their communities, creating a boundary between themselves and others; being Christian is something that they are born into, akin to an ethnic identity. This position is nicely illustrated in her interview with ‘Jordan’, a 14-year-old who she describes as an ‘unbelieving Christian’. Although he states ‘I don’t believe in any religions’, Jordan identifies as ‘Christian’ because ‘on my birth certificate it says I’m Christian’. Day explains that, for him, ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean much, he doesn’t do anything that is typically ‘Christian’, and his understanding of a Christian is ‘someone who believes in God and Jesus and Bible and stuff’. While he does not believe in these things, his grandparents do because they are ‘Irish and really strong Christians’. This understanding of what being a Christian entailed is perhaps not surprising, considering Jordan was ‘reflecting how the term “belief” has become associated with “Christian” over the centuries’ (Day, 2009, 266-7). Day’s research provides a welcome corrective to an understanding of belief as primarily propositional and Christian, illustrating the various ways belief functions in all our everyday lives, cutting across conventional boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Although Jordan differs from my participants in that he identifies as ‘Christian’ rather than as having ‘no religion’, understandings of the Christian religion and of what a Christian identity entails are similar. In many of my interviews, it became clear that participants reduce ‘religion’ to metaphysical, existential and/or ethical belief systems that are either true or false. Since participants do not hold these beliefs, they tick the ‘no religion’ box. For some, in order to identify as Christian it is not only necessary to believe everything within that religion, but to have a strong faith in those beliefs. As one 15-year-old girl told me, ‘I don’t think my belief in God is strong enough for me to tick “Christian”. … If there was a sort of “in between” box, I probably would have ticked that. But to categorise what I believe, I’d say I don’t really have a religion’.

My research interests in the lives of young people who report ‘no religion’ dovetails with the emerging field of Nonreligion and Secularity Studies. Lois Lee has provided a working definition of ‘non-religion’ as ‘anything that is primarily defined in a relationship of difference to religion’ (2012, 131), indicating the necessity of reflexivity not only about specific relationships of ‘difference’ but about understandings of ‘religion’ itself. Day is right to emphasise the importance of clarity in relation to the term ‘belief’, but perhaps she could have spoken more during the interview about what she means by ‘religion’. This would then assist further discussion of her proposal that ‘belief’ crosses conventional boundaries between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’, making religion, as she says, ‘a subset of belief’.

For the young people of ‘no religion’ that I interviewed, ‘religion’ is understood as consisting of impossible propositional beliefs that are displaced by scientific knowledge. Religion requires acceptance of all its beliefs and cannot incorporate participants’ diversity of beliefs; as another 15-year-old girl said, ‘there would never be a religion for everything I thought’. Religion demands restrictive ethical beliefs, behaviours and belongings that limit autonomy and authenticity. And even when religious ethics are admirable, participants separate ethics from religion because religion remains reduced to primarily metaphysical beliefs.

Although there were a number of reasons that these young people viewed religion and belief in this way, one influence on their understanding clearly came from what they were taught in school. In state-maintained secondary schools in England, some form of RE is mandatory and one of the ways in which schools meet this requirement is through exam courses at GCSE. ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ is one of the most popular strands of exam RE, with pupils being tested on their knowledge of how religious adherents are supposed to live and act, and on their ability to critique religious truth claims and provide rationale for their own beliefs about what is true. For example, the following questions have been set on recent exam papers:

Explain why some people say that religious revelation is only an illusion (AQA GCSE Religious Studies Short Course Specification A, June 2010)

Explain why most Christians are against euthanasia (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Do you think the universe is designed? Give two reasons for your point of view (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Although this might help pupils develop their critical thinking skills, this approach to the study of religion seems to reinforce the notion that religion is concerned with private, individualized beliefs of an ontological, epistemological and/or moral nature. It does not provide room for pupils to consider how ‘religion’ might be broader than assent to propositional beliefs or to explore further the nature of belief and how it can function in all our everyday lives. As Day writes of Jordan, ‘[He] had many beliefs, although not in God, Jesus, the Bible and “stuff”. He believed in doing well at school, helping at home, being with his friends’ (2009, 267).

In recent years, there has been increased debate about the inclusion of secular philosophies within the RE classroom. As I have argued elsewhere , there seem to be a number of problems with some of the recommendations that have been made in this debate, specifically that it repeats the assumption that belief (whether religious or secular) is tantamount to assent to propositions. But exploring the nature of belief more broadly would seem to be one way in which young people could understand religion ‘beyond belief’ and start to recognise the role that beliefs play in all our lives, rather than viewing belief as solely propositional and peculiar to religion. Space within the curriculum should perhaps be found, therefore, to encourage pupils to explore the nature of belief as not only a marker of religious identity but also of social or relational identities, as Day suggests.

Towards the end of the interview, Day discusses some of the ways in which academics can disseminate project findings, as well as give back to the communities they have involved in their projects. Day’s research into what people actually believe has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of how belief functions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. My research with 14- and 15-year olds suggests that it would be helpful if more of these insights could reach not only researchers of religion but also educationalists and policy makers, in order to benefit young people studying religion and belief at school.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Day, A. (2009) ‘Believing in Belonging: An Ethnography of Young People’s Constructions of Belief.’ Culture and Religion 10 (3) 263-278
  • – (2011) Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, L. (2012) ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
  • Liebenberg, L. (2009) ‘The visual image as discussion point: increasing validity in boundary crossing research’. Qualitative Research 9:441-67.
  • Lindquist, G. and Coleman, S. (2008) ‘Introduction: Against Belief?’ Social Analysis 52 (1) 1-18
  • Morgan, D. (ed.) (2010) Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge.
  • Needham, R. (1972) Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Ruel, M. (2002) ‘Christians as Believers’ in Lambek, M. (ed.) (2002) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Podcasts

RE Commission report: A Way Forward?

Commission on Religious Education
The number of students being entered for the public examinations in Religious Studies in England and Wales (GCSE, at 16 and A level, at 18) fell significantly in the summer of 2018, and more than a third of schools are breaking the law by failing to provide Religious Education (RE). The decline can be explained in part by educational policy decisions, for example RE is currently excluded from the EBacc, a group of GCSE subjects which are viewed by government as a performance measure for schools. Policy decisions both reflect and feed public assessments of the value of subjects, and public support for RE is demonstrably low. Perhaps the public imagines (rightly or wrongly) that RE is aligned with religion itself, and thus the subject suffers with the same ‘toxicity’ that Linda Woodhead considers attaches to the ‘brand’ of religion. Whatever the case, confusion about the aims and purposes of the subject in schools is unlikely to support its flourishing.

A report published in September 2018 by the Commission on Religious Education entitled Religion and Worldviews: the Way Forward: A National Plan for Religious Education attempts to tackle these problems. Its central proposal is for a change in the law to ensure that all pupils in England, no matter what type of school they attend, receive their ‘National Entitlement’ to education about religion and worldviews. The report, authored by fourteen Commissioners from a range of sectors (including academics, teachers, headteachers and consultants, a broadcaster and a Human Rights lawyer), was the culmination of two years of intensive consultation with a range of stakeholders, and an ambitious attempt to bring the whole ‘RE Community’ together to push for statutory change. Considering the neo-liberal fragmentation of the education system over the last two decades, and the growth in the number of schools with a religious character, this attempt to achieve consensus on the core content of RE is indeed ambitious. The Commission on Religious Education’s report is not the only one published in recent months suggesting ways forward for the subject. Linda Woodhead and former Secretary of State for Education Charles Clarke, recently published A New Settlement Revised: Religion and Belief in Schools. Though the detail of their recommendations differs, both reports lobby for urgent governmental intervention to secure a place for an academically credible subject on the school curriculum.

At a recent RE research and policy conference #2020RE, Dr Wendy Dossett had the opportunity to chat with two of the Commissioners and authors of the Religion and Worldviews report, Dr Joyce Miller and Prof Eleanor Nesbitt, along with Religious Education sociologist (and convener of SOCREL), Céline Benoit. Their conversation ranged over some of the following issues: the rationale for the move from calling the subject ‘Religious Education’ to ‘Religion and Worldviews’; the inadequacy for the classroom of a world religions approach; the degree to which faith communities are entitled to influence what gets taught in schools; and the anomaly of the so-called withdrawal clause.

Listeners outside the UK context may be unfamiliar with the following terms:
Key Stages (introduced in the 1988 Education Reform Act) are age related periods in education: Key Stage 1 (aged 5-7), Key Stage 2 (aged 7-11), Key Stage 3 (aged 11-14), Key Stage 4 (aged 14-16), Key Stage 5, (aged 16-18).
SACREs: (Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education) are statutory local education authority bodies, including representation from the Anglican Church, other Christian denominations and other faiths, teacher representatives, and elected council members. SACRES support and resource RE in all local authority schools, and every five years review the locally Agreed Syllabus.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


RE Commission Report: A Way Forward?

Podcast with Joyce Miller, Eleanor Nesbitt, Celine Benoit (5 November 2018).

Interviewed by Wendy Dossett

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: RE_Commission_Report_1.1

Wendy Dossett (WD): Hello everybody, and welcome to the Religious Studies Project! My name’s Wendy Dossett and I’m senior lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Chester. And I’m also the TRS UK representative [on] the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, which means I’m interested in the relationship between departments of the academic study of Theology and Religion and what goes on in schools. And we’re at a particularly critical moment in the study of religion in schools [because of significant] public mistrust of the subject. Linda Woodhead has said that religion is a toxic brand. And I think [the] public think that Religious Education in schools is about recommending religion to people, or trying to present religion in a good light. And there’s a lot of competing agendas and imperatives in Religious Education. Numbers are falling at GCSE and A’ level. Obviously that has a knock-on effect for recruitment to academic Religious Studies at university level – so that’s a concern. And this is [an] important moment because, on the 10th of September, a new report published by the Commission for Religious Education came out. The report is called “Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward – A National Plan for RE“. And it invites a new vision for Religious Education in schools, and the hope is that the Government will take account of that new vision and bring about some change. So we want to discuss that. And I’m very pleased to welcome two of the commissioners who contributed to that report. So we have Dr Joyce Miller, who’s an associate fellow in the Religion and Education Research Unit at the University of Warwick. She’s a former senior lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, and she’s a former chair of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales. Hi Joyce!

Joyce Miller (JM): Hello.

WD: We also have – down the line – another commissioner, Professor Eleanor Nesbitt, who’s Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick. And she’s well known for her work on the religious lives of children and intercultural education. And Eleanor was using a Lived Religions approach in her work in Religious Studies and Religions Education before it became a slogan! (Laughs). She’s also the author of Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction. So welcome, Eleanor.

Eleanor Nesbitt (EN): Hello.

WD: And we’re also very happy that we have Céline Benoit with us, who’s a teaching fellow at Aston University, and a convener of SocReL which is the BSA Sociology of Religion group. Céline is about to submit her PhD, and that is entitled: Representing Religion in Schools: Locating the Self and the “Other”. So, welcome to everybody. I’ll just start with what seems one of the most obvious things about the Commission’s report – but I suspect the commissioners will tell us it isn’t in fact the most obvious thing! But the report describes the subject, which has widely been known in schools as Religious Education, as “Religion and Worldviews”. So, this is a big change. And Professor Stephen Parker has said this is the most radical change in the subject proposed since the 1960s. So we really are talking about a potential game-changer, if this is taken up by government. And I wonder if I could just invite the commissioners to tell us a bit about why this change is necessary – Joyce?

JM: I think it’s necessary because, as Wendy’s explained, there are very serious issues about Religious Education at the moment. Alongside falling entries for our examination subjects we have evidence of a huge disregard of the law. Religious Education is compulsory for all children in all schools. And yet, up to 30% of schools don’t seem to be offering it at all at Key stage 4. There are a whole range of other issues. We have few teachers, entries are insufficient to keep the teaching profession afloat in terms of Religious Education. There’s a lack of resources and support for schools. Religious Education in England is extremely complicated because it works on a local level. We have over a 150 Local Education Authorities, each of which is responsible for agreeing what is going to be taught in Religious Education in its own area. This makes it a fragmented and complex approach. This has been the law in England for a very long time. Most recently in 1988 the law was amended, and that was when Religious Education was invented as the term in law. Before that it had been Religious Instruction, religious knowledge. And the 1988 Act made obligatory the teaching of religions other than Christianity in Religious Education in English schools. If we’re now going to have a new and radical approach to the understanding of religion, we need a new name to signify a major change that is now going to happen in our schools. At least, we hope that’s what’s going to happen: that is the intention of the Commission.

WD: Thank you.

EN: Could I add a bit in about the name as well?

WD: Please do.

EN: One of the things that’s significant is, it’s not “Religions and Worldviews”, it’s “Religion and Worldviews”. Because the commissioners felt that it was really important that in school – not just in University – young people should be introduced to the nature of what we call religion: its dynamics, and its impact, and so on – almost regardless of which religion we’re talking about. The nature of religion itself is important. And then, as far as worldviews go, it’s not just that the commissioners want to include Humanism or non-religious worldviews. It’s the fact of acknowledging that every human being has something that can be called a worldview. And so actually this re-naming is way of saying, “Yes, you’re included as well.” You don’t have to be Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or some other organisational community that has a faith label. Actually, this subject is about the creation of the individual worldview, as well as the existence of acknowledged public worldviews.

WD: That’s really interesting. I mean, I guess some people in academic Religious Studies – even though they’re in Religious Studies – might have a critique of the idea of religion as a kind of free-standing concept that is instantiated in these different religious traditions. Are we saying religion is a “thing” that you can study?

EN: (Laughs). That’s really interesting. But if you took any other name like “belief”, or any of the other terms we thought of, I think there could be similar points made. And what’s going to be interesting is that the discussion is reinvigorated.

WD: So, the decision was not to go just with worldviews and drop religion entirely?

EN: Well, it could be argued that religion is a subset of worldview – but is it? Because religions involve community activity; they involve identity; they involve all sorts of aspects of human behaviour which are not generally thought to be necessary, or usually part of what we think of as a worldview.

JM: We also wanted to maintain some continuity. We are not inventing a new school subject that is called Worldviews, because then that would include political worldviews. So we had to constrain and tighten it in some way, and link it to the study of religions. But these conversations about what religion is, where it sits in our highly secularised society, what its link is to spirituality – these are the conversations we want children to be having in the classroom. So they’re not just terms that they hear, and they never get the chance to unpack and explore. They need to understand it at an age-appropriate level, why these questions are important, and some of the conversations that are happening at an academic level. Children are far more capable at exploring difficult concepts than we often give them credit for. And so one of the things the Commission was very keen to ensure, is that we’re not just adding a few more “isms”: 6 big religions, plus Humanism, plus a few others. We’re looking for a much more in-depth analytical understanding of what religion is, what secularism is, what spirituality is, and the ways in which worldviews work, and how people live and how children grow and develop – how all of these are enabled through that study.

Céline Benoit (CB): I think this conversation about religion or religions is really important. And I think going for religion rather than religions allows us to have that conversation about trying to not rely so much on the world religions paradigm, and trying to put every community in a very neat category. And no-one feels like they’re really being represented correctly. Because, you know, you may have Muslim people who say “Well, this is not how I understand Islam. It doesn’t represent what I am doing at home.” But also the plan is to move away from that outsider/insider perspective, where most of the pupils might feel like they’re looking at the “other”, and it’s very spectatorial. And it might be more damaging than . . . . I know that’s not the purpose of RE. But moving away from religions might be quite positive.

JM: I think part of this stems from the debate in 1988, where there was a strong emphasis in parliament on preserving the integrity of religions. And some teachers have interpreted that as having to teach each religion separately – what we call the silo approach. So children have no understanding of religion as a concept, or the way in which religions relate to each other, or the way they influence each other. And so we’re trying to open this up to a broader but deeper analytical understanding of what we have around us in the world . . . that children are entitled to explore.

WD: So is it envisioned that a more kind-of thematic approach would be taken, rather than this kind of silo or systematic approach? Because that as well has its problems, doesn’t it? Because it potentially can re-inscribe the world religions paradigm, that Céline’s just mentioned, in that it kind-of models religions on a kind-of Christian blueprint and says, “Every religion’s got its festivals, and its rites of passage, and . . .”

CB: And rituals and beliefs, yes.

WD: Yes. So, is that a risk with this new approach?

EN: There’s always a risk if you have teachers who don’t feel equipped for the task. And quite a significant part of the recommendations of the report involves ways in which teachers can be strengthened in their knowledge and confidence for dealing with this. But I think, also, one of the pointers in the report is towards understanding the ways in which religions interact. So it’s not saying “You can’t teach about Islam, about Christianity,” and so on. But it is saying, “Look there are people who happen to have one Christian parent and one Muslim parent, or there are people who live as a Muslim minority in a Christian country, or vice versa, and there is interaction between these understandings of the world in the lives of the families concerned. Again, it’s about the nature of religion – that it doesn’t exist in isolation from other ways of being religious.

JM: I think there are issues, as well, about the way in which teachers of Religious Education represent those religions in the way they choose to teach them in the classroom, and how this sits in relation to children’s perceptions of those religions through the media. So, for example, there are many teachers who genuinely believe that they’re addressing Islamophobia through teaching about Islam. So they do the Five Pillars and think they’re making a major contribution to community relations, and children understanding them as their neighbours. Now that may be true, and an understanding of Islam is necessary, but it certainly is not sufficient. So Islam has to be understood in its current social context as well: how Christianity relates to Islam, how Judaism relates to Islam, how our politicians represent Islam in what they say, how the media represents Islam. So we have to move away from a narrow approach to a religion, to seeing it from the child’s perspective – and all the influences that are affecting them and their judgements – so that they can come to a much more informed understanding and have the opportunity for their misconceptions and biases to be addressed. Children can walk away from lessons about Islam being as Islamophobic at the end of it as they were at the beginning. And we delude ourselves if we think that Religious Education can overcome these issues relating to serious racisms in connection with religion.

EN: Yes, this is so true.

CB: I think that’s why it would be interesting to see if the government takes this on board – which I hope it does, because this is a step in the right direction. I think we need to move away from this essentialised approach, and knowledge about a few religions, and think how it’s going to be put into practice, because of what you mentioned, Wendy. There might be some pitfalls in how we could be teaching religion and worldviews. One of the things I wonder, when we put it into practice: how can we move away from teaching about the different “isms”? And it’s creating that space for the teacher, and for the pupils, to have that conversation about what they hear in the media, and what they hear at home as well. And at the moment if feels much more like we’re learning a few key facts about particular religions. But then we will need – and I think the report does mention it – but we need to invest a lot more in teacher training, and in supporting the teachers throughout it. Because it might feel like a minefield to have to go and talk about all these things. And, you know, children are very curious and they will have questions. And from my experience, teachers tend to feel maybe more comfortable going back to telling them a story – a religious story. And then it’s reopening the space for dialogue afterwards.

JM: One of the things we haven’t mentioned yet is the major recommendation in the Commission’s report to set up a new national body to write some exemplary programmes of study that schools can use. And I think that’s going to be really important. And we have been very clear that the people on that body should be there because of their expertise in Religious Education, and not because they’re there representing a religion. And the representation of religion – and Eleanor is much more expert in this than I am – that is a fraught area, a very complex area. And it goes back to people’s sense of ownership and control and power over the curriculum for Religious Education. So there are complex and contested areas.

WD: So, would you see the Commission’s report as a kind-of decisive step away from faith communities having involvement in the construction of the Religious Education syllabus?

JM: I think that I would. But there’s a major “but”, and that is an enhanced role of local religious communities in supporting Religious Education in their localities. We would not go to the French embassy and say, “Please come and sit on a committee, and tell us how to organise the Modern Foreign Languages for French in English schools.” We wouldn’t do it for Geography. And yet we do it in Religious Education. And this now seems an outdated model. The law, in fact, was about the Church of England and other Christian denominations. And there’s been a fudging of all of that.

EN: What I feel is really important, in the light of what you were saying about the need for experts on the national body, is that in the new local advisory networks, if they are implemented, there wouldn’t be the dominance, for example, of the Church of England, but there would be the presence of individuals who perhaps are teaching in higher education, teaching Religious Studies; or maybe from museums or galleries – which are part of the local cultural resources from which children can be educated about religion. So there is a different composition of the local advisory networks, as well as their having a different remit. So, not being burdened with having to produce or authorise an Agreed Syllabus, but being strongly encouraged to be proactive in resourcing schools education in Religion and Worldviews.

CB: I think that’s really important if we . . . . We need to keep these local advisory networks going. Because whilst I am all for a national entitlement – for reasons we mentioned in the report, every child should be receiving the same Religious Education or Religion and Worldviews education – at the same time, because they won’t be involved in looking into the syllabus and that kind of thing, I’m wondering, would there be space for them to still be able to have conversations about the content of good practice and things like that? Because it’s thanks to some of the SACREs that have done such good work that I think we are where we are today. We have been able to move away from teaching about the six major religions, and looking into constructing the syllabus into different ways. So I wonder if there would be space for that kind of conversation.

JM: I think the local area networks can almost invent themselves. If they want to write to write programmes of study as exemplars for their schools, they can do that. If they want to write a programme of study about religion in their local area, they can do that. If they want to produce resources, they can do that. There are huge opportunities for local involvement at a level that is focussed and appropriate for that area. And I think we are . . . I’d like to think we are freeing them up to develop themselves and become stronger, more active, more involved. There is a requirement at the moment, for example, that SACRES should have to monitor the quality of Religious Education in schools. How do they do that? You can look at exam results, but that tells you what happens in Key stage 4. It does not tell you what happens in Key Stages 1, and 2, and 3. So we want to give them the power to do what they can do well – and that is, support local schools in a local, democratic, open, flexible way. So we think there are real opportunities, therefore, to do what they can do well.

WD: Just in relation to the philosophical underpinnings of the report: it strikes me as a report that is more influenced by social scientific approaches to the study of religion than perhaps some other approaches. And I notice what’s not in the report is material on approaches to RE that come from values education or character education, or virtue education – which . . . some people feel that these are areas that RE should be addressing. They should be addressing the character development, the spiritual development, even, of the child. And this report doesn’t seem to envision the subject in that way – which is something I welcome! But it’s something that interests me. Is that a conscious kind-of decision that the commissioners had made?

JM: I think there are lots of questions within that one question, Wendy. Shall I pick up on the spiritual and other things first, and then perhaps we can come back to the social versus theological debate?

WD: Sure.

JM: It’s very important, I think, in English schools to recognise that children’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is a cross-curriculum requirement. It is a whole school issue. And so, RE teachers claiming spiritual development for themselves is not appropriate. It has to be every teacher, every classroom, the whole curriculum, the whole school. What we can do through RE is examine what this word spirituality means, whether it’s linked to religion, whether it’s separate from religion. So we do have a particular role to play. So the same is true of moral education. People may talk about virtue and character. That is a whole school issue, not a Religious Education issue in particular.

EN: Yes, I strongly endorse that.

JM: We have a lot of people saying, “Well, Religious Education’s really important, because then children can understand art, and music, and literature.” That’s children’s cultural development and, again, it’s a whole-school issue. And I’ve got this feeling that if RE teachers stopped saying, “Oh, we can do this,” and said to every department in their school: “This is your responsibility as well,” RE and religion wouldn’t be seen as something separate from the rest of the school, and this odd bit of the basic curriculum as opposed to the National Curriculum. It would be a shared responsibility. And with social education – how we all relate to each other in society, how we all become socially responsible human beings – RE must stop saying, “Oh, this is ours!” We must say, “This is everybody’s.” Because then, I think, RE will actually be strengthened though all of that. And I was also very clear on the Commission – I don’t know about you, Eleanor – but I wanted to try not to tie us to current debates. A little while ago everybody was talking about religious literacy, but that will not continue. Because there are phases in these areas of discourse. We don’t want to be identified with what people were talking about this year, because we’re trying to present a vision for the next twenty-and-more years, perhaps, for Religious Education.

EN: Yes, that’s also very important. And I think what you were saying about RE as it is and was – but it will change its name, we hope – what you said about it almost seeing the cultural, and the moral, and the spiritual, and so on as its preserve, that’s really important. But I suspect the tendency is for other teachers, other members of schools, to be perceiving this to be the preserve of the subject. And one would hope that somehow this report will shift the perception of the specialists in other subjects, and other areas of the curriculum, away from just thinking that there’s one subject where all this can be shunted.

JM: Eleanor, would you agree with me that the social studies approach to religion has been neglected in Religious Education in schools? Or do you think I’m misrepresenting what goes on there?

EN: I think it’s been neglected in the teaching; I think it’s neglected in the resourcing; and I think that a lot of the difficulty for practitioners is the nature of the resources, which – if we talk about print resources – are those that publishers produce on the assumption that you have a publication about each of the religions, separately. And we very much need to have resources which are based on a social sciences understanding of religion. And in school, of course, it is still the case that there may be a non-specialist in secondary, as well as in primary, teaching the subject. And it may be that the head knows that somebody is a good member of a particular faith community and therefore asks that person to teach this subject – which reinforces a misunderstanding of the nature of religions as matters of faith and belief and commitment, rather than having many other dimensions that would be mapped out by somebody who was looking from more sociological or, for that matter, psychological or anthropological perspectives.

JM: The fact is, though, in a classroom, if you were to begin with a social scientific approach, it wouldn’t take very long before children were beginning to ask questions beyond quantitative data. And as soon as you begin looking at qualitative data, you’re talking about what people do as a religious practice, or believe as a religious person. And so very, very quickly you would come to the big questions about a religion: what it teaches, how it analyses the human condition. So I think the social sciences/ theological Religious Studies split is a false dichotomy, in a real classroom with children asking their questions. And children are very interested in questions of meaning and the big questions about religion and worldviews. I think we can have a balanced curriculum that will bring a social studies approach to the classroom, in a better, clearer way than it has been before. So Religious Education should benefit enormously from this, I think.

EN: Yes.

CB: So, what would you say is the main aim of Religion and Worldviews? Because, as you rightly said before, it was religious instruction for a while, then it was about warmer community relations. And we put so many aims and objectives in RE that we didn’t even know what it was for, in the end. So I wonder if you are keeping it vague on purpose, or if you’ve actually narrowed it down a little bit.

EN: It is simply about understanding the nature of religion and understanding the worldviews of people in a diverse local, national and global society.

WD: But does that have some kind of transformative effect on the child? Are we hoping that they will be more open to religion, more empathetic, or are we hoping to develop stronger critical skills? What’s the effect on the child of that understanding?

EN: That would have to be researched. I’m sure we’re hoping that throughout the curriculum, and outside of the curriculum, pupils are being transformed into happy responsible members of our harmonious society. But the study of Religion and Worldviews isn’t to be seen as something instrumental. It’s something of value in itself as an intellectual discipline, as a clue to understanding what’s going on in world current affairs, and so on. But I would think that any responsible professional educator is hoping that their teaching is going to maximise the potential of their students and be beneficial to society as a whole.

JM: I like to think in terms of a sort-of family of resemblance when it comes to the aims and purposes of religious education. And I think as a profession we’ve spent a great deal of time talking about what RE is for and trying to define its aims when, in fact, there are many appropriate aims, and many appropriate emphases. And teachers with different strengths and different academic backgrounds come into teaching this subject. And I think there are a number of ways of approaching RE – a number of ways of looking at what the whole purpose of it is. And we need to remain open and flexible, and recognise that if they’re doing all of those things that Eleanor’s just set out, we’re enabling young people to become more mature, more human, more moral, more aware of others, more able to cope with difference, more understanding of the human condition – and them, as individuals, within humanity. There are many, many ways of doing that. And so I don’t think we should be too precise and we say, “The outcome has to be this.” There are many possible consequences of what we teach, and a good deal of those we’ll never know. Because they come to fruition, we hope, in adulthood, as children grow up and continue to think about these sorts of issues that were raised as part of their Religious Education in schools.

EN: And are actually friends with people from very different cultural and religious backgrounds from their own.

JM: And I love that phrase, Eleanor – I think I might have learned it through you – of children becoming “cultural navigators”. And that’s a phrase from Ballard, isn’t it?

EN: Yes, that was a term I used. And I think certainly one of the first people to use it was Roger Ballard.

JM: And I love that idea of children becoming cultural navigators. In fact it may even be . . . when I worked in Bradford, we talked about children becoming cross-cultural navigators: this ability to respectfully engage in conversation and activity with people from a whole range of other backgrounds. And that is one of the purposes of Religious Education. It’s not the only purpose. I think the government might be interested in RE’s contribution to the emphasis it currently has on integrated communities. And yes, RE can contribute to that. And it’s very important. But isn’t the only purpose. Politically, at the moment, it may be given emphasis. But there are so many more consequences of good RE.

EN: I do have a concern about cultural and religious navigation. Navigation is about avoiding things!

All: (Laugh)

EN: I think we have to use some other metaphors as well.

WD: (Laughs) Yes! Cultural explorers, maybe?

EN: Yes.

WD: If RE – or Religion and Worldviews, as it’s newly envisioned – is academic and it’s non-confessional, shouldn’t every child have it by law? And should it be impossible for parents to withdraw their children from it?

EN: I think a lot of commissioners would hope that. But we also have to be aware of the nature of the law and of precedents internationally, and nationally. And that is why there’s a recommendation that the DfE should clarify the legal situation.

JM: Ideally it would go. And it is anomalous that children can be withdrawn by their parents and teachers can withdraw from teaching it, if they choose to do that. It does make us exceptional in the curriculum. But as Eleanor has said, the law around this is really quite complex, and we do not want to create a situation which is going to put schools at risk of litigation. And that is extremely important. And that was what absolutely put the brakes on this move.

EN: We did have experts with informed legal advice on this.

JM: We did. And the ideal situation is that it remains in law as a possibility, but nobody ever takes advantage of it.

WD: Because advantage is increasingly being taken of it, isn’t it? Often for Islamophobic reasons.

JM: Well, the evidence seems quite limited on that. There has been one survey, but it included a very small number of schools that responded. I think 300 schools, out of the thousands in England. And a small percentage of those reported that there was that. Anecdotally we hear a great deal about that, but there isn’t sufficient hard evidence to support that it actually happens. Would you agree with that reading of the evidence we’ve had, Eleanor?

EN: Yes, I think that’s true. I think we’re concerned about what a future trajectory might look like. And I think we’re also concerned about the possibility of withdrawal from parts of the subject and whether or not parents, or anybody, is required to find some worthy substitute for education in Religion and Worldviews for those students who are withdrawn – if they are. There is . . . it’s a complex area. But I think it’s very easy for people to assume that it’s all to do with Islamophobia or, even more widely, is Xenophobia. And I certainly haven’t seen data that would support that.

JM: I think it’s interesting though, that there are so many parents who don’t want their children to be taught about certain things in case they are unduly influenced by them. And so this again shows the fear that lies underneath people’s perceptions of Religious Education, as somehow – possibly in quite a subtle way – being indoctrinatory or evangelical. And we have not managed to shift public opinion sufficiently on that in the thirty-odd years that modern Religious Education has been in existence.

WD: And, of course, the move to worldviews invites the perception that now Religious Education is going to include Humanism, atheism, etc., etc. And there may be a new cohort of people who might be disturbed about that.

JM: It’s possible. I think we have one cohort who look on religion with suspicion, because it’s religious and they’re secularist, and they don’t want their children to be subjected to it. We have another group where there are deeply held religious convictions, that they don’t want to be challenged. And it’s how, somehow, we find a way of addressing the fears on both sides, so that everyone is confident that we’re having a sensitive but academically challenging opportunity for children to explore what religion and worldviews are.

EN: I think that the more it becomes evident that a national programme of study is not being created by spokespeople for a religious group, the more it becomes evident that that a local advisory network is drawing on the expertise of Religious Studies professionals and not simply relying on insider views and voices, then the less risk there is of this sort of fear and knee-jerk withdrawals from the subject.

WD: A final quick question, if that’s ok? So, the Religious Studies Project audience is very diverse. But what do you think, as commissioners, that people who are interested in the Religious Studies Project, who are interested in academic Religious Studies, maybe Critical Religious Studies, might really appreciate about the Commission’s report – and what might they be critical of?

JM: What I think they should appreciate is the opening up of the subject to make it absolutely relevant to every child in every classroom. We talked a great deal in the Commission about entitlement and equality, but also the idea of inclusivity. Religious Education – Religion and Worldviews – has to be appropriate for every single child, whatever background they come from.

WD: And whatever type of school they’re in, as well.

JM: And whatever type of school they’re in. And if children who would describe themselves as not belonging to a religion can be excited by the study of religion and worldviews, and interested in exploring its place in the world, then they’re the young people who will want to go on to learn more and study more deeply. So I would like to think that it could bring a whole new energy and an opening up of RE. I should think every teacher of Religious Education has been asked the question, “Why do we have to do this subject?” My ambition is that children will stop asking that question, because they will see it’s relevant to them – whoever they are, whatever they believe or don’t believe – that it’s relevant and important, and enables them to understand the world and themselves better.

CB: And I think where the report is key is moving away from the majority of pupils feeling like they’re looking at others, that they don’t recognise themselves in the syllabus.

WD: Well, isn’t it more than 70% of children in classrooms don’t identify as religious?

JM: I wonder what people are going to be critical of? Perhaps . . . . Do you have any insight into that, Eleanor?

EN: Well, I imagine they’re going to be critical of the fact that we haven’t gone far enough, for example, on saying that there should be no withdrawal. But that criticism, as we pointed out, is based on not necessarily understanding what the legal implications are of taking that stand. So I think the commissioners, very, very carefully thought through and tried to balance just about every sentence in this report. And I think it’s very easy for somebody who hasn’t been through that process to take one of the views that was taken into account in the Commission’s consultations and in their ruminations on this, without, of course, having had the whole process of refining and reaching, in a sense, a compromise position. So I think there are all sorts of points at which somebody could say: “Well, it should go further than this.”

WD: Yes. I wonder if there may be . . . . When knowledge is constructed, or the categories that we use become fixed in kind-of policy documents like this, it’s very clear in the document that the worldviews that are being looked are not political worldviews. They’re worldviews that have some relationship to, or are responses to religious belief. So atheism is included as a worldview. But not communism or something like that. And I think a lot of people working in Religious Studies – I don’t know what you think, Celine – might say, “You can’t draw those hard and fast lines quite so easily.” And what you’re creating is a kind-of constructed idea of what a worldview is.

CB: Yes. I think from the conversation we’ve had in our conference today, there was some concern about worldviews maybe being too wide, and maybe being narrowed down a bit too much. But I think we may be also lacking the right vocabulary at the moment. So no-one seemed to come forward with a suggestion that would have been better than worldviews.

WD: We hear, “Oh, it would be better to be Philosophy”, rather than worldviews. But I mean philosophy is . . .

JM: It’s a different subject.

EN: And the other alternative, or another option, was “Beliefs”. But similarly with beliefs, there can be beliefs which probably would be less suitable for this particular subject than others. But, where do you draw the line?

WD: Well, belief comes very much out of the kind-of Protestant Christian model of what a religion is. So I would be really disappointed if it was belief. I think worldviews is a massive improvement on that.

JM: And when we looked at the record of what we’d said, and what had been written down on our behalf, the word that emerged naturally from our ruminations – to use Eleanor’s word – was that word worldview. We could have taken any title and imposed it. But when we actually looked at the texts of what we’d been talking about, it just seemed the natural consequence of our thinking. So it wasn’t arbitrary. We did try the arbitrary exercise, “Shall we call it this, that, or the other?” But then it did emerge naturally, I think, from the conversations that we had.

CB: I think that’s the issue isn’t it? Whatever we pick, whatever is selected as that word that we add to religion, it’s going to be problematic anyway.

WD: Well I think that’s a good point to stop, if everybody’s ok with that. And can I say a very sincere “thank you” to Dr Joyce Miller, Professor Eleanor Nesbitt, and Celine Benoit, for this interesting conversation. And can I ask Religious Studies Project Listeners to visit the Commission for Religious Education’s website where they can find the report? And there’s also some information on that website about getting behind the report if you would like to do that. We’ll put the link to the report on the web page for this podcast. Thank you for listening.


Citation Info: Miller, Joyce, Eleanor Nesbitt, Céline Benoit and Wendy Dossett. 2018. “RE Commission Report: A Way Forward?”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 November 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 28 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/re-commission-report-a-way-forward/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing our podcast archive, or know of any sources of funding for the transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Religious Education in State-Funded Schools: An Academic Subject Like Any Other… and Some!

In many ways I am in agreement with Professor Jensen, and see myself as a partner in the campaign to establish a ‘Religious Studies based’ Religious Education in state funded schools throughout Europe and indeed the world. Since experiencing a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion from Theology to Religious Studies on my teacher training year and Lancaster University MA in the mid-1970s (see Cush 2009), I have spent nearly forty years passionate about the ‘Religious Studies Approach’ and applying it in a variety of educational settings. I have also concerned myself throughout that time with the relationship between Religious Studies as understood at university level, and religious education in schools, both in academic publications (see for example Cush, 1999) and on various professional and policy committees on religious education. I currently represent the university Theology and Religious Studies sector (TRS-UK) on the Religious Education Council of England and Wales and its subcommittees, and was on the Steering Group for the new National Curriculum Framework for Religious Education, part of the recent Review of Religious Education in England (REC, 2013) – full report available at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report. So I am perhaps an example of the ‘publically engaged academic’ Tim seeks, at least in relation to education policy.

Like Professor Jensen, I began my teaching career in a sixth-form college (in Denmark, Gymnasium or ‘upper secondary’), and then moved into university level where I have been involved in both training teachers and undergraduate and postgraduate Religious Studies. Thus we both have much practical experience as well as theoretical perspectives.

I am in total agreement with Professor Jensen – Tim – that religious education should be a compulsory subject in all state-funded schools (see Jensen 2011). A brief note about terminology – I use the term ‘state-funded schools’ rather than ‘public schools’ (which is the term used in US and international English for ‘ordinary’ community schools), to avoid confusion with the English usage of the term ‘public schools’ to refer to certain prestigious, independent, fee-paying, schools. I also use ‘religious education’ as that is the most familiar term in the UK, although I like Tim’s ‘religion education’, which I believe was coined in South Africa in the late 90s, as avoiding the implication that studying religions is somehow ‘religious’. I would prefer another name altogether, possibly avoiding the highly contested term ‘religion’, which can carry negative connotations.

I also agree that religious education should be an academic subject, treated like other school subjects. If only it was treated like other subjects in England, we would not have the situation where it is a subject which is given less time on the timetable (many RE teachers have to enable students to pass their GCSE (16+ qualification) in half the time given for history or geography), where 50% of teachers teaching RE are completely unqualified in the subject, where primary trainee teachers may only have a couple of hours training, where it was not listed in the government’s list of important subjects for 16+ qualifications (the so-called ‘English Baccalaureate), where it is not included in the list of ‘facilitating subjects’ for gaining a place in the more prestigious universities, where trainee teachers are given no bursaries to study in spite of the shortage of specialist teachers, and where the recent Review of the subject had to be funded by charities and worked on by unpaid volunteers because the government provided no funding. For documented evidence on the neglect of religious education, see for example http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf and to illustrate that this neglect is not new, Gates (1993).

I also agree with Tim and the colleague he mentioned, Wanda Alberts, that religious education should be what she calls ‘integrative’ (Alberts, 2007). In other words, the subject should be for all pupils of whatever religious background or none, should be non-confessional (not attempting to evangelise, proselytise, catechise or promote any particular religion or ‘religion’ in general), should be multi-faith (content should include major religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but also smaller ‘indigenous’ traditions such as the Maori, and smaller newer developments such as contemporary Paganism). I also consider that given the fact that c.25% of people in England and Wales consider themselves to be ‘non-religious’ (whatever they mean by that) it is important to include the study of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism. It might come as a surprise to some that non-confessional, multi-faith religious education is still a minority option for states internationally (notably Sweden, Norway, Denmark, South Africa and the UK – and Ireland is thinking about it), most preferring to opt for either confessional religious education in the tradition deemed that of the country (or several separate strands if diversity is noticed) or to leave religious education out of state-funded education altogether, as in France or the USA.

I agree with Tim that multi-faith religious education, if appropriately done, is suitable for pupils of all ages from nursery schools onwards. Attitudes are formed early. I also wish that we in England had the sort of religious education for all students in the 16-19 age group that is found in Denmark, rather than A level Religious studies for the minority that take it and either nothing or a token gesture for the minority. I also agree that it is inappropriate for teachers of religious education to be expected to be somehow more of a moral role model, or more personally religious than any other teacher. Those of us in the subject at any level of education are bored with the predictable responses when introduced as a religious studies teacher/lecturer.

Another point of agreement with Tim is that we should not just be providing information about religious and non-religious traditions, but enabling our students to think critically about religions and to be able to discuss religious and ethical matters in an informed and articulate way (sometimes referred to as ‘religious literacy’). This, as Tim says, should be requisite in any open, democratic society.

I agree that we should have people teaching in schools that are well qualified, have studied the subject at university level, and that the university curriculum should take account of this and other likely careers for Religious Studies graduates, and help to provide skills they will need. Perhaps more controversially, I do agree to some extent with Tim’s aim of inculcating ‘some kind of relativism’, but would prefer to talk of ‘epistemological humility’ (a term apparently arrived at separately and simultaneously by David Chidester and myself) as ‘relativism’ is too misunderstood and explosive a term. What Tim and I mean is people who have their own well-thought out views and perspectives, but are open to accepting that they might just have something to learn from those who disagree with them.

And now for the ‘howevers’…

Although I bounced into the classroom in the 1970s full of enthusiasm to share my ‘Lancaster University Religious Studies’ knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and so on with my students, over the decades, especially working with younger pupils, I have come to appreciate that there are other, and perhaps even more important aims for religious education. As Tim says, it is unlikely that any ‘scientific’ study of religion will not have side effects such as students reflecting on their own beliefs, values and identity, and becoming better citizens of a diverse society. However, in Religious Education as practised in England and Wales, academic knowledge of religions/non-religious worldviews is only one of the aims of religious education. Tim’s ‘side-effects’ become explicit aims. So, religious education should enable students to develop their own ideas on the important questions dealt with in religious traditions. In the words of the National Curriculum Framework (REC 2013) ‘Religious Education contributes dynamically to children and young people’s education in schools by provoking challenging questions about meaning and purpose in life, beliefs about God, ultimate reality, issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human’. Though agreeing with Tim (2011:143) that religions are more than sets of answers to existential questions, and that not everyone is interested in these issues any more than in religions, there needs to be space for pupils to work out their own beliefs and values, in relation to the community or communities they belong to and the wider society. I do however note Tim’s concern that this can go too far, and am myself concerned that a focus on philosophical and ethical issues in England is in danger of pushing out learning about religions in some examination syllabuses and therefore also in earlier school years.

Religions and non-religious worldviews also have much to offer in contribution to discussing some of the pressing issues of our day, such as social justice, equality, wealth and poverty, war and conflict, the environment. The REC document calls these contributions ‘sources of wisdom’, though in an impartial approach we must also enable pupils to think critically about examples where ‘religions’ and ‘worldviews’ have made things worse. Tim also states that in the hands of ‘engaged and dedicated teachers’ (2011:143) such issues arise naturally out of the ‘neutral and factual information about the religions taught’ – but unless planned for, or in the hands of less gifted teachers, they might not.

In order to engage positively with others in a society of diverse religious and non-religious worldviews, pupils need more than just factual information. They also need to empathise with others, and the skills of discussing controversial issues without disrespecting those with whom they disagree. These skills can be honed in the religious education classroom. Although the phenomenological approach to the study of religions has been rightly criticised in some respects, such as essentialism, the practice of epoche and empathy before jumping straight into critical analysis and evaluation have much to be said for them when dealing with matters at the heart of people’s identity.

Tim talked about being bored with observing religion in practice – visiting mosques and gurdwaras.  As a veteran of organising many a field trip, I can sympathise, but without us organising such visits many of our students will never have a chance of meeting some religious communities. Nothing beats actually meeting people to break down stereotypes (OK, sometimes they get reinforced, but that can be discussed), and realising that what we label ‘religion’ is not just about ideas and rules, but community, atmosphere, music, art, who we are, what we eat and how we wash. School religious education did not have to wait for university religious studies to suggest an ethnographic approach to studying religions, this was already happening in the late 60s and 70s (see Cush & Robinson, 2014:7), and more systematically from the 1990s (see Jackson, 1997 and 2004). The part of our undergraduate degree course that I value most is our compulsory seven day residential stay with a community other than the student’s own (see www.livingreligion.co.uk).

I disagree with Tim that school religious education ‘ought to be a miniature of religious studies’ (2007:142), as for philosophical, pedagogical and feminist reasons I am very wary of ‘top-down’ approaches to knowledge. For universities to set the agenda for schools can be patronising (see Cush 1999), and sometimes the flow of information and experience can be the other way round, such as the influence on university curricula in the UK of the stress on philosophy and ethics in schools, or simply when a child from a particular tradition actually knows more than the lecturer in a particular context. I would rather see universities and schools as partners. I also contend that ‘Religious Education in schools is not University Religious Studies watered down to make it suitable for children’ but ‘about the interaction between the religious material and the concerns and interests of the child’ (Cush, 1999:138). Spiritual, or more generally personal, development may be a side-effect of university Religious Studies, but it is an explicit aim of religious education in schools in England, and indeed an aim for the whole curriculum.

Recent development in Religious Studies such as the application of feminist theory, queer theory, and post-colonial theory have undermined the ‘Enlightenment’ concept of ‘objective’ knowledge and stress that ‘the scholar does not so much survey the scene from above but works within the web of his/her own experience and relationships’ (Cush & Robinson 2014: 9). Have our ‘religious studies facts’ been constructed under patriarchy, heteronormativity and colonialism? And how does this change the religious education classroom?

In conclusion, as Peter Schreiner often says (see for example, 2011:30) we all tend to prefer our own system of religious education, partly from a conservative attachment to what we know and are comfortable with, but also because the contexts of different countries, regions and individual schools differ. Although I have some disagreements with Tim Jensen’s approach to religious education as detailed above, I imagine that in practice, in the hands of skilled teachers who have a good relationship with their pupils, Tim’s ‘side-effects’ accomplish much the same as my ‘explicit aims’, and our commitment to a non-confessional, multi-faith religious education outweighs the differences. There is only a small band of Religious Studies scholars who take the time to care about Religious Education in schools (Ninian Smart was one, with his colleagues in the Shap Working Party – see www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/ ) and this partnership must be encouraged.

Bibliography

Alberts, W. (2007) Integrative Religious Education in Europe: A Study of Religions Approach Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

APPG (2013) The Truth Unmasked: the Supply of and Support for Religious Education Teachers available from http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf

 Cush, D. (1999) ‘Big Brother, Little Sister, and the Clerical Uncle: the relationship between Religious Studies, Religious Education and Theology?’ in British Journal of Religious Education 21.3 pp 137-146

Cush, D, (2009) ‘Religious Studies versus Theology: why I’m still glad that I converted from Theology to Religious Studies’ in Bird, D. and Smith, S. Theology and Religious Studies in Higher Education: Global Perspectives Continuum, pp.15-30

Cush, D. (2011) ‘Without Fear or Favour: Forty Years of Non-confessional and Multi-faith Religious Education in Scandinavia and the UK’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.69-84.

Cush, D. and Robinson, C. (2014) ‘Developments in Religious Studies: Towards a Dialogue with Religious Education’ British Journal of Religious Education 36.1, pp.4-17.

Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) (2011) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann.

Gates, B. (1993) Time for Religious Education and Teachers to Match: a Digest of Under-provision St. Martin’s College, Lancaster: REC.

Jackson, R. (1997) Religious Education, an interpretive approach London, Hodder

Jackson, R. (2004) Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy London: RoutledgeFalmer

Jensen, T. (2011) ‘Why Religion Education, as a Matter of course, ought to be Part of the Public School Curriculum’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann. Pp.131-149.

Religious Education Council of England and Wales (2013) A Review of Religious Education in England London: REC, also available on-line at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report

Schreiner, P. (2011) ‘Situation and Current Developments of Religious Education in Europe’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.17-34.

A useful place to find summaries of how religious education is organised in European countries is the website of the European Forum for Teachers of Religious Education

http://www.eftre.net/

A useful source for example of practical materials and cutting edge debate on religious education is http://www.reonline.org.uk/

For Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education see http://www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

Religious Education

For those of us in Britain the question of Religious Education has become an ever-increasing issue of concern. Just last October Ofsted, the regulatory board for all education at school level, reported that over half the schools in Britain were failing to provide students with adequate RE. In the wake of this calls were made for clearer standardisation of the subject and a “national benchmark”. The deterioration of RE is perhaps not all that surprising after it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate in 2011. But the call for improvement raises with it a number of questions. First and foremost, just what exactly should RE entail? Should RE be teaching about religion or teaching religion? Who, even, should be RE teachers? PGCE (teacher training) courses in RE accept candidates with degrees in Religious Studies, Theology, Philosophy or indeed any other topic so long as they can, in the words of one program, show “demonstrable knowledge of the study of religion”. But does a theologian or a philosopher have the same skill sets as an RS scholar? To be sure, they may know the facts of a particular religion but are the facts enough for a satisfactory education? Just what is exactly is it we are teaching students to do in RE classrooms?

In this interview, Jonathan Tuckett speaks with Tim Jensen to try to answer some of these questions and more. Not only has Jensen spoken widely on the topic of RE he has recently headed the EASR working group in Religious Education which has studied the status of RE in Denmark, Sweden and Norway highlighting that the question of RE is of particular concern to any secular state.

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Young People of ‘No Religion’ and Religious Education Beyond Religious Belief

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 30 October 2013, in response to Abby Day’s interview on Believing, Belonging, and Academic Careers  (28 October 2013).

Divided into two distinct halves, Christopher Cotter’s interview with Abby Day begins with a discussion of her research on the nature of belief and what ordinary people in a modern western society actually believe; and concludes with advice on publishing journal articles and acquiring funding for research projects. In my response, I’ll focus on some of the points raised concerning belief, suggest how Day’s work could benefit youth and education studies and, in particular, explain how I’ve found her approach to the study of belief helpful in my own exploration of the lives of young people who identify as having ‘no religion’.

For Day, the concept of belief has often been taken for granted in the study of religion. Rarely do we ask, what do we mean when we talk about belief? As David Morgan has observed, the academic study of religion in the West has been ‘shaped by the idea that a religion is what someone believes’, and that this amounts to a ‘discrete, subjective experience of assent to propositions concerning the origin of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, the existence of deities, or the purpose of life’ (2010, 1). Although there have been a number of scholars and researchers, particularly within anthropology, who have critiqued this view of religion (Needham 1972; Ruel 2002; Lindquist and Coleman 2008), such an understanding persists and remains prevalent within religious education (RE) in secondary schools. Day’s research not only raises questions about what we mean by belief; she also demonstrates how religious identity is often more complicated than assent to propositions. And both of these insights could be of great value to the study of religion and belief at school, as well as to researchers’, teachers’ and policy-makers’ understandings of the nature of belief within the lives of both religious and ‘non-religious’ young people.

The initial impetus for Day’s interest in what people actually believe came from the 2001 Census in England and Wales, in which 72% of the respondents identified as ‘Christian’. In what appeared to be an increasingly secular society, it seemed puzzling that such a large proportion of the population would self-identify in this way. Day decided to explore more deeply what some of these census respondents meant in their adoption of a Christian identity, by examining what they actually believed. Introducing herself to potential participants as a social sciences researcher rather than a researcher of religion, Day also began her interviews by asking people ‘what do you believe in?’ rather than ‘what is your religion?’ It was only at the very end of her interviews that she raised the topic of religious identity in connection with the 2001 Census. This approach enabled her to focus on belief without asking religious questions. And, by focusing instead on values and meaning, as well as what was important to her participants, Day was able to learn much more about how belief functioned in their lives.

Day’s study of belief beyond ‘religious belief’ encouraged me to adopt a similar methodological approach in my own research with 14- and 15-year-olds who report ‘no religion’, exploring how ticking the ‘no religion’ box related to their wider lives without asking questions about religion. I wanted to learn about the people, places, objects, activities and times – the material cultures – that were significant to these young people, as well as to understand their beliefs and values, their methods of constructing narratives of meaning and purpose, and the influence of family, friends and society on their lives and identities. My primary research method was photo-elicitation interviews, in which the photos taken act as ‘prompts and supports to participant narrative’ (Liebenberg, 2009, 448). But I also wanted to avoid any tendencies to take photos that specifically focused on participants’ ‘non-religiosity’ or illustrated their attitudes towards religion. So I embedded the religion question from the 2011 Census alongside questions that collected other seemingly unconnected data and left explicit discussion of participants’ reasons for self-identifying as having ‘no religion’, as well as of their understandings of ‘religion’, to the end of the interview.

Just as Day discovered, however, where it remains important, interview questions about ‘belief’ or ‘life’ more generally still enable participants to talk freely about religion. But, while Day found that religion and religious beliefs played a relatively unimportant part in the lives of some participants who nonetheless chose ‘Christian’ as their religious identity in the 2001 Census, my research with young people who ticked ‘no religion’ indicates that some who self-identify in this way nonetheless find religion and religious beliefs to be significant in their lives.

Day’s research offers valuable insights into some of the reasons people in a modern western society choose to adopt a ‘Christian’ identity when surveyed. For some, it acts as a ‘social marker’ that helps them to feel secure within their communities, creating a boundary between themselves and others; being Christian is something that they are born into, akin to an ethnic identity. This position is nicely illustrated in her interview with ‘Jordan’, a 14-year-old who she describes as an ‘unbelieving Christian’. Although he states ‘I don’t believe in any religions’, Jordan identifies as ‘Christian’ because ‘on my birth certificate it says I’m Christian’. Day explains that, for him, ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean much, he doesn’t do anything that is typically ‘Christian’, and his understanding of a Christian is ‘someone who believes in God and Jesus and Bible and stuff’. While he does not believe in these things, his grandparents do because they are ‘Irish and really strong Christians’. This understanding of what being a Christian entailed is perhaps not surprising, considering Jordan was ‘reflecting how the term “belief” has become associated with “Christian” over the centuries’ (Day, 2009, 266-7). Day’s research provides a welcome corrective to an understanding of belief as primarily propositional and Christian, illustrating the various ways belief functions in all our everyday lives, cutting across conventional boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Although Jordan differs from my participants in that he identifies as ‘Christian’ rather than as having ‘no religion’, understandings of the Christian religion and of what a Christian identity entails are similar. In many of my interviews, it became clear that participants reduce ‘religion’ to metaphysical, existential and/or ethical belief systems that are either true or false. Since participants do not hold these beliefs, they tick the ‘no religion’ box. For some, in order to identify as Christian it is not only necessary to believe everything within that religion, but to have a strong faith in those beliefs. As one 15-year-old girl told me, ‘I don’t think my belief in God is strong enough for me to tick “Christian”. … If there was a sort of “in between” box, I probably would have ticked that. But to categorise what I believe, I’d say I don’t really have a religion’.

My research interests in the lives of young people who report ‘no religion’ dovetails with the emerging field of Nonreligion and Secularity Studies. Lois Lee has provided a working definition of ‘non-religion’ as ‘anything that is primarily defined in a relationship of difference to religion’ (2012, 131), indicating the necessity of reflexivity not only about specific relationships of ‘difference’ but about understandings of ‘religion’ itself. Day is right to emphasise the importance of clarity in relation to the term ‘belief’, but perhaps she could have spoken more during the interview about what she means by ‘religion’. This would then assist further discussion of her proposal that ‘belief’ crosses conventional boundaries between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’, making religion, as she says, ‘a subset of belief’.

For the young people of ‘no religion’ that I interviewed, ‘religion’ is understood as consisting of impossible propositional beliefs that are displaced by scientific knowledge. Religion requires acceptance of all its beliefs and cannot incorporate participants’ diversity of beliefs; as another 15-year-old girl said, ‘there would never be a religion for everything I thought’. Religion demands restrictive ethical beliefs, behaviours and belongings that limit autonomy and authenticity. And even when religious ethics are admirable, participants separate ethics from religion because religion remains reduced to primarily metaphysical beliefs.

Although there were a number of reasons that these young people viewed religion and belief in this way, one influence on their understanding clearly came from what they were taught in school. In state-maintained secondary schools in England, some form of RE is mandatory and one of the ways in which schools meet this requirement is through exam courses at GCSE. ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ is one of the most popular strands of exam RE, with pupils being tested on their knowledge of how religious adherents are supposed to live and act, and on their ability to critique religious truth claims and provide rationale for their own beliefs about what is true. For example, the following questions have been set on recent exam papers:

Explain why some people say that religious revelation is only an illusion (AQA GCSE Religious Studies Short Course Specification A, June 2010)

Explain why most Christians are against euthanasia (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Do you think the universe is designed? Give two reasons for your point of view (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Although this might help pupils develop their critical thinking skills, this approach to the study of religion seems to reinforce the notion that religion is concerned with private, individualized beliefs of an ontological, epistemological and/or moral nature. It does not provide room for pupils to consider how ‘religion’ might be broader than assent to propositional beliefs or to explore further the nature of belief and how it can function in all our everyday lives. As Day writes of Jordan, ‘[He] had many beliefs, although not in God, Jesus, the Bible and “stuff”. He believed in doing well at school, helping at home, being with his friends’ (2009, 267).

In recent years, there has been increased debate about the inclusion of secular philosophies within the RE classroom. As I have argued elsewhere , there seem to be a number of problems with some of the recommendations that have been made in this debate, specifically that it repeats the assumption that belief (whether religious or secular) is tantamount to assent to propositions. But exploring the nature of belief more broadly would seem to be one way in which young people could understand religion ‘beyond belief’ and start to recognise the role that beliefs play in all our lives, rather than viewing belief as solely propositional and peculiar to religion. Space within the curriculum should perhaps be found, therefore, to encourage pupils to explore the nature of belief as not only a marker of religious identity but also of social or relational identities, as Day suggests.

Towards the end of the interview, Day discusses some of the ways in which academics can disseminate project findings, as well as give back to the communities they have involved in their projects. Day’s research into what people actually believe has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of how belief functions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. My research with 14- and 15-year olds suggests that it would be helpful if more of these insights could reach not only researchers of religion but also educationalists and policy makers, in order to benefit young people studying religion and belief at school.

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References

  • Day, A. (2009) ‘Believing in Belonging: An Ethnography of Young People’s Constructions of Belief.’ Culture and Religion 10 (3) 263-278
  • – (2011) Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, L. (2012) ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
  • Liebenberg, L. (2009) ‘The visual image as discussion point: increasing validity in boundary crossing research’. Qualitative Research 9:441-67.
  • Lindquist, G. and Coleman, S. (2008) ‘Introduction: Against Belief?’ Social Analysis 52 (1) 1-18
  • Morgan, D. (ed.) (2010) Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge.
  • Needham, R. (1972) Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Ruel, M. (2002) ‘Christians as Believers’ in Lambek, M. (ed.) (2002) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.