Posts

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.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, George Michael’s “Faith” LP vinyl, the cult classic Mall Rats, and more.


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.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Putting an Umbrella Over a Bridge

A Response to “Worldviews and Ways of Life”

by Alex Uzdavines

Read more

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Ann Taves joins us to discuss her work arguing that we should study religions under the broader rubric of “worldviews” and “ways of life”. This ambitious interdisciplinary project aims to place a micro-level analysis of individual worldviews into a broader evolutionary perspective. Through case-studies (including ‘secular’ worldviews like Alcoholics Anonymous alongside more traditional ‘religions’), she explains how worldviews form in response to existential ‘Big Questions’ – here understood as core biological needs and goals, rather than theological or moral concerns – and are enacted in Ways of Life, individually or collectively.

This interview summarizes her Gunning Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 19-21 March 2018.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, the classic album Wu-Tang Forever, peanut butter, and more.

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

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Podcast with Ann Taves (21 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Taves_-_Worldviews_and_Ways_of_Life_1.1

David Robertson (DR): It’s my pleasure to be joined here today by Professor Ann Taves from the Religious Studies Department and the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s not her first visit to the podcast, but the first full-length interview I think. So this should be interesting. She’s here in Edinburgh to deliver the Gunning Lectures and that’s where the topic of today’s discussion has come from: talking about worldviews and ways of life. So let’s start where we were kind-of already talking before I started recording: a little bit, maybe, about, how did we come to this position? You were asked to write a blog? Is that right?

Ann Taves (AT): Yes. I mean, really the question is: why am I even talking about worldviews and ways of life, or studying religion as worldviews and ways of life? Which was the topic of the Gunning Lectures. And, as we were just talking about before, I was pretty much what I would call an “anti-definitionalist”, when it comes to defining religion for research purposes. Because I think it’s really important that we look at how people understand religion – and other related sorts of terms – on the ground. But I was kind-of forced to make a more constructive move – internally forced – after I was asked to write a blog post on method for the Non-Religion and Secularity Project. And it just struck me that talking about non-religion and religion, without ever specifying any larger category or rubric under which these two items fell, was kind of absurd.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that got me searching for . . . trying to answer the question: what do these two things have in common? And terms like worldviews and ways of life are actually very widely used, as an overarching framework for talking about these things. In fact, Lois Lee’s first objection to the worldviews language was it was too commonplace, and too ordinary.

DR: Yes. And there’s a question, there, why ordinary and commonplace . . . ? That should be fine, really? Maybe that’s part of the Protestant thing that religion should be special and set apart? But . . .

AT: Yes, I think her concern – and I’m putting words in her mouth . . .

DR: Yes. She can respond, if she wants!

AT: Right. I think her concern was actually one that came up in the Q and A after my first lecture. The ease with which everyday definitions of worldviews might get confused with whatever we might want to mean by it, in a more technical sense. And that’s one of our problems with defining religion.

DR: Yes. Very much so.

AT: We construct these technical definitions of what we mean, but then everybody has their meanings on the ground. What I’m arguing with worldviews and ways of life is that we actually can define them in a way that I’m arguing can stabilise them, in a way that we can’t stabilise definitions of religion; that religion is a complex, cultural concept – it simply does not have a stable meaning. But worldviews and ways of life – I think that we can root them in a perspective, and show how the ability to actually generate a worldview is something that humans can do that’s grounded in evolved capacities, basically, that emerge out of all mobile organisms having a way of life.

DR: That’s really interesting. I’m going to get you to take us through some of that – albeit in a truncated way – later on. First though, I think we need to jump back a little bit. (5:00) So, tell us what you mean by worldviews. And you also use this term ways of life.

AT: Yes

DR: Just unpack, for the listeners, a little bit what we mean by these terms.

AT: Well, let me start with worldviews. Basically, there’s a range of scholarship on worldviews. There still is an interdisciplinary group in Belgium and there are scholars and anthropologists such as André Droogers in Amsterdam who’ve been working on this idea of worldviews. And generally, in this literature, they define worldviews in terms of what I would call Big Questions. So the kind of . . . they use fundamental terms that you hear in philosophy. So terms like ontology, cosmology epistemology, anthropology, axiology, and praxeology – those are the big philosophical concepts. But we can translate those into very everyday language.

DR: OK.

AT: So that’s basically how Egil Asprem and I are working to define worldviews: in terms of answers to these six fundamental big questions.

DR: Can you give us a couple of examples of those as questions?

AT: Yes, so the ontology questions would be, “What exists? What’s real?” And the cosmology question would start with the very basic question of either, “Who am I?” or “Who are we?” But it would expand to “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” The anthropology question would be, “What is our situation? What is the situation in which we find ourselves?” It could also then expand to, “What is our nature?” But two really crucial questions . . . . Well, let me just give you all of them. Because in relation to the “What’s real?” and “Who are we?”, “Where are we going?” questions, the next question is the epistemology question: “How do we know that?” And so you get answers from human beings, or science, or revelation – things like that. But then, after the one about our situation would come the question of goals and values. So, “What’s the good, or what’s the goal that we should be striving for?” And then, finally, the big path or action question: “How do we get there?” So we’re arguing that we can use this set of questions to unpack lots of things. From – at a very high level – teachings of a broad tradition, all the way down to how individuals would answer that question.

DR: So there’s a real scalability to this then?

AT: exactly

DR: And so these build into . . . am I understanding correctly, that the responses to these questions become embodied in ways of life? Would that be correct?

AT: Yes. We’re arguing that all mobile organisms, broadly speaking, have what we can think of as a way of life. But the more basic the organism, the more basic the way of life. There’s not going to be any choices. There’s certainly not going to be any mental reflection on ways of life, right? So, ways of life can get more and more complicated. But we see that as one of the ways that we can talk about humans as evolved animals. And we want to stress both continuity and difference. We’re trying to do a “both/and” kind of thing, rather than an “either/or”.

DR: OK

AT: But you were asking then, for humans, how do worldviews relate to ways of life?

DR: Yes. And prior to that, how do the big questions relate to ways of life and worldviews? What’s the direct relationship there?

AT: Yes. Well. We’re distinguishing – and I keep saying we, because Egil Asprem and I have been collaborating on some of this work. We’re talking about modes of worldview expression. And we’re distinguishing between enacted, articulated and recounted worldviews. (10:00) So recounted would include both oral traditions, where things are memorised, and textualised traditions. But before you can get to recounting, we’ve just got articulating a worldview in language. Then, prior to that, we’ve got the fact that they can be enacted without even being articulated. And all these levels can work together and interact. And so, at the enacted level, you’ve basically got implicit worldviews embedded in ways of life. And as researchers we would have to extract or infer answers to big questions, based on people’s actions and behaviour.

DR: So is it with this embodied, recounted level – is that where we start talking about worldviews rather than simply ways of life?

AT: Yes. Yes. So we’re arguing that, basically, you have to have a cultural capacity before you can have a worldview. And so we used a distinction, on the one hand, between natural and cultural affordances that we borrow from ecological psychology, and also a distinction between evolved and cultural schemas, which are a psychological construct for the kinds of representations that we have for things. And the distinction between natural and cultural is that natural affordances, or evolved schemas, are very much . . . there’s a direct relationship between the organism and the environment.

DR: OK.

AT: There’s no mediating possibility for some kind of cultural construct that organisms have agreed upon together. It’s not until we get to humans that – as far as we know – we have those more collective kinds of agreements about things that can be detached from the environment.

DR: So, maybe something like: you think you’ve seen something in the shadows, and you’re frightened – so it might be a schema: there’s an embodied reaction of fear. But that you saw a ghost, you are therefore frightened of ghosts – that’s more of a worldview? Or at least part of a way of life?

AT: Yes. It’s drawing in a cultural schema about ghosts.

DG: A collective cultural schema.

AT: And layering that on top of the evolved schema of when you hear a sound – or, more likely, when you perceive some sort of movement, right? We have an evolved tendency to assume there’s something animate there – something potentially dangerous.

DR: And potentially then, that would also tie into a larger view of the world. Because in order to have ghosts going about, you have to have some sort of notion of survival after death or non-real beings of some sort.

AT: Exactly. Right. So you can expand from that in steps to develop a larger underlying conception of how they would describe what’s real in the world.

DR: Right. And what’s nice about this schema, I think, is that it’s definitely a bottom-up approach to this, rather than top-down. So we’re starting with the most basic kind of responses and then building up to the worldviews from there.

AT: Well, certainly, if you want to start at the level of individual behaviour. But we actually can start in all kinds of places as long – I would argue – as we’re being responsible about the nature of our starting points. I mean as long as we’re up front about that.

DR: Yes.

AT: I think, as you know, I’ve been teaching Comparing Worldviews-type courses, which is an attempt to overcome some of the problems with the world religions paradigm.

DR: Which our listeners should, by now, be very familiar with! (Laughs).

AT: Exactly. That’s why I brought it up in this context, because I figured it might be relevant.

DR: Yes.

AT: But there, starting with a textbook depiction of the teachings of a so-called world religion, (15:00) we can have the students analyse that in terms of the big questions, to give themselves a basic sort-of framework. And I can then analyse or show them, using historical materials, how over time that those answers to the big questions coalesced into some sort of, say, orthodoxy, or some sort of tradition – including looking at the power structures and the authority structures that would make it coalesce into being that. But it doesn’t mean that every individual or all the groups all adhere to that. But we can still start at that level, and use this conception that way, is my point.

DR: How – and the answer to this might just be, “Not at all.” – but how is this in any way related to what Ninian Smart was trying to do, or at least what Ninian Smart said he was trying to do?

AT: Right. No, I think there is a relationship. And I think it’s important to see both what Ninian Smart did that I think is extremely positive, and the limitations of what he did. So the really positive thing is articulating, in a kind of obscure article (that I think more of us ought to be aware of) in which he, basically, argued that we ought to subsume the philosophy of religion under the philosophy of worldviews: the history of religions, in the broad religionsgeschichte sense, under the history of worldviews and the anthropology of religion under an anthropology of worldviews. So sort-of the whole range of methodologies that we tend to use in Religious Studies he saw as part of an expansive conception of Worldviews Studies. And I think that’s really cool.

DR: Yes.

AT: But the limitation is that he never defined what he meant by worldview. And what he did was simply import his six – or later, seven – dimensions of religion from the study of religion to the study of worldviews. And to me that was kind of importing . . . . You know, that was almost a new version of the missionary move – of taking our definition of religion and now applying it to worldviews.

DR: Yes. And the choice of the dimensions, and the relative weighting of them, kind-of speaks to that. So you know, like “texts” is there . . . But also, I’m not sure where exactly, but he certainly states at one point that obviously while we can view all of these things as worldviews, some of them are “more profound than others”. So, implicitly, he’s still making distinctions!

AT: Right. Right.

DR: And, of course, Christianity is going to be right at the top! I mean, I would put money on that.

AT: Right. But part of our move to viewing worldviews and ways of life from an evolutionary perspective is to try to turn that on its head. Because it makes the highly rationalised, highly systematised worldviews that philosophers and theologians are into – and maybe even world religions textbooks – into a very high end product that may, or may not, have that much relationship to everyday life. Or at least it’s a very open question – as scholars of so-called lived religion would argue – to how people live their everyday lives. So part of what we see, working from the bottom up, is a lot of open questions about: how integrated are people’s enacted worldviews? Do they need to articulate them in order to function? Or can an enculturated way of life be perfectly sufficient until it’s challenged in some way, by something or other? Then maybe people have to start to think about it on a need-to-know basis (20:00).

DR: And this is something that really interests me, actually. You said something about this. I think you said that we can see external . . . . What’s the term you used? Schemas. We can see schemas that are external to us, in other societies, very easily. But it’s very difficult to see schemas in our own. Which, obviously, is something that, as scholars, we’re trained to do, and we try and inculcate in our students as well. But I was thinking about . . . I’m very interested in the idea of challenging the idea of belief in the study of religion. I think there’s a lot of stress put on, “This is people’s belief.” And, when you actually look at the data on the ground, people are not consistent in these kind of things. Beliefs are not performative statements which people hold in their brain and then act in accordance to. And, for instance, we have ideas like situational belief, where people will respond differently in different circumstances. And I certainly saw this a lot in my research on New Age and conspiracy theories. That, for instance, people who were suffering from chronic pain will change their position or adopt multiple positions on alternative therapies. They may be the most scientifically-minded person going, but when pain-killers no longer work they’re willing to, subjunctively, entertain the idea that acupuncture, or flower remedies, or something else might work. And then, of course, if those seem to work, they may completely change their worldview.

AT: Or not completely.

DR: So yes. You can see where I’m . . .

AT: Yes. Because they may still be going to a more conventional physician or healer at the same time. So they may, people may actually be able to keep multiple variant implicit worldviews going, without thinking really carefully about the conflicts between them – as long as the conflicts aren’t causing them any problems.

DR: So are we seeing people, then, moving between different schemas? Are they moving between different worldviews, then? Or are we able to negotiate multiple schemas in different contexts?

AT: Yes. I mean I think . . . . Let me answer that a couple of ways. Because, if we think about other animals who would have evolved schemas that would be cued by the environment to elicit certain behaviours in certain situations, then certainly we could think that, at that basic level, we have tons of schemas that get differentially cued by different environmental contexts. Each of those contexts would be a whole situation where we could ask, “What’s the situation in which we find ourselves?” “What’s the goal in this situation?” “What is the means to get the goal?” “What kind of action . . .?” So, in that sense, we could begin to flesh out a micro-worldview, or micro-answers to the big questions, in that context. So part of the thing to keep in mind, I think, is the answers to the big questions don’t have to be super-big sounding! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs). No, absolutely! Yes!

AT: But at a more human level, I think, another way to think about your question, that again came up at our discussions, was to think about it in relationship to people that are bicultural. And it seems to me that there’s an analogy between the kinds of people dealing with medical problems switching between healing frames, we could call it, that could develop into a whole consistent way of life, but could just be these partial things that people can flip back and forth between. And if we look at bicultural people, they get cued to speak different languages, bring whole different sets of cultural schemas into play when they’re with their relatives, wherever their family came from, or when they’re with their family in their new context.

DR: Interestingly – I didn’t mention this when we were talking about this yesterday (25:00) – but, because I worked in catering for a long time, I’ve known a lot of bicultural people. And several of them have said to me that their personality is slightly different when they’re in the other register. Like, I’ve known a French friend of mine who says she’s much more sarcastic and aggressive with her French family and friends than she is with her Scottish friends, for instance.

AT: Yes, I think that’s really interesting. I mean, in that she’s answering the big question about “Who am I?” With different answers.

DR: Differently.

AT: Yes. And I think we need a language to make sense of that, to explore that. And that’s part of what I see as the power of this approach. It seems to me there’s a whole lot of different directions that we can use it to explore.

DR: Yes. So let’s pursue that then – briefly, I mean. In the Gunning lectures you used the example of the AA quite a lot. And I thought you could, maybe, talk us quite quickly through that – just so the listeners have a real world example to play with. So taking the Alcoholics Anonymous – a group that kind-of . . . you know: a debatable case, an edge case as to whether we’re talking about something that’s religious or not. So let’s see how the model works.

AT: Yes, well that was exactly why I picked it. Because they are adamant that they are not a religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

AT: So, alcoholics Anonymous is happy to call itself a spiritual . . . as embodying a spiritual path, or a spiritual way of life. They actually use the way of life kind of language, or call themselves a fellowship. So that was why I picked them. Plus, I know a fair amount about them – so it seemed like an example I could spell out.

DR: Yes. That helps!

AT: Yes. So part of what I did in the first lecture was just to show the variety of ways that we can analyse it. So in the first lecture I talked about it at the sort-of high level of itself as a group with official documents, you know, describing who they are collectively. And so I used the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions, which are their core defining documents, to analyse how as an organisation they would officially answer the big questions. They don’t officially answer the big questions, but how we can tease out their answers to the big questions based on their official documents.

DR: OK

AT: And then I indicated that we could look, we could take that analysis in two directions. We could compare it to other groups in the culture to help us better understand how they were trying to position themselves, and why they wanted to insist they were not a religion. And it’s basically because they wanted to argue that their path is compatible with any religion or none at all. But then the other thing that I showed is how we can look at subgroups within AA, or individual narratives within AA, and examine the extent to which they buy the official conception that this is a generic spiritual path. And so I alluded to some of the different commentaries: feminist, Native American, Buddhist, Vedanta – you know. There’s all these different attempts to translate the Twelve Steps into other religious or spiritual terms.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that’s the kind of thing that I was looking at in the first lecture: some of the big picture things we could do. Then in the second lecture, when I looked at the evolutionary perspective, or foundations of worldviews, I used the kind of layered approach – developing the idea that we have these evolved schemas, and also internalised cultural schemas, that can lead us to act very quickly without thinking about it – to tease apart Bill Wilson – one of the Founders of AA – what he would describe as the sort of drinkers’ dilemma, which is that they can make this conscious choice to quit drinking and then have that immediately undermined when somebody hands them a drink (30:00). And so I use that to differentiate between an enacted way of life which is, “I’m an alcoholic”, and an articulated way of life, which is, “I’m going to quit drinking and I have the willpower to do it”.

DR: Yes.

AT: In the last lecture I looked at the emergence of AA and the transformation of the alcoholic as processes of change, both of groups and of individuals. And so I used this kind of analysis to analyse sort-of the before and after, and the transition from one way of life to another.

DR: We’re getting towards time, now. So let’s switch to the bigger questions. So, we’re talking about maybe the idea of subsuming RS under a broader umbrella of worldviews and stuff – where we started. But why is this so important now? What . . . ? This has some strong resonances with the field, and issues within the field generally, I think. And it would be good to speak to that, briefly.

AT: I think I’m frustrated with the field on a couple of levels. I’m frustrated with what strikes me as a continuing spinning of our wheels when it comes to critique. We’re very good at critiquing and identifying all the problems with the concept of religion. But I don’t see that much effort being put into solving the problems. And too often I see the potential solutions, including this one, being shut down because it might undermine our departments, and so-to-speak our way of life. So even if it might be more responsible intellectually, more consistent intellectually, we want to safeguard our way of life and therefore we’re not going to go there, and we’re going to continue to spin our wheels conceptually. I find that really frustrating – although I certainly understand why we might want to protect our way of life. The other frustration, for me, is the kind of polarisation between people that are deeply committed to a humanistic approach to the study of religion and people that are trying to approach it from a more scientific or cognitive scientific point of view. And I really see myself as trying to bridge between those two. And I strongly would argue for the value of both approaches. It’s not an either/or kind of thing. So, taken together, this kind of approach that I’m talking about is designed, one: to offer a constructive kind-of option to get us beyond just critique, and second: to bridge between the humanistic and the scientific approaches. So I’d just like to see more of us engaging in both bridge-building and trying to solve some of our problems.

DR: Yes. And we at the Religious Studies Project . . . those are two issues that we – well, certainly the former: moving beyond critique is something that we’ve taken quite seriously. And the interdisciplinary . . . I mean, we feature a lot of psychology and cognitive people on. But proper interdisciplinary work that builds on both sides equally is rare. But it’s also challenging to do, I think. This is may be a legacy of the way that the field’s construed. We’re already . . . you know, I’ve had to learn Sociology and History as methodologies, just in a standard RS context. So, then, to start building in Psychology and Cognitive Studies, you know – it’s big ask!

AT: I totally agree. It is a big ask. And I’ve been motivated to do it because I find it really fascinating. So if people don’t have any kind of internal curiosity driving them to do it, then you know it’s probably going to be pretty tough (35:00). But, on the other hand, people could be more open to those who are interested in doing it. But the second thing that I think we need to be really aware of is that people in the sciences tend to work collaboratively and people in the humanities tend to be single-author type folks.

DR: Yes.

AT: And so, the more of this kind of bridge-building work I’ve tried to do, the more I’ve been collaborating. So, just in this conversation, I’ve been mentioning Egil Asprem. I’ve been working with him on this worldviews and ways of life stuff, but when we decided to work out some of these ideas for a psychology journal we enlisted a psychologist as a third author. And we’re also working on a another paper that I’m going to be giving in an evolution of religion conference, where I’m going to argue about: why are we talking about the evolution of religion? Shouldn’t we be talking about the evolution of worldviews and ways of life? But, anyway, we’re enlisting an evolutionary psychologist as a third author on that paper. So, I want to have that kind of collaborative input so that I’m more confident that the ways that we’re pushing these ideas makes sense to people who are deeply invested in those particular fields. So it’s one thing to kind-of sketch a big picture, but it’s another to present it with the kind of detail that the people specialising in that area would want to have.

DR: Absolutely. And, you know, I know this myself from the limited amount of collaboration I’ve had in terms of working with conspiracy theory scholars. Because, as someone trained in Religious Studies, I’m kind of a minority there. Probably 50% of them are psychologists and maybe 30% are political science – so very different methodologies. But very clear that the next stage in the scholarship needs to take the humanities’ critiques, and analyses, and understanding of terms together with the kind of data-generating ability, and the quantitative analysis that they can do. And so, yes, I think there’s a very timely call. And it’s probably a good place to leave, on that kind-of rousing call to action!

AT: Yes.

DR: So I’m just going to say – thanks so much for joining us today, Ann. Thank you.

Citation Info: Taves, Ann, and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Worldviews and Ways of Life”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/worldviews-and-ways-of-life/

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 the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, George Michael’s “Faith” LP vinyl, the cult classic Mall Rats, and more.


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.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Putting an Umbrella Over a Bridge

A Response to “Worldviews and Ways of Life”

by Alex Uzdavines

Read more

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Ann Taves joins us to discuss her work arguing that we should study religions under the broader rubric of “worldviews” and “ways of life”. This ambitious interdisciplinary project aims to place a micro-level analysis of individual worldviews into a broader evolutionary perspective. Through case-studies (including ‘secular’ worldviews like Alcoholics Anonymous alongside more traditional ‘religions’), she explains how worldviews form in response to existential ‘Big Questions’ – here understood as core biological needs and goals, rather than theological or moral concerns – and are enacted in Ways of Life, individually or collectively.

This interview summarizes her Gunning Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 19-21 March 2018.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, the classic album Wu-Tang Forever, peanut butter, and more.

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

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Podcast with Ann Taves (21 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Taves_-_Worldviews_and_Ways_of_Life_1.1

David Robertson (DR): It’s my pleasure to be joined here today by Professor Ann Taves from the Religious Studies Department and the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s not her first visit to the podcast, but the first full-length interview I think. So this should be interesting. She’s here in Edinburgh to deliver the Gunning Lectures and that’s where the topic of today’s discussion has come from: talking about worldviews and ways of life. So let’s start where we were kind-of already talking before I started recording: a little bit, maybe, about, how did we come to this position? You were asked to write a blog? Is that right?

Ann Taves (AT): Yes. I mean, really the question is: why am I even talking about worldviews and ways of life, or studying religion as worldviews and ways of life? Which was the topic of the Gunning Lectures. And, as we were just talking about before, I was pretty much what I would call an “anti-definitionalist”, when it comes to defining religion for research purposes. Because I think it’s really important that we look at how people understand religion – and other related sorts of terms – on the ground. But I was kind-of forced to make a more constructive move – internally forced – after I was asked to write a blog post on method for the Non-Religion and Secularity Project. And it just struck me that talking about non-religion and religion, without ever specifying any larger category or rubric under which these two items fell, was kind of absurd.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that got me searching for . . . trying to answer the question: what do these two things have in common? And terms like worldviews and ways of life are actually very widely used, as an overarching framework for talking about these things. In fact, Lois Lee’s first objection to the worldviews language was it was too commonplace, and too ordinary.

DR: Yes. And there’s a question, there, why ordinary and commonplace . . . ? That should be fine, really? Maybe that’s part of the Protestant thing that religion should be special and set apart? But . . .

AT: Yes, I think her concern – and I’m putting words in her mouth . . .

DR: Yes. She can respond, if she wants!

AT: Right. I think her concern was actually one that came up in the Q and A after my first lecture. The ease with which everyday definitions of worldviews might get confused with whatever we might want to mean by it, in a more technical sense. And that’s one of our problems with defining religion.

DR: Yes. Very much so.

AT: We construct these technical definitions of what we mean, but then everybody has their meanings on the ground. What I’m arguing with worldviews and ways of life is that we actually can define them in a way that I’m arguing can stabilise them, in a way that we can’t stabilise definitions of religion; that religion is a complex, cultural concept – it simply does not have a stable meaning. But worldviews and ways of life – I think that we can root them in a perspective, and show how the ability to actually generate a worldview is something that humans can do that’s grounded in evolved capacities, basically, that emerge out of all mobile organisms having a way of life.

DR: That’s really interesting. I’m going to get you to take us through some of that – albeit in a truncated way – later on. First though, I think we need to jump back a little bit. (5:00) So, tell us what you mean by worldviews. And you also use this term ways of life.

AT: Yes

DR: Just unpack, for the listeners, a little bit what we mean by these terms.

AT: Well, let me start with worldviews. Basically, there’s a range of scholarship on worldviews. There still is an interdisciplinary group in Belgium and there are scholars and anthropologists such as André Droogers in Amsterdam who’ve been working on this idea of worldviews. And generally, in this literature, they define worldviews in terms of what I would call Big Questions. So the kind of . . . they use fundamental terms that you hear in philosophy. So terms like ontology, cosmology epistemology, anthropology, axiology, and praxeology – those are the big philosophical concepts. But we can translate those into very everyday language.

DR: OK.

AT: So that’s basically how Egil Asprem and I are working to define worldviews: in terms of answers to these six fundamental big questions.

DR: Can you give us a couple of examples of those as questions?

AT: Yes, so the ontology questions would be, “What exists? What’s real?” And the cosmology question would start with the very basic question of either, “Who am I?” or “Who are we?” But it would expand to “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” The anthropology question would be, “What is our situation? What is the situation in which we find ourselves?” It could also then expand to, “What is our nature?” But two really crucial questions . . . . Well, let me just give you all of them. Because in relation to the “What’s real?” and “Who are we?”, “Where are we going?” questions, the next question is the epistemology question: “How do we know that?” And so you get answers from human beings, or science, or revelation – things like that. But then, after the one about our situation would come the question of goals and values. So, “What’s the good, or what’s the goal that we should be striving for?” And then, finally, the big path or action question: “How do we get there?” So we’re arguing that we can use this set of questions to unpack lots of things. From – at a very high level – teachings of a broad tradition, all the way down to how individuals would answer that question.

DR: So there’s a real scalability to this then?

AT: exactly

DR: And so these build into . . . am I understanding correctly, that the responses to these questions become embodied in ways of life? Would that be correct?

AT: Yes. We’re arguing that all mobile organisms, broadly speaking, have what we can think of as a way of life. But the more basic the organism, the more basic the way of life. There’s not going to be any choices. There’s certainly not going to be any mental reflection on ways of life, right? So, ways of life can get more and more complicated. But we see that as one of the ways that we can talk about humans as evolved animals. And we want to stress both continuity and difference. We’re trying to do a “both/and” kind of thing, rather than an “either/or”.

DR: OK

AT: But you were asking then, for humans, how do worldviews relate to ways of life?

DR: Yes. And prior to that, how do the big questions relate to ways of life and worldviews? What’s the direct relationship there?

AT: Yes. Well. We’re distinguishing – and I keep saying we, because Egil Asprem and I have been collaborating on some of this work. We’re talking about modes of worldview expression. And we’re distinguishing between enacted, articulated and recounted worldviews. (10:00) So recounted would include both oral traditions, where things are memorised, and textualised traditions. But before you can get to recounting, we’ve just got articulating a worldview in language. Then, prior to that, we’ve got the fact that they can be enacted without even being articulated. And all these levels can work together and interact. And so, at the enacted level, you’ve basically got implicit worldviews embedded in ways of life. And as researchers we would have to extract or infer answers to big questions, based on people’s actions and behaviour.

DR: So is it with this embodied, recounted level – is that where we start talking about worldviews rather than simply ways of life?

AT: Yes. Yes. So we’re arguing that, basically, you have to have a cultural capacity before you can have a worldview. And so we used a distinction, on the one hand, between natural and cultural affordances that we borrow from ecological psychology, and also a distinction between evolved and cultural schemas, which are a psychological construct for the kinds of representations that we have for things. And the distinction between natural and cultural is that natural affordances, or evolved schemas, are very much . . . there’s a direct relationship between the organism and the environment.

DR: OK.

AT: There’s no mediating possibility for some kind of cultural construct that organisms have agreed upon together. It’s not until we get to humans that – as far as we know – we have those more collective kinds of agreements about things that can be detached from the environment.

DR: So, maybe something like: you think you’ve seen something in the shadows, and you’re frightened – so it might be a schema: there’s an embodied reaction of fear. But that you saw a ghost, you are therefore frightened of ghosts – that’s more of a worldview? Or at least part of a way of life?

AT: Yes. It’s drawing in a cultural schema about ghosts.

DG: A collective cultural schema.

AT: And layering that on top of the evolved schema of when you hear a sound – or, more likely, when you perceive some sort of movement, right? We have an evolved tendency to assume there’s something animate there – something potentially dangerous.

DR: And potentially then, that would also tie into a larger view of the world. Because in order to have ghosts going about, you have to have some sort of notion of survival after death or non-real beings of some sort.

AT: Exactly. Right. So you can expand from that in steps to develop a larger underlying conception of how they would describe what’s real in the world.

DR: Right. And what’s nice about this schema, I think, is that it’s definitely a bottom-up approach to this, rather than top-down. So we’re starting with the most basic kind of responses and then building up to the worldviews from there.

AT: Well, certainly, if you want to start at the level of individual behaviour. But we actually can start in all kinds of places as long – I would argue – as we’re being responsible about the nature of our starting points. I mean as long as we’re up front about that.

DR: Yes.

AT: I think, as you know, I’ve been teaching Comparing Worldviews-type courses, which is an attempt to overcome some of the problems with the world religions paradigm.

DR: Which our listeners should, by now, be very familiar with! (Laughs).

AT: Exactly. That’s why I brought it up in this context, because I figured it might be relevant.

DR: Yes.

AT: But there, starting with a textbook depiction of the teachings of a so-called world religion, (15:00) we can have the students analyse that in terms of the big questions, to give themselves a basic sort-of framework. And I can then analyse or show them, using historical materials, how over time that those answers to the big questions coalesced into some sort of, say, orthodoxy, or some sort of tradition – including looking at the power structures and the authority structures that would make it coalesce into being that. But it doesn’t mean that every individual or all the groups all adhere to that. But we can still start at that level, and use this conception that way, is my point.

DR: How – and the answer to this might just be, “Not at all.” – but how is this in any way related to what Ninian Smart was trying to do, or at least what Ninian Smart said he was trying to do?

AT: Right. No, I think there is a relationship. And I think it’s important to see both what Ninian Smart did that I think is extremely positive, and the limitations of what he did. So the really positive thing is articulating, in a kind of obscure article (that I think more of us ought to be aware of) in which he, basically, argued that we ought to subsume the philosophy of religion under the philosophy of worldviews: the history of religions, in the broad religionsgeschichte sense, under the history of worldviews and the anthropology of religion under an anthropology of worldviews. So sort-of the whole range of methodologies that we tend to use in Religious Studies he saw as part of an expansive conception of Worldviews Studies. And I think that’s really cool.

DR: Yes.

AT: But the limitation is that he never defined what he meant by worldview. And what he did was simply import his six – or later, seven – dimensions of religion from the study of religion to the study of worldviews. And to me that was kind of importing . . . . You know, that was almost a new version of the missionary move – of taking our definition of religion and now applying it to worldviews.

DR: Yes. And the choice of the dimensions, and the relative weighting of them, kind-of speaks to that. So you know, like “texts” is there . . . But also, I’m not sure where exactly, but he certainly states at one point that obviously while we can view all of these things as worldviews, some of them are “more profound than others”. So, implicitly, he’s still making distinctions!

AT: Right. Right.

DR: And, of course, Christianity is going to be right at the top! I mean, I would put money on that.

AT: Right. But part of our move to viewing worldviews and ways of life from an evolutionary perspective is to try to turn that on its head. Because it makes the highly rationalised, highly systematised worldviews that philosophers and theologians are into – and maybe even world religions textbooks – into a very high end product that may, or may not, have that much relationship to everyday life. Or at least it’s a very open question – as scholars of so-called lived religion would argue – to how people live their everyday lives. So part of what we see, working from the bottom up, is a lot of open questions about: how integrated are people’s enacted worldviews? Do they need to articulate them in order to function? Or can an enculturated way of life be perfectly sufficient until it’s challenged in some way, by something or other? Then maybe people have to start to think about it on a need-to-know basis (20:00).

DR: And this is something that really interests me, actually. You said something about this. I think you said that we can see external . . . . What’s the term you used? Schemas. We can see schemas that are external to us, in other societies, very easily. But it’s very difficult to see schemas in our own. Which, obviously, is something that, as scholars, we’re trained to do, and we try and inculcate in our students as well. But I was thinking about . . . I’m very interested in the idea of challenging the idea of belief in the study of religion. I think there’s a lot of stress put on, “This is people’s belief.” And, when you actually look at the data on the ground, people are not consistent in these kind of things. Beliefs are not performative statements which people hold in their brain and then act in accordance to. And, for instance, we have ideas like situational belief, where people will respond differently in different circumstances. And I certainly saw this a lot in my research on New Age and conspiracy theories. That, for instance, people who were suffering from chronic pain will change their position or adopt multiple positions on alternative therapies. They may be the most scientifically-minded person going, but when pain-killers no longer work they’re willing to, subjunctively, entertain the idea that acupuncture, or flower remedies, or something else might work. And then, of course, if those seem to work, they may completely change their worldview.

AT: Or not completely.

DR: So yes. You can see where I’m . . .

AT: Yes. Because they may still be going to a more conventional physician or healer at the same time. So they may, people may actually be able to keep multiple variant implicit worldviews going, without thinking really carefully about the conflicts between them – as long as the conflicts aren’t causing them any problems.

DR: So are we seeing people, then, moving between different schemas? Are they moving between different worldviews, then? Or are we able to negotiate multiple schemas in different contexts?

AT: Yes. I mean I think . . . . Let me answer that a couple of ways. Because, if we think about other animals who would have evolved schemas that would be cued by the environment to elicit certain behaviours in certain situations, then certainly we could think that, at that basic level, we have tons of schemas that get differentially cued by different environmental contexts. Each of those contexts would be a whole situation where we could ask, “What’s the situation in which we find ourselves?” “What’s the goal in this situation?” “What is the means to get the goal?” “What kind of action . . .?” So, in that sense, we could begin to flesh out a micro-worldview, or micro-answers to the big questions, in that context. So part of the thing to keep in mind, I think, is the answers to the big questions don’t have to be super-big sounding! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs). No, absolutely! Yes!

AT: But at a more human level, I think, another way to think about your question, that again came up at our discussions, was to think about it in relationship to people that are bicultural. And it seems to me that there’s an analogy between the kinds of people dealing with medical problems switching between healing frames, we could call it, that could develop into a whole consistent way of life, but could just be these partial things that people can flip back and forth between. And if we look at bicultural people, they get cued to speak different languages, bring whole different sets of cultural schemas into play when they’re with their relatives, wherever their family came from, or when they’re with their family in their new context.

DR: Interestingly – I didn’t mention this when we were talking about this yesterday (25:00) – but, because I worked in catering for a long time, I’ve known a lot of bicultural people. And several of them have said to me that their personality is slightly different when they’re in the other register. Like, I’ve known a French friend of mine who says she’s much more sarcastic and aggressive with her French family and friends than she is with her Scottish friends, for instance.

AT: Yes, I think that’s really interesting. I mean, in that she’s answering the big question about “Who am I?” With different answers.

DR: Differently.

AT: Yes. And I think we need a language to make sense of that, to explore that. And that’s part of what I see as the power of this approach. It seems to me there’s a whole lot of different directions that we can use it to explore.

DR: Yes. So let’s pursue that then – briefly, I mean. In the Gunning lectures you used the example of the AA quite a lot. And I thought you could, maybe, talk us quite quickly through that – just so the listeners have a real world example to play with. So taking the Alcoholics Anonymous – a group that kind-of . . . you know: a debatable case, an edge case as to whether we’re talking about something that’s religious or not. So let’s see how the model works.

AT: Yes, well that was exactly why I picked it. Because they are adamant that they are not a religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

AT: So, alcoholics Anonymous is happy to call itself a spiritual . . . as embodying a spiritual path, or a spiritual way of life. They actually use the way of life kind of language, or call themselves a fellowship. So that was why I picked them. Plus, I know a fair amount about them – so it seemed like an example I could spell out.

DR: Yes. That helps!

AT: Yes. So part of what I did in the first lecture was just to show the variety of ways that we can analyse it. So in the first lecture I talked about it at the sort-of high level of itself as a group with official documents, you know, describing who they are collectively. And so I used the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions, which are their core defining documents, to analyse how as an organisation they would officially answer the big questions. They don’t officially answer the big questions, but how we can tease out their answers to the big questions based on their official documents.

DR: OK

AT: And then I indicated that we could look, we could take that analysis in two directions. We could compare it to other groups in the culture to help us better understand how they were trying to position themselves, and why they wanted to insist they were not a religion. And it’s basically because they wanted to argue that their path is compatible with any religion or none at all. But then the other thing that I showed is how we can look at subgroups within AA, or individual narratives within AA, and examine the extent to which they buy the official conception that this is a generic spiritual path. And so I alluded to some of the different commentaries: feminist, Native American, Buddhist, Vedanta – you know. There’s all these different attempts to translate the Twelve Steps into other religious or spiritual terms.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that’s the kind of thing that I was looking at in the first lecture: some of the big picture things we could do. Then in the second lecture, when I looked at the evolutionary perspective, or foundations of worldviews, I used the kind of layered approach – developing the idea that we have these evolved schemas, and also internalised cultural schemas, that can lead us to act very quickly without thinking about it – to tease apart Bill Wilson – one of the Founders of AA – what he would describe as the sort of drinkers’ dilemma, which is that they can make this conscious choice to quit drinking and then have that immediately undermined when somebody hands them a drink (30:00). And so I use that to differentiate between an enacted way of life which is, “I’m an alcoholic”, and an articulated way of life, which is, “I’m going to quit drinking and I have the willpower to do it”.

DR: Yes.

AT: In the last lecture I looked at the emergence of AA and the transformation of the alcoholic as processes of change, both of groups and of individuals. And so I used this kind of analysis to analyse sort-of the before and after, and the transition from one way of life to another.

DR: We’re getting towards time, now. So let’s switch to the bigger questions. So, we’re talking about maybe the idea of subsuming RS under a broader umbrella of worldviews and stuff – where we started. But why is this so important now? What . . . ? This has some strong resonances with the field, and issues within the field generally, I think. And it would be good to speak to that, briefly.

AT: I think I’m frustrated with the field on a couple of levels. I’m frustrated with what strikes me as a continuing spinning of our wheels when it comes to critique. We’re very good at critiquing and identifying all the problems with the concept of religion. But I don’t see that much effort being put into solving the problems. And too often I see the potential solutions, including this one, being shut down because it might undermine our departments, and so-to-speak our way of life. So even if it might be more responsible intellectually, more consistent intellectually, we want to safeguard our way of life and therefore we’re not going to go there, and we’re going to continue to spin our wheels conceptually. I find that really frustrating – although I certainly understand why we might want to protect our way of life. The other frustration, for me, is the kind of polarisation between people that are deeply committed to a humanistic approach to the study of religion and people that are trying to approach it from a more scientific or cognitive scientific point of view. And I really see myself as trying to bridge between those two. And I strongly would argue for the value of both approaches. It’s not an either/or kind of thing. So, taken together, this kind of approach that I’m talking about is designed, one: to offer a constructive kind-of option to get us beyond just critique, and second: to bridge between the humanistic and the scientific approaches. So I’d just like to see more of us engaging in both bridge-building and trying to solve some of our problems.

DR: Yes. And we at the Religious Studies Project . . . those are two issues that we – well, certainly the former: moving beyond critique is something that we’ve taken quite seriously. And the interdisciplinary . . . I mean, we feature a lot of psychology and cognitive people on. But proper interdisciplinary work that builds on both sides equally is rare. But it’s also challenging to do, I think. This is may be a legacy of the way that the field’s construed. We’re already . . . you know, I’ve had to learn Sociology and History as methodologies, just in a standard RS context. So, then, to start building in Psychology and Cognitive Studies, you know – it’s big ask!

AT: I totally agree. It is a big ask. And I’ve been motivated to do it because I find it really fascinating. So if people don’t have any kind of internal curiosity driving them to do it, then you know it’s probably going to be pretty tough (35:00). But, on the other hand, people could be more open to those who are interested in doing it. But the second thing that I think we need to be really aware of is that people in the sciences tend to work collaboratively and people in the humanities tend to be single-author type folks.

DR: Yes.

AT: And so, the more of this kind of bridge-building work I’ve tried to do, the more I’ve been collaborating. So, just in this conversation, I’ve been mentioning Egil Asprem. I’ve been working with him on this worldviews and ways of life stuff, but when we decided to work out some of these ideas for a psychology journal we enlisted a psychologist as a third author. And we’re also working on a another paper that I’m going to be giving in an evolution of religion conference, where I’m going to argue about: why are we talking about the evolution of religion? Shouldn’t we be talking about the evolution of worldviews and ways of life? But, anyway, we’re enlisting an evolutionary psychologist as a third author on that paper. So, I want to have that kind of collaborative input so that I’m more confident that the ways that we’re pushing these ideas makes sense to people who are deeply invested in those particular fields. So it’s one thing to kind-of sketch a big picture, but it’s another to present it with the kind of detail that the people specialising in that area would want to have.

DR: Absolutely. And, you know, I know this myself from the limited amount of collaboration I’ve had in terms of working with conspiracy theory scholars. Because, as someone trained in Religious Studies, I’m kind of a minority there. Probably 50% of them are psychologists and maybe 30% are political science – so very different methodologies. But very clear that the next stage in the scholarship needs to take the humanities’ critiques, and analyses, and understanding of terms together with the kind of data-generating ability, and the quantitative analysis that they can do. And so, yes, I think there’s a very timely call. And it’s probably a good place to leave, on that kind-of rousing call to action!

AT: Yes.

DR: So I’m just going to say – thanks so much for joining us today, Ann. Thank you.

Citation Info: Taves, Ann, and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Worldviews and Ways of Life”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/worldviews-and-ways-of-life/

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 the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.