Yesterday's Sunday Times had an article in its Review section by Chris Woodhead called Let's Banish God from the Classroom. He argued that RE is often so poorly taught that it cannot reach the aspirations of QCA and that knowledge devoid of experience means RE is often worthless. He writes, 'It is the pusillanimity of the politicians
responsible for what is taught in schools who approve the teaching of
knowledge about different faiths, but who recoil nervously from the
prospect of offering children any experience of that complex of
doctrine, worship, ritual and prayer which is religion.' Has an RE teacher do I think RE should be scrapped? Would the time be spent elsewhere? Does RE teach anything meaningful about religion?
RE that teaches the "facts" of the six major world religion is pointless, because its knowledge without the understanding or experience of what it means to be religious. Equally the idea that there is something which we can define as "religious" is false, different religions or worldviews (here I include postmodernism, humanism, etc) are different. Andy Wright writes that contemporary religion is
‘a set of ambiguous, competing and often overlapping narratives about the true nature of reality’ (Wright, 1996a: 173)
According to Wright, religion is concerned with claims to truth, to describing the world in certain categories. Too often, Wright says, contemporary religious education tends to approach ‘openness to difference on a purely cultural level, requiring students to empathise with the life-styles of adherents of a range of religious traditions, but not to engage directly with the question of truth of their accounts of the ultimate order-of-things (Religion, Education and Post-modernity (2004) London, RoutledgeFalmer, p.226). That is, RE is taught without any sense of controversy; we avoid asking the question, 'but is this or that true?'.
Good RE is needed more than ever in our present climate - our young people need to recognise the difference between a Muslim and a Muslim terrorist and even ask the question can you be a Muslim and a terrorist? Good RE puts religion in the public arena. RE, along with every subject in school, should be focused on transforming the lives of pupils, to widen their horizon and encourage them to articulate and own their worldview and also recognise that others have an alternative worldview, with which we can engage. Good RE, Wright says, will have 3 virtues: honesty, receptivity and wisdom. With regard to receptivity, he writes,
'The virtue of receptivity requires students to become sensitive not merely to their own thoughts, feelings, narratives and meanings, but also to those of the other individuals, groups, narratives they encounter … If such receptivity is genuine then it will enable students to feel the full impact of alternative worldviews, and demand an informed and reflective response to them ... Receptivity to difference brings us face to face with a complex and ambiguous world, one that we can only hope to begin to understand by learning to become wiser persons (224)
That is a huge task for those who teach RE and recognises that we need more specialist RE teachers, who are honest about the agenda they bring to the classroom, but model receptivity and wisdom. That is, when I teach I am not out to rubbish Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or any other religion or worldview. In fact, the better question to ask is what can we learn from the Hindu, the Muslim or the Buddhist, but also with the willingness to ask questions of truth.
Over this last year I learnt, that perhaps more than any other subject, their is wide variety in how RE is taught, both historically and in the present - some approaches tackle it through a fact study of each religion; others go for a more (postmodern) experience-orientated approach, where the distinctives of a religion are underplayed (see the recent Spirituality Shopper for a popular version of this); others remove any religion and turn the subject into a secular ethics course; while others, like Andy Wright, approach it through questions of truth, what is known as the critical-realist approach.
RE is a subject very much still working itself out, often on the fringes of a child's education, where perhaps it should take a more central place, informing the whole of a child's education. RE at its best should enable pupils to become wiser and more open to those ideas or people who are different from them. RE at its best reduces the 'fear' of the 'other'. Woodhead suggests that a national drive to up the profile of RE would fail, I think, it would be a good place to start.
For more by Andy Wright see:
Religion, Education and Postmodernity (2004)
‘The Contours of Critical Religious Education: knowledge, wisdom, truth,’ British Journal of Religious Education, 2003, 25(4): 279-91