Religious Education, really

Adam Dinham is professor of Faith and Public Policy and director of the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. The unit is embarking on a project called “RE for Real” and he shares his two cents in this article in the New Statesman.

Now, I agree that RE has a place in the curriculum. Whether it needs to be a subject on its own, I don’t know. The way that schools split subjects up is somewhat a matter of convenience. I do think, as a minimum step, that it’d be better as Religion and Ethics. Otherwise it’s rather a boring historical survey of what certain groups of people do and used to do and why. But be that as it may, kids should learn about religion.

Here in Birmingham, RE is a matter of controversy because the local syllabus is rather evangelical. The Birmingham Position seems to be that modern RE, being secular and analytical, encourages a lack of faith. When I was a kid I spent 9 years or so just studying Christianity in RE lessons; nowadays children study a range of religions, giving the impression either that it’s simply a matter of opinion which one is true (the religious supermarket effect) or that they must all be false. The Birmingham syllabus implies that God exists, that each of us is part of a religious tradition, and that all the good values stem from that belief and tradition. Ugh.

Dinham chooses to start his article with a story about a woman who apparently didn’t know what a crucifix is. I’m not sure what to make of this anecdote. It certainly raises more questions than it answers. Firstly, it seems unlikely that any Briton could make it through several years of RE lessons without being taught about Christian symbols and the fate of Jesus. Secondly, does it really matter? Okay, it’s embarrassing when you don’t know that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066 or that the chemical symbol for water is H2O, but the value of these facts to the individual is open to debate. Thirdly, it’s probably a good idea if now and again it’s pointed out, even accidentally, how gruesome the crucifix is as a symbol.

Anyway, the point of the anecdote is that RE matters, but it hardly counts as evidence. As I read on I was rather hoping that some evidence would appear, but I was out of luck. There are lots of examples of religious stuff, but no evidence that ignorance about it is harmful. Instead we get the following statement of the obvious: “Religious illiteracy is responsible for a failure to understand and appreciate the power of religion.” Certainly religion is powerful but perhaps understanding that leads us to give it too much respect? I have to say that education fails much more by omitting to teach children about the power of politics and business than it succeeds by teaching them about the power of religion – if your average RE syllabus actually gets that across.

Dinham continues, tendentiously: “[Religious illiteracy] leads to an anxiety about the role of religion in the public sphere: from fear of terrorism to fear of exclusion and fear of litigation.” He mentions Trojan Horse and the “Gay Cake” controversy in relation to these claims, but I’m left nonplussed. I can’t judge these claims without evidence. “We have found that a better understanding of the real religious landscape will result in better public services and culture.” I’m not sure what this could mean, but I am sure he has some academic papers somewhere that point somehow to this conclusion.

He says that RE for Real “will explore what school leavers really need to know and understand about religion and belief in the contemporary world.” This is possibly a fine objective, but I’m worried about the word explore. This sounds like a brainstorming session with a flipchart. I hope he means investigate.



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