What is Religious Education For?

Recent polls have shown that support for the Anglican tradition is waning in the UK, whilst the number of people professing belief either in Islam or evangelical Christianity, as well as those who have no particular religious beliefs, is on the increase. Since the recent publication of a report that makes suggestions as to how religious education ought to adapt to the changing demographic, several conservative politicians and journalists have defended the privileged position Christianity is shown in RE classes.

This article argues in favour of broadening the focus of RE in line with the report. In particular it argues that the current guidelines given in order to justify the teaching of RE in England actually support the need for an increasing contrast between Christian teachings and those of other approaches, including the perspective of atheists.

And of particular interest to the argument is this section, which deals with the reasons why RE in England is taught as it is.

RE also contributes to pupils’ personal development and well-being and to community cohesion by promoting mutual respect and tolerance in a diverse society. RE can also make important contributions to other parts of the school curriculum such as citizenship, personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE education), the humanities, education for sustainable development and others. It offers opportunities for personal reflection and spiritual development, deepening the understanding of the significance of religion in the lives of others – individually, communally and cross-culturally.

Section 78 (1) of the 2002 Education Act states that all pupils should follow a balanced and broadly based curriculum which ‘promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, social, mental and physical development of pupils and of society, and prepares pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life’. Learning about and from religions and beliefs, through the distinct knowledge, understanding and skills contained in RE within a broad-based curriculum, is essential to achieving these aims. Exploring the concepts of religion and belief and their roles in the spiritual, moral and cultural lives of people in a diverse society helps individuals develop moral awareness and social understanding.

The Problem with “Spiritual Development” and “Spiritual Lives”
For the most part the guidelines provided are clearly written and understood. However when the word “spiritual” is used in this context it isn’t clear what is meant, because colloquially the words “spirit” and “soul” are often used to indicate one of two different concepts. Sometimes it is even used to indicate both of concepts at once.

James Brown
Do you really need a soul to dig Soul? Photo by Dake.

The first is an emotional response to beauty, artwork, humanity, suffering and so on. “I felt a real sense of spirituality when I visited Stonehenge” or “that music just doesn’t have enough soul!”

The second is an assertion that existence involves something beyond the material, philosophical dualism in which both matter and spirit are asserted to be involved in the operation of a mind. Many atheists (and some non-atheists) are not philosophical dualists, believing instead that the workings of the mind could be explained with reference to natural phenomena alone if it were thoroughly understood.

The problem here is that many people conflate the two meanings of the word, and therefore suggest that anyone who denies the second meaning also fails to appreciate the first. That “materialism” can mean either the belief in natural explanations for consciousness or the importance given to obtaining material possessions confuses the matter further. Despite the opinions of genius nitwits such as Russell Brand, philosophical materialism is not at odds with an appreciation of aesthetics or pathos, and it does not lead inexorably to the shallow consumerist worship of Mammon.

Worded as they are the guidelines play into this misconception. If they mean “spiritual” as “religious” then can they say “religious”? If they mean it to stand for an appreciation of aesthetics and shared humanity can they say “appreciation of aesthetics and shared humanity”? If they do think philosophical dualism should be taken as read when it comes to RE can they explain why that is so, and why this doesn’t conflict with the stated aim of improving personal development?

Some Things Should be Non-Negotiable
What ought to be non-negotiable is that nothing should be taught in RE pertaining to a religious perspective which is defamatory and unjustified. An egregious example of this, which fortunately was acted upon, was the case of Muslim students at the Darul Uloom Islamic High School in Birmingham being taught that Hindus make a habit of “drinking cow’s piss”.

A number of rather lazy received wisdoms exist about the atheist perspective, and RE guidelines aimed at “promoting mutual respect and tolerance in a diverse society” ought to ensure that atheists are not smeared in the course of RE lessons. Ideally this would mean that teachers ought to challenge such notions as …

• Atheists are amoral nihilists

Whilst it can be admitted that atheism lacks a moral framework it should also be admitted that most atheists behave as well as most theists. Where faith is credited for inspiring good behaviour it ought to be admitted that respect for the law, common sense, even innate psychological propensities can also be credited for inspiring good behaviour.
Humanism could be pointed to as an ethical framework and tradition that appeals to many atheists.

• Atheists hate God

It may be fair to say that many atheists have strong and negative emotional reactions to the notion of God (as commonly understood), but others just find it irrelevant.
It would be perfectly possible for someone to find the notion of God appealing and admirable, yet still refuse to believe and identity as an atheist.

• Atheists claim to know that there are no gods

The fact that agnosticism does not necessarily conflict with either atheism or theism ought to explained.

• Atheist states are necessarily tyrannies

It would not be inaccurate to point out that a drive to eradicate religion played a part in disasters in revolutionary France and communist countries. However, the distinction should be drawn between atheism and secularism, and it ought to be admitted that in the modern west most atheists seek a secular society rather than an atheistic one.

A common controversy is the assertion that atheism be linked with fascism. Most, if not all, fascist states openly sought approval from Christian (particularly Roman Catholic) authorities and stressed the importance of piety. There is a debate to be had as to whether or not certain fascist leaders were atheist, but if it is to be had in an RE class both sides of the debate ought to be illustrated.

It would also be fair to point out that since the end of WW2 the western world has become increasingly secular, and has moved away from the despotic habits of previous centuries. It’s not right to credit secularism for this, but it is fair to show that it doesn’t march hand-in-hand with tyranny.

• Atheists are fools who risk eternal perdition

This is a sticky one, as it’s only honest to admit that many religious perspectives teach along these lines. But teachers in schools should not threaten children with Hellfire. A statement such as “many Christians believe atheists go to Hell” may well be true, but even if a teacher is Christian and of this opinion it should not be stated as fact.

Where common arguments for the fear of Hell are raised, common rebuttals ought also to be given.

For example many variations on Pascal’s Wager exist, where an atheist is asked to consider how appalling the consequences could be if they are wrong.

If such argument s are raised on an RE lesson it ought to be fair to note that the precautionary principle is poorly applied without knowing the likelihood of a given consequence, and that a number of metaphysical models exist that might give rise to appalling consequences for believing in a given theism. Nordic Hel, and ignominious defeat at Ragnarok, would not make for a nice afterlife for many Christians, for example.

A Defense Against Lazy Analysis
A truly comparative religious studies program, in which all major religious perspectives are provided representative time and importance, would be ideal, however implementing such a thing may be impractical.

Even if a broadly Christian perspective remains the largest religious demographic in the UK, and even if this ought to be reflected in RE a Christian example ought regularly to be contrasted to an example from another tradition or perspective if RE is to actually assist “personal development and well-being and […] community cohesion by promoting mutual respect and tolerance in a diverse society”.

Cleansing of the Temple
“Ouch!” A depiction of the Purification of the Temple at the former Abbey of Ochsenhausen, Germany.

For example, in the recent Big Debate the subject of the Cleansing of the Temple was raised, and the two participants had very different views on the subject.

Reverend David Robertson applauded the actions of Jesus. He didn’t explain why. If my own recollection of what was said to me about the story in school gels with his own experiences it may be that he sees the story as an example of justified comeuppance to those who seek to exploit the sanctity of religion for material gain. To this perspective the moneylenders are cynically profiteering from the faithful and Jesus’ expulsion of the moneylenders is a just act.

Michael Nugent saw the story as an example of bad behaviour. He didn’t explain why. If my own more humanistic reading of the tale gels with his thoughts he may regard Jesus’ acts as violent, destroying property and threatening (if not outright attacking) people with a makeshift whip. To this perspective the story is of an unjust assault on people who had committed no crime, carried out by a supposedly peace-loving man in lieu of an attempt at non-violent persuasion.

My memory of how this story was presented at school was that it was merely spoken of as an example of admirable behaviour, yet as an adult I take the view that launching a physical assault on people merely because you disapprove of their actions is very poor behaviour.

When it comes to the presentation of stories from the bible such as the cleansing of the temple, or God turning Lot’s wife to salt, the Fall of Man, and so on, I think non-Christian perspectives do need to be provided and explored if the guidelines to use RE to help personal development, and promote respect in a diverse society, are to be met.

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