Religious education – should students have more choice?

First published by the Guardian on Monday 30 July 2012.

Having just taught a series of religious education lessons called ‘Religion – Do we have a choice?’, I decided to re-read a chapter in Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion entitled ‘Childhood, Abuse and the Escape from Religion’. As on my first reading, I was struck by Dawkin’s anger and annoyance at a newspaper labelling children in a nativity as Sikh, Muslim and Christian. The objection is that these children have not had the freedom to choose their religious beliefs and are indoctrinated by their parents.

Dawkin’s objection is indirectly tackled through the series mentioned above as each lesson asks students to evaluate whether an individual chooses to join a religion or whether they have their beliefs and cultural identity assigned to them by family, friends and community. For example, students explore and debate the merits of infant baptism versus the idea of an adult baptism or whether Brit Milah (the Jewish rite of circumcising eight day-old boys) celebrates 3,000 years of tradition or takes away the child’s right to decide for them self whether to be faithful to the religion of their ancestors.

However, what really interests me is not the deep philosophical debate on choice and rationality, but what the students’ views tell us about the changing nature of religion in Britain today. Importantly, their views not only reveal how our ideas of what is religious or what it is to be spiritual, have radically changed over the last few decades, but they also have massive implications for the content of religious education in secular schools, especially those located in areas where church attendance or affiliation to other religions is low.

Unfortunately for Dawkins, most non-religious students do not respond to the unit with wholly atheist or even secular points of view, but rather with a pick-a-mix of ideas from the various religions taught at key stage 3. Although many reject a belief in a theistic God, they still choose to call themselves agnostic. Additionally, most seem to dismiss the ideas of an eternal heaven and hell in favour of a belief in karma and rebirth despite not being Buddhist or Hindu.

In a similar vein, Lancaster University’s Linda Woodhead argues that Britain is undergoing a “de-reformation” of religion. Whereas the Christianity of the Reformation once monopolised our views of God, life after-death and the immorality of the soul, recent research suggests that people now believe in the major religions in their “own way”. Importantly for the viability of RE in a seemingly secular society, Woodhead’s argument centres on the idea that religion in Britain is changing as opposed to declining. For example, Woodhead found that although only 26% of people believe in a personal God, belief in God as a kind of spirit is now 44%. Moreover, belief in angels is at 41% and the idea that we possess a soul stands at 70%. Other polls have found that only 32% to 33% of people in Britain claim they have no religion.

This suggests we may sometimes be wrong to label children as Sikh, Muslim and Christian but, unlike Dawkin’s complaint, this does not suggest a rampant atheism or even secularism. It does suggest, however, that our approach to religious and spiritual beliefs is becoming more fluid, more flexible and less set in stone.

Therefore, it is important that schemes of work and lesson plans in RE adapt themselves to allow students to express their religiosity and spirituality without being alienated by restricted labels or narrow assumptions of what it is to be religious. Indeed, most locally agreed syllabuses for RE allow for thematic schemes of work. This allows teachers to explore key beliefs and similarities found in major religions instead of centering lessons on one aspect of one religion.

However, it is also essential, in secular schools, to give students the opportunity to relate to what is taught in their own way. Perhaps an element of choice needs to exist in order to engage and include all students in the debates and ideas studied. Moreover, the choice can be as simple as agreeing with a belief or disagreeing with it in relation to the students own views of religion. Whether we study Jesus – Man or God?, Does It Matter How We Behave? or Is Prejudice Alive and Kicking?, we should endeavour to give students a choice, or chance, to debate the nature of their beliefs and why they choose to believe what they do. Of course, this does not answer the question, “religion – do we have a choice?”‘, but it does allow students to be part of what is taught in RE.

Picture Credit: Pixbay (Creative Commons CC0)

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