Should schools teach Religious Education?

David Ashton

David Ashton has predominantly taught in inner city secondary schools in the UK. He has been critical of the quality of GCSE RS courses in England and enjoys contributing to discussion and debate about the nature, role and future of Religious Education in schools.

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Research carried out by YouGov in January 2013 found that 19% of young people did not know that Adam and Eve were Biblical characters. Although the survey took place just after Christmas, 30% of 12-15 year olds did not recognise the Nativity narrative as a biblical story, rising to 35% when only 15 year olds were considered. A further 43% of respondents had never read, seen or heard the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.

"It is not simply the Bible that pupils study in RE; it is the beliefs and practices of all of the major world religions and worldviews."

In the context of an oft-asserted secular society and well-documented concerns over low standards of teaching in RE, some might argue that these findings are both unimportant and unsurprising. Fuelled further by fears over indoctrination, some might even suggest that schools should consign RE to the dustbin, a failed venture of a monolithically religious era, now simply clogging up the timetable.

However, this would be misjudged. Whatever one’s own view of the Bible, to prevent young people from having their own informed perspective on the world’s best selling book is neither value-neutral, nor educationally beneficial. More relevantly, it is not simply the Bible that pupils study in RE; it is the beliefs and practices of all of the major world religions and worldviews. Pupils also study the nature, role and impact of religion and belief through history to the present day, along with questions of meaning, morality and more.

To remove RE from the curriculum is to censor our shared human story and to construct a fragmented picture of our modern world, drained of colour. It is to promote ignorance of the lives of billions of religious people in our world, including a significant number of the UK population who identified themselves as such in the 2011 census. The ideas, beliefs and practices of religion may inspire or repel one in equal measure, but the opportunity for them to do so, and to ask why they so do, should not be withheld from young people.

If one wishes to understand man, one must consider what has been happening in his head and heart throughout history; the profound thoughts, the despotic tendencies, the cruelty and corruption, the kindness and creativity that religion and belief have inspired. When we explore religion and belief, we observe the human spirit. We meet those early men, who etched their inner worlds in primitive pictures upon cave walls, unaware that these same desires and questions of values, meaning and belief would etch themselves upon the laws and literature, architecture and music of civilised society.

To study Religious Education is to study the heartbeat of humanity, to enter into the arena of ideas and to gaze critically upon them. It is to hear sounds of distant lands; the religious voice expressed in the poverty of a slum, the opulence of the Senate, the compassion of the persecuted missionary and the hatred of the terrorist. It is to be absorbed in the music of mankind, clashing and discordant at times, transcendent and harmonious at others. In confronting this great melting pot of religious ideas young people can consider their own values and beliefs in the spectrum of human thought and find their own voice within this conversation of humankind.

"RE should be a place for pupils to decipher what they consider to be good from bad, rather than having someone else’s perception of what is ‘bad’ hidden from them."

While sometimes it is viewed with suspicion, RE should be the very last subject for any indoctrination of belief or state sponsored value. It should be a place for pupils to decipher what they consider to be good from bad, rather than having someone else’s perception of what is ‘bad’ hidden from them. It should allow pupils to move beyond ignorant fear to informed critical thought and debate. It should be an open forum for questioning, and challenging ideas in our world as they reverberate through modern society and along the corridors of power. In a country where religion is never out of the news, neither should it be out of the curriculum.

It is not the optimistic and unverifiable claims that RE can contribute to community cohesion, or promote elusive British values, which provides a cogent case for it in schools. At a classroom level such attempts only serve to distort reality by sanitising religions. If RE rides a murky political wave, it will find itself left in the swash when the wave has crashed. It is the profoundly educational value offered by RE which stakes its best claim for a place on the timetable.

We could give up on RE, but to do so would be to censor our past, ignore our present and, in rejecting our human inheritance of a rich wealth of thought, impoverish our understanding of others and ourselves. It would be to declare that not a single utterance, action or thought inspired by religion is worth the consideration of modern man. There is nothing progressive about muting or censoring the ongoing story of humanity. In a world saturated by religion and belief, we cannot afford to let young people leave school with a blind ignorance of it.

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