… said no RE teacher ever.
In this post I will be discussing the so-called “right to withdraw” children from Religious Education, in schools. I know there are some RE teachers on both sides of the debate, but my views on this one are fairly strong. If you’ve read about me here you’ll know that I believe we should evaluate all meaning-making processes in our lives, whether they are religious or non-religious, popular or niche, modern or ancient. I believe religion is an important part of the way people make sense of the world, and even people who are not religious have formed their beliefs in a culture in which religion is a prominent force. I’m not in the game of deciding whether religion is a *good* or *bad* thing, in itself, but advocate a critical approach to all belief systems that can be developed through the study of religion.
Some people have argued FOR the right to remove students from Religious Education. I am firmly against this, as it is an academic subject which gives students knowledge and tools to carve out a path in the world. It helps them to think critically about ideas and opportunities presented to them. It may even help them to understand or even make their own beliefs. Most importantly, it prevents them from being ignorant in the face of diversity. So if you argue for the right to withdraw on the basis of human rights (as someone said), I see this as fighting for your right to be ignorant. Let’s face it, we reject this right in every other aspect of education, so why not RE? It is compulsory to go to school. It is compulsory for schools to teach Religious Education. Why is it not compulsory for students to study it?
As I believe all things are particular, and that we shouldn’t generalise when it comes to religion, let me tell you a little bit about my personal experience. I went to a school in which Religious Education was highly regarded. It was the most important lesson on the timetable. It was an evangelical Christian school, in which we were taught about (one particular form of) Christianity through assemblies, tutor time, and RE lessons. We carried Bibles around with us every day, and reading the Bible might also occur in lessons other than RE. For example, we learnt to recite Ecclesiastes 3 ‘A Time for Everything’ to practice public speaking in English (attached below). As a piece of poetry, it was beautiful. We were also able to analyse it as a work of literature. This was in year 7. The depth of learning from this one piece was immense. We began to learn about the bigger picture of the world. I’m not saying we had balanced RE (in fact, many of my peers would give you a less-than-rosy interpretation of it) but the important thing was that we became religiously literate. We were presented with a belief system – evangelical Christianity – and given the skills and tools to think critically about it. Many of us rejected many of the beliefs presented to us, but we did so with knowledge and religious literacy. In other words, we were able to justify our beliefs.
Skipping forward a few years, I left school, took a few elective theology modules during my music degree, and learnt about the Old Testament or Tenakh, and “God and the world” which included the relation between science and religion. I also did entry level Hebrew and Greek. This gave me insights into the culture of the biblical writers: language is intimately related to culture. This experience inspired me to do an MA in theology, in which I learnt about Buddhism, Ancient Israel, and lots of diverse belief systems far removed from my existing knowledge.
A few years on again, doing my PGCE in Religious Education, we had to take GCSE exams in all six world religions, so I studied them all. I researched and bought a few books about each religion, read them over my summer, and prepared well. During the course, we were also encouraged to learn about the diversity within religions, and I got to know lots more about the smaller Christian denominations. I also learnt about the Baha’i faith. It was actually an extremely enriching experience.
More important than reading about religions, however, is meeting people who teach us from within the religion. Also during my PhD, we had the opportunity to go to a Gurdwara in South Shields. I have never been made to feel more welcome. Not only were we able to experience the worship, but we were fed. It was a real community. Later on, when I was teaching, I made the acquaintance of another Sikh – he was called Cloud, how cool – who came into school to discuss his faith with students. He was probably the nicest person I have ever met. He shared freely, answered awkward questions with grace, and inspired the students to learn about a faith that was completely new to them. For me, he personified this: ‘it’s more important to be nice than right’.
Also during my teaching practice, I took some time out to spend in a Buddhist monastery in Northumberland. I followed a similar pattern of life to the community of monks, rising at 5am, meditating, sharing the communal cooking and cleaning. It also gave me space and time to think. I was able to walk around the countryside and appreciate it for what it is. From this experience, I took the importance of stillness and space. I learnt to speak less and think more.
Without my earlier understanding of, and appreciation for, religion, which I acquired in my school years, I doubt I would have been able to engage with these religious communities. I was able to see the bigger picture, compare and contrast their views with those of religions I had studied, and in the process, develop my own thought.
So my own Religious Education wasn’t perfect, I have some concerns about its content and methodology, which will probably not see the light of day, but it did give me the skills to engage with belief systems more generally. I was inspired to become a student of religion for life. It also gave me the tools to engage critically with so-called secular beliefs. In other words, it made me the person I am, not by indoctrinating me, but by teaching me to think for myself (although it’s intention may have been the opposite).
Ecclesiastes 3 (NIV)
A Time for Everything
3 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
9 What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet[a] no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. 14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
15 Whatever is has already been,
and what will be has been before;
and God will call the past to account.[b]
16 And I saw something else under the sun:
In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.
17 I said to myself,
“God will bring into judgment
both the righteous and the wicked,
for there will be a time for every activity,
a time to judge every deed.”
18 I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath[c]; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work,because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?
As a Jewish agnostic writing a thesis about (Christian) Theodicies in English Literature, I could not agree more. Whether one believes or not is utterly irrelevant to whether an educated human should have some background knowledge about religion. Many of the other subjects (like literature, art and music) only really work if you know the religion(s) that fed them. Also, non-believers love discussing religion as much as anybody else, and the world would be a better place if atheists stopped making arguments that were sufficiently rejected 1000 years ago.