By Philip Robinson, Religious Education Adviser to the Catholic Education Service
Religious Education is one of the most contentious subjects in education. So much so, a Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) has been created to look at the future of the subject and how it is taught in schools.
Without a doubt there are issues that need addressing, principally that many schools without a religious character are failing to teach any RE whatsoever, despite their statutory obligation to do so. We have also seen recently that the number of pupils taking GCSE RE across all schools has declined.
But how do we fix these problems without breaking the distinctive character of schools which already teach RE well? On top of that, how do we maintain a broad, inclusive, high quality provision of RE without imposing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach on the variety of contexts in which it is taught?
CoRE is rightly taking evidence from across our commendably pluralistic education landscape and as the second largest provider of education in the country and the single largest entrant of RE GCSE candidates, the Catholic Church is playing a role. And it is important that the Catholic perspective is heard on this, not only because a quarter of all entrants to GCSE RE are from Catholic schools, but because RE is at the core of what our schools are about.
First, it is important to recognise that there are different approaches when delivering RE, each of them have their own benefits and, in different schools could be the preferred method of teaching. That is, there is a pluralism of approaches as well as a pluralism of subject matter.
Religious Education in Catholic schools draws predominantly on the academic discipline of theology, and is essentially a school level version of the theological discipline taught in most universities. In other school contexts the approach to RE is largely sociological.
Theology’s subject matter is God, God’s revelation and humanity’s response to this revelation. It does not require that students believe in God but it does require that they take seriously the commitments of those who do. Theology begins with the presumption that God is real and the purpose of the study is to come to some understanding of the nature and significance of this reality.
Those who take the sociological approach to Religious Education (or Religious Studies as such an approach is called in universities) are methodologically agnostic; they see religion as a human artefact and thus focus on the precepts and practices of different believers.
Whereas this method is interested in the believer, theology is interested in what the believer actually believes, how this influences their behaviour and the legitimacy and coherence of their religious ‘truth claims’. The sociological approach has no interest in questions of this kind.
Moreover, there are those who would claim that because the study of religion and belief in all schools must be objective, critical and pluralistic, the most appropriate method of study is the one that brackets out individual belief and studies religions as purely human phenomena. While not wanting to deny the importance of understanding religions and belief through the lens of the social sciences, eliding out the theological view is to occlude in advance the religious believer’s own self-understanding and to fail to recognise the impossibility of a genuinely neutral standpoint from which to view religion.
But this also does not mean that the theological approach is blinkered to the practices of other world religions nor does it mean Catholic schools don’t teach about other faiths and beliefs. The study of other religions, and the relationship between Christianity and other religions, is an integral part of the Catholic theological tradition. The amount of time Catholic schools dedicate to RE (the minimum requirement the bishops set is 10% of the curriculum) means that pupils in Catholic schools actually get a deeper engagement with other faiths than most pupils at non-denominational schools.
One of the greatest divergences between the sociological and the theological approaches to RE is the way each handles atheism. Whereas theology treats atheism as an important part of challenging the truth claims of religion, the sociological approach merges it into a wider amalgamation of ‘worldviews’, effectively treating it as a non-religious religion.
Whilst this may fit well in the sociological approach, trying to bring together all atheist/agnostic worldviews into a single coherent belief system, raises significant challenges. First, it’s impossible to label everyone who doesn’t subscribe to a religion as part of one specific world view. Secondly, the term ‘worldview’ is so semantically loose, it could widen the subject of RE to the detriment of its academic rigour.
For example, communism, libertarianism, capitalism, nationalism and socialism are just a few non-religious worldviews; should they be taught in RE too? It also seems hugely ironic that the answer to declining religious literacy should be to teach less religion.
Good Religious Education should help students to experience religious belief in both of these senses of ‘looking at’ and ‘looking with’ religion since education is about opening the minds of students to worlds they otherwise could not imagine. Theology and Sociology are both legitimate ways of reading religion, but each presents a conceptually discrete world of understanding the way in which religions have meaning. Both are important. In the future I hope the field of Religious Education is diverse enough that a good student of Religious Education might, in time, become is a first-rate theologian.
Many argue that the purpose of RE is to assist in creating a cohesive and tolerant society. RE plays its part in this, but I would argue this is the responsibility of the whole school, and indeed, the wider community. It may be true that well taught RE leads to greater tolerance, but it is not the raison d’être of the subject, nor the reason why it holds its rightful place at the heart of Catholic schools. Religious Education in Catholic schools is theology. It leads pupils to an in-depth knowledge of their own and other faiths but, more crucially, gives them a critical understanding of what faith itself is.