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Friday 14th May 2021

Current year 12 student, Jeevan, entered the University of Exeter's Theology and Religious Studies competition about students thoughts on religion. Jeevan, was a runner up for the submission of her essay entitled: Should everyone have to study religion at school?

We are really proud of your effort, Jeevan and glad writing this has boosted your research skills. You can take a read of her essay below: 

The value of Religious Education in schools is beyond question. However, it should be taught in a balanced and inclusive manner, catering for a constantly changing world. If the curriculum remains ‘in the main, Christian’, lessons will remain anachronistic and one-sided[1]. As Max Muller stated, ‘he who knows one [religion] knows none’. If conducted tabula rasa, with an equal emphasis of all faiths and philosophical beliefs, schoolchildren will develop into the global citizens of the future. 

The UK remains the only Western democracy to impose collective worship in schools, defined as ‘reverence paid to a divine being or power’[2]. The Standing Advisory Council on RE states that at least 51% annually must be of Christian nature[3]. Moreover, predominantly Christian bodies – including the Catholic Education Service, the Church’s Chief Education Officers, and the majority of House of Lords - are in favour of it.  Philosopher James K.A Smith explains, because the UK’s national identity and ethics are ‘fundamentally rooted in Christianity’.

Nevertheless, 70% of young people are non-religious; the proportion of Anglicans in the UK has halved from 2003-2013[4]. As a result, non-Christian bodies – including The Buddhist Society and Sikh Education Service - oppose collective worship. The NSS states the law goes ‘beyond the legitimate function of the state’, against Freedom of thought, Conscience and Religion for young people[5]. Explained by Elizabeth Oldfield, ‘worship, in its very nature, cannot be coerced, cajoled or demanded’[6]. In 2004, Ofsted reviewed changing its statutory guidance concerning collective worship, after it was revealed 76% of secondary schools were failing to provide it, due to lack of space and free slots in the timetable[7].

It is my concern that if collective worship remains mandatory, RE lessons will remain inclined towards Christianity. Humanists UK describes ‘the privileged place of the C of E…sinking into irrelevance’ in modern day society. How can non-Christian students be expected to appreciate a curriculum they cannot relate to? Consequences are inevitably troubling. For example, at my secondary school in Birmingham, GCSE religious studies was compulsory; rather, a compulsory focus on Christianity. Coincidentally, year eleven had just learnt about Christian evangelist practices (from an inflexible, exclusive specification, with little background context) when Operation Christmas Child came to deliver their annual assembly[8]. Most agreed that the sole purpose of the charity was to proselytise the innocent; one student explained, ‘[they] are just picking an easy target for evangelisation’. A record low of presents were donated, and hundreds of Ukrainian orphans missed out on a life-changing gift. 

It could be argued Religious Education should be scrapped or replaced with a secular discipline; in France, students study civic and moral education. Keith Porteous Wood argues ‘it should be up to parents, if they wish, to indoctrinate children about religion’[9]. Yet ‘indoctrination’ indicates a biased discipline of one belief, rather than religion as a whole, limiting potential religious knowledge. In addition, educational attainment is the single best predictor of religious knowledge, emphasising the necessity of classroom learning[10].

Study of beliefs remains crucial, as Rowan Williams explains, ‘with racially and culturally motivated crime sadly still present’, ‘religion should be taught, not because of supporting religion itself, but for the desperate need for understanding’, unfulfilled by utilitarian education alone[11]. Moral, social and cultural understanding is required to objectively comprehend world events, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the issue of global Islamophobia. The Inter-Faith Network asserts that ‘RE lessons are the first place [students] will learn about people different from themselves’. Otherwise, exposed first-hand to conflicting, subjective media portrayals, children will have little skill to critically evaluate stereotypes involving cultural and religious minorities. 

Accounting for the ‘complex, diverse and plural nature of worldviews’, the 2018 Commission on RE proposed a name change to ‘Religion and Worldviews’. In 2019, the Welsh government confirmed the name change and study of non-religious worldviews; England remains unshifted. Demand for a curriculum change has existed since the Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education[12]. N. Smart stressed the importance of ‘religion on the ground’ and cross-cultural understanding[13]. Due to globalisation, religion has become less dogmatic, more focused on living methods. Smart drew upon ‘growing numbers of Catholics practising Yoga and meditation techniques borrowed from Buddhism and Hinduism’, detailing modern trends towards religious syncretism. Aspects of RE involving rigid memorisation of traditional religious practices remain irreflective of such trends.

John Hick referenced Kant’s theory of perception, explaining ‘different religious cultures…have developed to meet the needs of different human cultures’. Humanists UK advises RE teaching that ‘supports other subjects, such as History, English Literature, Art, Music and Geography’: schoolchildren will be further enriched if the curriculum adapts to incorporate context, rather than strict doctrine. Smart argued that as non-religious worldviews - including atheism, agnosticism and humanism - involve ‘non-finite’ subject matter, they fall under the same bracket as religious views. The NUT propounds ‘it is for the religious to teach their faith to people; it is for schools to teach about religion’[14]. A curriculum analysing all beliefs would effectively enable this distinction. Avoiding an indeterminate mishmash[15] , a comparative emphasis would clarify shared theological values, akin to focusing on the ‘grammar of Religion’, rather than the 'vocabulary of many religions’.  Specifically, addressing values shared by Islam and Christianity as Abrahamic religions would help tackle Islamophobia. 

Due to the urgent need for acceptance of marginalised groups in modern society, RE serves a prudent role on the curriculum. Nonetheless, if schools continue to be ruled by inherently Christian laws of the 20th century, non-Christian beliefs will remain inaccessible to the young. The modern RE curriculum should individualistically aid schoolchildren towards any career; N. Smart suggested, ‘You have to understand human nature in economics to understand how humans work’.  By limiting the young to specific theology, inclusivity – a vital goal for RE teaching in any present-day community – crumbles. After all, if my year eleven lessons focused on the wider landscape of belief, more would have related to the underlying cause of the charity.

[1] From the Education Reform Act, 1988

[2] Defined in Circular 1/92, published by Department for Education, June 1994

[3] In line with the Education Reform Act, 1988

[4] Revealed in the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey

[5] National Secular Society, 2016

[6] Director of Theos Think Tank (recently stepped down)

[7] Ofsted Handbook: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/730127/School_inspection_handbook_section_5_270718.pdf(Pages 76-77)

David Bell’s comment (Head of Ofsted in 2004):

https://www.secularism.org.uk/uploads/collective-worship-briefing.pdf (Page 4)

[8] Established 1990 by Samaritan’s Purse

[9] Executive director of the NSS

[10] Revealed by the 2010 US Religious Knowledge Survey

[11] Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002-2012

[12] Founded 1969

[13] Founding member of the Shap Working Party

[14] National Union of Teachers, 2008 (the National Education Union from 2017)

[15] ‘Mish-mash’ coined by John Hull in 1991, addressing the fear of Christian culture being lost in multi-faith education.

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