Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Replace religious education

I was pleased to see the schools inspector Ofsted weighing in on religious education (RE) in schools. The report Making sense of religion: a report on religious education in schools and the impact of locally agreed syllabuses [release / report] is interesting - though stops short of a full broadside on the very idea of RE. Ofsted summarises:

The report argues that RE should not ignore controversy or the changes in the role and significance of religion in the modern world. Pupils should be taught that religion is complex, that its impact is ambiguous and should be given the opportunity to explore that ambiguity.

Amen to that!

RE is in the strange position of being mandated by law (Education Reform Act 1988) but also outside the National Curriculum. As a minimum it should come into the National Curriculum with solid guidance about what is to be taught and how - ie. only as a starting point for debate about values ('learning from religion') and as a factual account of what many people believe, however irrational and perplexing ('learning about religion'). I don't think there is justification for emphasising one religion over another, despite the legal requireemnt to favour Christianity and the dominance of Christianity in declared religion (see chart - source ONS )*. If people want to develop their own belief system, isn't that what churches, Sunday schools, temples, mosques and madrassas are for?

History of ideas
I would get rid of RE completely. Much better would be to replace it with more neutral study of the 'history of ideas' - of which the major religions are a undoubtedly part. It would be great, for example, to see comparisons made between the majestic Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the feeble 10 commandments, with their four commandments devoted to demanding exclusivity and restraint of religious freedom, silly ideas for universal laws like not working on Sundays, unhelpful strictures about killing that give no clue to when it is alright or even essential, and a lot of stuff about not eyeing up your neighbour's ox or male servant. It would be great to see huge ideas like evolution, democracy, human rights, globalisation, Marxism, capitalism etc. taught and discussed. Great debates are to be had about everything from euthanasia and abortion, justification of torture and the case for terrorism, the limits to free speech to the abolition of slavery, racism and positive action.

Schools have one main job to do, and that is to teach kids to think critically and for themselves - in the arena of big ideas there is no case for limiting that to the largely failed or wrong ideas of religion. RE represents a wasted opportunity to engage young people in the really big ideas in the real world.

* Much has been made of the 2001 census finding in the chart that about 72% of Brits say they are Christian - evidence that the church is alive and well? But what do people really mean when they say 'Christian' in response to this question? I think they are probably identifying themselves as part of an ethnic group rather than declaring a belief system. If the question was "what religion do you practice?", I wonder what the answer would be? Also, for these numbers to be correct, parents must have filled in the form for their kids - but what does it mean when an intellectually defenceless 5-year old is classified as subscribing to a belief system like Christianity?


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. If there is any place for religion in schools it surely must be separated into its distinct relevance to other parts of the curriculum. First, as you say, in relation to a sort of epistemological study of evolution of ideas and morality (in which most readings of history would say religion has played a fairly neutral or regressive role). And second as a study of learning about social norms and practices (along with other PHSE teaching about anything from volunteering to voting). I wonder how religious education would stand up to a proper scrutiny against something like the Every Child Matters framework to protect children and young people from preying influences and encourage their independent powers of scrutiny?

Anonymous said...

I'm totally with you, too. Interesting as well how many parents suddenly become 'Christian' just because they want to send their kids to a CoE or Catholic church. Plus all these hyprocrites who get married in a church just because it's nicer than the local registry office...

Sean Brandy said...

Having sat through a secular assembly at which a teacher blithely recommended Chinese astrology with a certainty that would have got a Christian teacher charged with abusing his position, I quite agree that the place of religion in schools is a mess.

However, it may be that the problem is not RE but the fantasy of secular education. As G.K.Chesterton remarked, people who believe in nothing tend to believe anything. The secularist dream of neutrality is a void which tends either to admit any opinion (provided it is not ‘religious’) or to remain a sterile vacuum, a holy place of secularism. Discussions of the important things in life generally end with either a non-committal shrug or the triumph of the latest fashionable theory administered with its own religious certainty. It is a fine preparation for a life of unquestionning global consumerism.

In my experience, the moral and religious foundations laid in Christian schools, and the underlying assumption that your own beliefs and conscience matter (even to the point of dying for them), tend to lead to far more robust and formative debate. And most of it is a lot more eclectic, liberal and tolerant than you think.

By the way, Clive, RE must have been very badly taught in your school. What do you think the New Testament is about? Don’t you realise that much of it is a critique of the inadequacy of the 10 Commandments, far more pungent than yours? Book yourself on an Alpha Course and get up to date!

Clive Bates said...

Sean - you are right on at least three points here. Yes, RE was very badly taught at my school - basically in the way that a vicar might approach it... as the teaching of truth and received wisdom. I'd be surprised if that doesn't continue to be widespread practice, but I don't actually know - though it seemed to be one part of Ofsted's critique.

And yes, a much more brutal critique of the ten commandments is possible than I did here, as an aside to the main point. But people still cite them as the moral beacon guiding our society, when they plainly are not and not remotely fit for purpose.

And I agree the astologists have no place in the classroom either, if taught as truth - though the underlying idea is no more implausible than many of the myths of the major religions, so I'm not sure you could teach one and ignore the other.

One of the things often claimed for religion is that it is an alternative to moral relativism, and you've alluded to that argument in the quote GK Chesterton. So it is always strange when people pick and choose which bits of the Bible they fancy... there are some insane ideas in the old testament and perhaps the ten commandments aren't up to much after all, so move on to the new testament...? New testament perhaps a bit old fashioned these days? Soup it up with an Alpha course....

One thing I really do object to though is the idea that not believing in God somehow means you believe in anything and live an immoral life. Many people manage great feats of courage, compassion and altruism without believing in God and the rest of the paraphernalia of religion. It's so obvious that religion isn't necessary and certainly not sufficient for living a decent life that it is hardly worth stating.

Do people who don't accept religious ideas really believe in nothing? I don't think they have 'faith' (unconditional belief without evidence or in the face of evidence). But many will believe in big ideas like human rights, democracy, free speech, liberal views of liberty, and scientific inquiry, and the rule of law determined by consensus. Many of us will welcome as stunningly elegant explanations of the world or working hypotheses provided by the various sciences - from economics and anthropology to evolution, genetics, physical sciences and, to the extent we can understand them, the difficult concepts of cosmology, relativity, quantum physics etc.

Is that really a 'void' or 'consumerism'? It's really quite blind and insulting.

And it all contrasts mightily with the homophobia, sexism and puerile obsession with the personal and sexual that comes from religious leaders. I hear that the Prime Minister would be asked by the Vatican to denounce same-sex civil partnerships, contraception, female priests and abortion as a price for joining the Catholic church... add to that the absurdities in theological pontification - the recent winding up of 'limbo' for example, and something stupid and brutish is revealed. If these postures illuminate the moral foundations of the most powerful church, then I don't think they have much to offer the 21st Century.

No doubt the Alpha course is all much more modern and touch-feely, but I wont be doing that because I have thought hard about it and just do not accept the basic fundamentals of Christianity as being right, good or useful.

Sean Brandy said...

The New Testament does not say that the 10 Commandments are wrong, just that they are (as you put it) "not remotely fit for purpose". That is true of any legal system: laws cannot make us good people any more than speed cameras can make us good drivers.

In among the laws of the Old Testament - useful for ordering a primitive society and giving some clues as to what a 'good' society might look like, but quite inadequate for creating it - are promises pointing to the New Testament: "I will write my laws in their hearts..." (Jeremiah 31:33) for example. The New Testament offers new life, based on the forgiveness of God and a new relationship with Him, transforming us from the inside out. "Thou shalt not steal!" becomes "You will not steal because you won't even think of stealing - in fact, you'll be giving stuff away."

I'm not sure what your problem with the 10 Commandments is. You object to the nonsense of astrology, and I dare say you don't go a bundle on people worshipping idols, either (2). You clearly hate the idea of people using the concept or name of God to lead people into falsehood (3). I rather doubt if you approve of people being forced to work 7-days-a-week in sweatshops (4). Is it OK for yobs to ignore their parents, or for the too-busy middle-aged to trample on the elderly (5)? Do you approve of murder (6), the treachery of adultery (7), theft (8) or perjury and fraud (9)? Do you disagree that envy (10) is a massive cause of unhappiness and a root of much criminality?

I suppose that just leaves number 1. It would be surprising if any legal system began with an option to use any other. Maybe you just hate God being God. We all do. It's just something we have to get over.

Clive Bates said...

Sean - you're really spinning the Big 10 here!

What beliefs I approve of is different to respecting religious or other freedom of belief (2). I don't seek a prohibition of astrology. Do you? Or are the 10 Commandments kind of 'parental advisory'.

I don't think God plays a useful role at all (3). The people most habitually making wrongful use of the word of gods (various) are the religious, prophets and through his presence on earth, god himself. I for one see disrespect for the concept of god to be important in these days of fundamentalism. 'Moderate' irrational belief in gods just gives permission and a base to the more extreme form.

The Sabbath is a particular day and the commandment appears to apply to all of society (4) ... unless your liberally interpret this into your highly restrictive thoroughly modern pronouncement against sweatshops. As the church was massively implicated in the slave trade, we can be sure your interpretation has not always been taken too seriously.

Honouring your mother and father is sometimes a good idea - but not enough to elevate it to a universal law (5). In fact many well-adjusted youngsters are that precisely because they've not honoured their smack-taking, whoring, criminal, abusive, stupid, bigoted, fundamentalist parents.

Prohibitions of murder and stealing pre-date the scriptures by centuries - in fact co-operation of various forms has been a defining feature of civilisation for millennia (6/8/9/10). My main objection here is that these rules don't tell you much useful in today's world. In fact, the New Testament doesn't do that much better.

I don't really approve of adultery, but I'd never ban it - would you? (7) I guess I approve of adultery more than abusive monogamy and prisoners of marriage. Again, adultery is variously spun to include relationships outside marriage, pre-marital sex and gay union.

My main point is (1) that these are pretty useless and self-serving codes, and (2) they invite exactly the relativism that believers say that religion is supposed stand against (see your efforts to move away from the literal and into niches more acceptable to the modern ear). That applies more widely to the hilarious claim that the New Testament somehow writes off the madness of much of the Old Testament eg. this well worn polemic make the point - our old friend relativism at work again. Either this is the world of god, or it ain't...

I don't 'hate god' - because I don't believe it exists in any form except as comforting fiction, an alternative to science from the Dark Ages and as a useful tool of tyrants to the present day. I despair that, despite 300 years of the Enlightenment, a belief system so obviously absurd still grips so many.