Will Peters left his job teaching Religious Education (RE) in schools in the UK to study for a PhD in education at Boston College, Massachusetts. Here he examines the trajectories and shortcomings of religious education on both sides of the North Atlantic.
“Why do you teach RE?” I asked several of my former colleagues. “Someone’s got to”, “to do my bit in combatting ignorance” and “it encourages questioning”, were among the answers. Most interestingly however, was the response from one particular teacher: “It’s the freedom to teach about society”. Speaking from personal experience, freedom isn’t something usually associated with teaching in the UK: educators are bound by exam boards, the National Curriculum, and school standards authority Ofsted – so the apparent ‘freedom’ offered by teaching religion education is intriguing.
Two contrasting approaches
Religious Education must be taught in all UK schools across all Key Stages, making it one of only seven subjects that are mandatory for all students up to the age of 16. Unlike these others subjects however, it is left to Local Education Authorities (LEAs) to determine the curriculum of Religious Education.
This localised approach to deciding what to teach in RE has its benefits – there are pockets of the UK that would benefit from an understanding of Greek Orthodox culture, for example, and conversely those that would trivialise it. Think of the RE curriculum like state and federal law in the United States; the national curriculum specifies no topics that must be taught (save an understanding that ‘the religious traditions of Great Britain are in the main Christian’) yet holds overall control of the aims and legal framework. There are over 150 LEAs in England and Wales, each devising their own RE curriculum according to cultural diversity and exam board specifications.
Placing leaders of multiple faiths on exam boards seems similarly forward-thinking, unless you are a Humanist, in which case you get no say. Yet there is a disconnect between the aims of RE on a national and local scale. LEAs say that learners need an overview of various religious cultures and wave terms like ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘inclusivism’ at board members. In truth, cultural tolerance is an unrealistic goal for the classroom; expecting educators to manage behaviour, plan lessons, mark work and promote a message of brotherliness – all while teaching the intricacies of the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur or the five pillars of Islam – is a nonsensical burden to place upon a teacher.
One RE teacher that I spoke to recently was uncompromising in his contempt for the top-down management of what is a ‘useful’ subject. “In my experience,” he argued, “the most successful elements of RE are twofold: first, the critical writing style; and second, questioning skills. Quite frankly an examination in Religious Studies or Philosophy and Ethics is as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle, yet the assessment of arguments is something useful, especially in a digitally-saturated world.” It’s not just RE teachers that advocate the learning of Religious Education; Richard Dawkins, the staunchest of atheists, argues that ‘”religious education should not be abolished…it’s an important part of our history”.
A different model for the US
If it is impossible to decide what to teach, why to teach it and how learners benefit from Religious Education, perhaps the best thing to do is not bother. The United States public school system has largely adopted this policy. In 2010, the Pew Research Center discovered that only 36% of high school students were aware that their teachers could offer a course on Comparative Religions. This implies that a maximum of 1 in 3 students is taking Religious Education as a subject, with the number presumably far lower.
Historically, religion in United States public schools has been controversial. Since the abolition of state-sponsored prayer in 1962, the Bill of Rights Institutes lists 12 landmark Supreme Court cases between 2000 and 2010 pertaining to the matter. This is to be expected in a country where, according to Pew in 2015, 84% of the population consider themselves to be in some way religious. The caution with which US high schools approach Religious Education does not belie an appreciation of philosophical piety, but rather a fear of multi-faith favouritism. For many, it is problematic to allow students to vote on which prayer to use before a sports game (Santa Fe v. Doe., 2000), or even to use the phrase ‘one nation under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance (Elk Grove v. Newdow., 2004). It is little wonder then that religion is sidelined to the cultural appreciation of Social Studies.
The tentative approach of US public schools in addressing religious difference is a close marriage of Free-Exercise First Amendment rights and Thomas Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation between Church and State’. Both the First Amendment and Jefferson’s letter highlight the beauty of religious pluralism, the right of an individual to express their beliefs and also the inherent danger of despotic state-sponsored religion. With this mindset, the US public school system is reluctant to go near religious education. With such a large proportion of the population recognising themselves as religious, the opinions and beliefs of educators and schools are bound to shine through in the classroom.
Comparative religions classes observe religion from a purely case-based viewpoint. The public school system in Howard County, Maryland, for example, offers a Social Studies elective in world religions. This includes the mystical bases of religion, comparing the ancient religions of Shamanism and ‘the cosmic religions of prehistoric people’ to major world religions such as Islam and Christianity. While Comparative Religion courses exist, they are extremely rare as even presenting an alternate view of reality could in some way, be seen as influencing another’s faith.
While the UK has tried to embrace multiculturalism in Religious Education, the US fears it. Since 1988, RE in the UK has attempted to promote a socio-cultural message yet has done so in a manner that appears increasingly unsure of its aims and ways of doing this. The US has circumnavigated the teaching of RE by allowing schools to offer it but suggesting implicitly that the balanced study of religions deserves a place in the context of Social Studies.
So it seems that the ‘freedom’ of RE in the UK that my friend spoke of is simultaneously its most celebrated facet and greatest downfall. If the value of RE is tolerance and multicultural appreciation, it would seem a fresh and unified approach to reach this goal is important. Without an understanding of religious difference, society risks misunderstanding its members, alienating certain sub-cultures and misrepresenting others – all of which is invaluable as the irrepressible force of globalisation pushes groups into contact with one another ever more.