Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why Atheists Should Care about RE in Schools.

[Short opinion by piece by me, on RE in schools - DW]

There has been a lot of noise recently about school-based Religious Studies (or, to those of us over a certain age Religious Education / RE). Its exclusion from the EBacc proposals and cuts to funded PGCE numbers have led to real concerns about the subjects future. Of course, RE teachers, and those that seek to represent them, have been quick to defend the subject and argue for its benefits. But reading through online comments (which, I know, is bad for anyone’s mental health / general view of humanity), I became aware of a fault line between defenders of RE and many with whom I normally agree / share opinions. A general hostility to religion has led many atheists to argue that RE’s marginalisation is welcome, and socially beneficial.

Irrespective of the arguments for and against the ‘new’ atheism, I want to suggest that such reluctance to support RE is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the subject is taught, and the benefits it offers young people. If you look to the lessons provided by RE teachers it soon becomes clear the RE has, largely through a series of historical accident, become the primary means by which pupils encounter questions of ethics. Further to this, it is the only subject ion schools where philosophy is systematically introduced to students. At AS and A2 level, the influence and popularity of certain modular components of contemporary curricular are so strong that many pupils (and students applying for, and arriving at, University) refer to the Religious Studies A level as ‘Philosophy and Ethics A level.’

While many, myself included, would like to see Philosophy taught as a mainstream subject in schools, that is not on offer now, or likely to be in the short to medium term. So I would suggest that if you are in favour of students developing critical thinking, of young people encountering the substantive arguments against as well as for religious belief, and of their introduction to philosophy and ethics as an academic discipline- you need to put aside any reservations about the consequences of religious belief in society – and stand up for Religious Education.

The debates sparked by writers such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett and others are important, but to asses them and come to their own conclusions, young people need to well informed of the context, nature and intellectual history of these issues. Even the most devout atheist should be able to see that what young people need in assessing religious claims is a foundation of critical, reflective understanding and knowledge in which to ground their views. Some might even suggest that RE is currently a Trojan Horse for critical thinking and philosophy: maybe there is some truth to that. But as long as it serves to not merely to support faith, but to question and engage with it – it has value. If RE can use its window on ethics to prompt young people to ask searching questions about social justice, poverty, crime and punishment, truth and the nature of meaning – surely we can put aside differences over the truth of religious propositions, and agree that this is vital and urgent work – and that both students and society stand to suffer from its marginalisation.


  1. A. Webster11:03 am

    RE should be taught to give children an insight into beliefs of other people and therefore an understanding of why people do certain things. otherwise children will grow up with no idea of why people act as they do and end up believing whatever people or media tell them, which is very often so far from the truth.

    Or it could just be another step towards 'New World Order'??

  2. I just want to qualify here - that I think school RE is far from perfect, and the model above is not well manifested in many Faith schools (in my view.

    But: it is amazing how much good work does go on in UK school RE of a critical, reflective and philosophical nature.. I know because I have spent a lot of time with students (many of them atheists, as well as members of various faith traditions) who have just been through the school system - and I have spent a lot of time in schools, and with RE teachers...

  3. Agreed. It is, of course, important for students to be aware of ethical viewpoints, and to have ethical concerns of their own that they can defend. And I would also put a case for the importance of philosophy of religion: while some may wonder why spend so much energy on the arguments for/against the existence of God, the important point is that both sides of the argument have to make use of critical skills of reasoning that can be applied to other issues.

  4. I very well agree that RE may be the only venue in schools to develop philosophical thinking and reflection on ethics and morals, human rights and justice in society. Moreover in a historically Christian majority society and one which experiences increasing secularistion, RE might be the way to develop empathy, sympathy and respect for other world-views. Without knowledge of other religious traditions and cultures, in the present multi-cultural and multi-religious character of modern Britain our sooity may becme an increasingly divided and polarised entity, not much conducive to harmony peaceful and happy interaction. It will be folly, espcially in these times, to drop RE from the curriculum
    Theodore Gabriel

  5. Anonymous11:48 pm

    I completely agree with what your article details throughout. As an agnostic myself and having spent the last 5 out of the 6 yrs as a Head of RE, I see merit in teaching both religious education and philosophical and ethical studies. My lessons are rich in dialogue and no more so than in the RE classroom do such rich discussions take place be it from creation verses science or simply (I use this word in the loosest of senses) religious belief.

    I echo your comments about wanting to make philosophy a lesson for all students on top of RE, after all, what better subject area to springboard the young people of today into thinking critically about life?

  6. I agree with you too Dave. It is a mistake to think that the RE syllabus is just about religion. The biggest problem is how to convince others?

  7. Anonymous8:49 pm

    In my experience, studying RE at school did not make me more religious, but it made me think more. I learnt to debate both sides, see different view points and have an introduction to ethics and philosophical concepts. And RE is so closely linked with history in many areas; we understand how people in our history suffered (or triumphed) because of religious beliefs. We have insights into the works of some literatures that are religious in context, and societies all over the world that are united/divided on religious lines. This is all crucial to learn in later life, so some introduction to all this is certainly helpful in GCSE, A Level time.

  8. Religious education is alright as long as it aptly describes the hate the bible is noted for. When intelligent, well brought up kids see this in the bible they are likely to be disgusted, hopefully. Below is a good example of what not to teach small children.

  9. Helen2:11 pm

    I can only assume that these comments were written by your students or maybe past students. I can see no reason for keeping RE as a subject, in fact it does much harm. I was disappointed to see the way a GCSE paper my daughter brought home used Christianty as an example of 'correct' moral behaviour. It was subtly but effectively done.
    There is room in the curriculum for philosophy, and maybe touching on religion as part of that. But to imply that people cannot learn to behave correctly towards others without learning about religion is mistaken and irresponsible.
    Religion does far more harm than good and the sooner it is viewed as a curiosity rather than an acceptable past-time the better.
    Hours of students valuable time is wasted on learning about imaginary deities, and not enough time is dedicated to the more important subject of science.

  10. "a GCSE paper my daughter brought home used Christianty as an example of 'correct' moral behaviour. It was subtly but effectively done." - that is, I think, unusual..

  11. And you might find: of interest too..