Religionism and Religious Education*



Leicester, Mal; Modgil, Celia; Modgil, Sohan (eds.), Education, Culture and Values: Spiritual and Religious Education, vol. 5, (London: Falmer Press, 2000), pp. 75-85.


I. Religionism

       We do not appear to have a word in English which describes that kind of religion which involves the identity of the believer in such a way as to support tribalism and nationalistic solidarity through fostering negative attitudes towards other religions. Elsewhere, I have suggested that the word religionism should be used in this sense (Hull, 1992a; cf. Thompson, 1993; Cooling, 1994). 

       Wilfred Cantwell Smith studied this phenomenon nearly 50 years ago as it appeared in the late nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries in the Indian subcontinent. Smith observed a process of narrowing, in which many Indian Muslims no longer took much interest in Islam as a worldwide movement but became preoccupied with the Muslim community in India:

Muslim communalists ... have been highly conscious of the Muslims within India as a supposedly single, cohesive community, to which they devote their loyalty – paying little attention to whether the individuals included are religiously ardent, tepid, or cold; orthodox, liberal, or atheist; righteous or vicious; or to whether they are landlord or peasant, prince or proletarian; also paying little, attention to Muslims outside India. (Smith, 1946, p. 157)

       In the Qur’án, men and women are called to respond to God with reverence and obedience. The result of their obedience is Islam (Smith, 1976, p. 68). Smith described how under the particular political, economic and social pressures of Indian life, the goal of many Muslims became the well-being of the Muslim community. Islam was no longer the result of obedience but the focus of loyalty: ‘in today’s embattled world, men readily press their religion again into the service not of its highest ideals but of the immediate interests of their own group’ (Smith, 1946, p. 158). At the same time, membership of the Muslim community was broadened to include many who had little or no sense of the presence of God but were merely Muslims by descent, language or kinship.

       Similar trends were observed within the other religious traditions of the sub-continent. Smith shows how Hinduism was a reified creation of western scholarship, having its origins in the late nineteenth century when European scholars were beginning to conceptualise the special features of religious life in India (Smith, 1976, p. 66; 1981, p. 91). The entity thus created, namely Hinduism, became in turn the object of identification on the part of some of the people who belonged to that group of traditions, who thus distinguished themselves more sharply as Hindus from Muslims and Christians.

       Smith described this process and its result as communalism, since he wished to emphasise that religious faith became an instrument serving the aggrandisement of a distinct community. Smith spoke of communalism rather than merely ‘community spirit’ because he saw this process as encouraging a sectarian and tribal spirit. Religious faith was the instrument for the creation of this sense of particularity, but because it involved a loss of universal vision, a lapse in the sense of the mission of the faith in relation to the ultimate or transcendent God, this kind of religious communalism was sharply criticised by the more sophisticated theologians in all the affected religious traditions (Smith, l946, p.182).

       By using the word religionism instead of Cantwell Smith’s communalism, I wish to draw attention to the ideological content of tribalism, in so far as tribalism uses religious believing as its vehicle. The word religionism emphasises the religious character of this phenomenon, recognising it nevertheless as a distorted form of religious faith. Rather than becoming less religious, the phenomenon of religionism can be thought of as making people more religious, more zealously committed to their religion and opposed to the religion of others. The communalist movements, both within Hinduism and Islam, which glamorised their religious past and were accompanied by a kind of religio-national mysticism, were not in their early stages specifically anti-Muslim or anti-Hindu. They were just enthusiastically Muslim, enthusiastically Hindu:

As yet, it did not involve inter-communal antagonism and hatred, but simply distinction. It has slowly developed since then, encouraged by a constant interplay of developing political and economic and religious processes, into the furious rivalry of the present day. (Smith, 1946, p. 169)

       In emphasising the ideological character of religion, the expression religionism also focuses attention upon certain aspects of religious belief or doctrine which are particularly conducive[1] to the formation of such sectarian and tribal solidarities.

       Religionism, however, should not be regarded as a consequence of religion. It is, rather, a form of religion, exhibiting the entire structure of religion: worship, ethics, myth, doctrine and so on. We may describe it as a misappropriation of religion, as a religious deviation or distortion, but such expressions are evaluative, not phenomenological.

Religious identity and religionism

       The identity which is fostered by religionism depends upon rejection and exclusion.[2] We are better than they. We are orthodox; they are infidels. We are believers; they are unbelievers. We are right; they are wrong. The other is identified as the pagan, the heathen, the alien, the stranger, the invader, the one who threatens us and our way of life, and in contrast to whom we know what we are.

       Eric H. Erikson (1964, p. 82; 1968, p. 80) distinguished between the identity of wholeness which is inclusive, and that of totalism which is exclusive. The identity of totalism says that I am an adult just in so far as I am not a child. I exclude my childhood. I am not a child but an adult. The identity of wholeness claims that my adulthood is all the more mature inasmuch as I acknowledge and affirm the childhood of my past and the child who is still within me. I am an adult in so far as I comprehend my whole life, past and future.

       Although total identity formation may occur during the adolescent years as a defensive reaction against identity confusion, it may take a more malignant form if it appears during adulthood. During the crisis of intimacy versus isolation, characteristic of early adulthood, a strong and wholesome identity enables one to risk the vulnerability and fusion of intimacy with the other, whereas totalistic identity tends to reject otherness, finding intimacy only with that which is already similar to the self. Thus the path to generativity, the pouring out of oneself in caring for others, is blocked and the fifth Eriksonian stage (generativity versus stagnation) cannot be successfully encountered (Erikson, 1963a, pp. 255ff.; 1968, pp. 135ff.).

       Under certain circumstances human groups affirm a totalistic identity which is dangerous because of the clannish loyalties which it creates. Erikson interpreted this phenomenon in biological terms, speaking of ‘pseudo-speciation’ (Erikson, 1963b, pp. 1-28; 1975, pp. 176-9). So general are human beings that the human itself is too amorphous to be imagined as a focus for identity. It is as if a species-wide identification demands too much empathy, too much abstraction for most people. Closer and more precise definition of the human is looked for, where characteristics such as mother tongue, skin colour or gender become the point of identification. The group thus created becomes a sort of sub-species. It competes with other subspecies for land and for resources.

       Whereas pseudo-speciation reduces plurality by establishing a homogeneous group, recent studies in the theory of identity emphasise the plurality and flexibility of identity. Identity should be thought of not so much as a substance or essence which is of a certain fixed kind but as the product of a narrative, a story or series of stories which are used to interpret my experience and my place with others in the world (Meijer, 1991, 1995). When religion feeds pseudo-speciation, we may call it religionism. Erikson was aware that the symbols and traditions of religion could support and even generate such sub-speciation or tribalism. On the other hand, the great world faiths also contain universal and transcendent elements which may enable human faith to achieve a wider and even a cosmic loyality (Erikson, 1958, p. 264; 1969, PP. 431-3).

Religionism and religious prejudice

       Religionism always involves prejudice against other religions and other religious people. The expression ‘religious prejudice’ is not, however, sufficient to describe the phenomenon in question, because a prejudice is merely a psychological matter.

       There is a distinction between racism and racial prejudice. Racism may exist in institutions where individuals are unaware of personal racial prejudice. Racism may be built up in historical experience, in economic structures and in political life. Thus there is a sociology, a history and a politics of racism as well as a psychology. Racism cannot be understood as a mere attitude, although racist attitudes remain a very important part of racism.

       It is much the same with religionism. Religionism may develop slowly over centuries. It may be expressed in institutional form; it may mould the mythology of a people and thus become embedded in the culture of opposing peoples. Religionism falls like a shadow upon the hearts and minds of individuals and it may then be experienced as religious prejudice but its structures go beyond the individual. There may be religionist tendencies in the orthodox structure of theological systems. Believers participating uncritically in these theological systems may have certain beliefs about others and their religions, but it will not occur to them that these beliefs generate and perpetuate prejudice. The beliefs about others will simply be accepted as being true. The identity of the believer is conferred by the religious tradition, and if that identity is total, being sustained by negative perceptions of others and their religions, this may all be received as part of what salvation means.

Origins of religionism

       For various complex reasons, it seemed to be difficult for some religions to evolve without taking on religionist tendencies: ‘Every major ideological movement, religious and not, has begun with a rejecting of the others. This stage is passing’ (Smith, l98l, p. 122).

       Christianity had already assumed a religionist attitude towards Judaism before the close of the New Testament period, and this was entrenched by the second century (see Reuther 1975; Dunn, 1991). Islam took on religionist features as it emerged from both Christianity and Judaism. Protestantism gathered religionist features during its early struggles with Roman Catholicism. When reforming movements encounter opposition, they attack in order to defend themselves. It must also be realised that inasmuch as new religious movements often take the form of a reforming reaction against the decadence of the surrounding religious life, there may be an attack upon this decadence. Such attacks are not necessarily to be regarded as religionist unless they feed an exclusive identity on the part of the attacker. They may be thought of as ethical protest. Before long, however, the new community may be struggling to maintain its identity. Caricature and stereotype are soon adopted as techniques in this competition for survival. The hearts and minds of the second generation are nurtured within an identity-protecting cocoon, the outer rim of which is hardened by such stereotypes. So religious reform turns into religionism, and the proclamation of the good news to the poor acquires the features of religionistic evangelism.

       Religionistic evangelism is not quite the same as proselytising evangelism. There is a market place of ideas, and where there is choice, there is competition. Describing the missionary activity of the early Christians, Karl Jost (1975, p. 51) speaks of ‘the sense of competition which developed as they spread their faith. Knowledge now had a moral competitive cast and numbers converted took on importance.’ Such evangelism only becomes religionistic if it includes a polemic against other religions which is calculated not so much to convert the others as to build up the exclusive identity of those already converted. There are good and bad reasons for adopting a religion; the promulgation of these ideas is not per se to fall into religionism. At the same time, the identity built up by religionism need not necessarily be of an ethnic kind. Jost shows that the Christian movement, like the other international religions of the Graeco-Roman world was explicitly trans-ethnic (ibid., pp. 50-2; see also Legge, 1964). Often, however, modern religionism is regressive in that it revives the pre-Christian and primal association between individual and collective identity.

       As the theological world view of the new movement becomes more articulate, elements of religionism acquire doctrinal significance and are built into the orthodox system. When this point is reached, deconstruction will be resisted in the name of the integrity of the religion itself. When it becomes the ideology of imperialism, such a theology will play a role in justifying the exploitation and enslavement of those who are regarded as pagans, heathens or as being without souls. For example, the doctrine of the metaphysical and exclusive uniqueness of Christian salvation has been used

to make Christians feel uniquely privileged in contrast to the non-Christian majority of the human race, and accordingly free to patronise them religiously, exploit them economically, and dominate them politically. Thus the dogma of the deity of Christ – in conjunction with the aggressive arid predatory aspect of human nature –  has contributed historically to the evils of colonialism. (Hick, 1989, pp. 371-2)

It is perhaps an epistemic condition of religious faith that the saving religion should be experienced as uniquely true and precious, but it is not an epistemic condition of saving faith that the saving faith of others should be denied a similar status. The standard techniques of self-deception, namely compartmentalisation, selective reading of the evidence, displacement and projection, are used to maintain religionism in the service of the weakened ego, which appears unable to face the threat of its inclusion within a wider humanity.

Religionism and politics

       Cantwell Smith showed how it became part of British policy to maintain and even to encourage communalism in India during the early decades of the twentieth century. It was helpful to the Raj that the subjected peoples should be divided into many separate groups, and then it became possible fur the imperial administration to portray itself as the even hand of justice and moderation, mediating between the warring parties:

The Government’s method of encouraging communalism has been to approach all political subjects, and as many other subjects as possible, on a communalist basis; and to encourage, even to insist upon, everyone else’s doing likewise. (Smith, l946, p. 180)

Above all, it was in the British press at home that the strikes and riots which occurred in India were portrayed as being religionist in character. They had nothing to do with economics or with the desire for national liberty; they were sectarian conflicts between Hindu and Muslim (ibid., p. 175).

       With the growing ethnic and religious pluralism of Britain since the Second World War, the emergence of domestic religionism has become a reality in the United Kingdom. Significant traces of religionism may be found in the relationships between the Church of England, the Free Churches and the Roman Catholics in Britain from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, but on the whole the first 80 years of the twentieth century may be looked upon as a period when religionism was at a low ebb in Britain, although it was actively promulgated abroad, as we have seen. The rise of the ecumenical movement was one of many factors contributing to the greater degree of understanding and mutual respect between Christian denominations during this period. The agreed syllabus of religious education in England and Wales from the mid-1920s until the end of the 1980s may be considered as a fruit of such mutual understanding. The conservative resurgence of the 1980s and early 1990s brought with it a revival of religionism. In the remainder of this chapter I shall illustrate this unfortunate tendency with respect to religious education and I shall propose an antidote.

II Religionism in Religious Education

       The resurgence of religionism in British religious education was accompanied by a rhetoric which made use of three positive concepts and one negative one, The positive concepts were those of integrity, predominance and cultural heritage (Hull, 1993). The negative concept was that of a mishmash.[3] In the rhetorical order, the negative normally came first. The country was warned that instead of receiving a clear instruction about Christianity and other important religions, children were being given a mishmash, that is, a superficial and confusing mixture of ingredients taken from various religions, presented out of’ context, leading to a trivialisation of faith. Next, the rhetoric proposed to clarify this mess by unmixing religions. At this point the positive concepts and images came into play. The integrity of each religious tradition would be restored and respected. Religions would neither be confused with each other nor contaminated nor diluted by contact but each would be presented separately, one by one. In this way the purity and coherence of each religion would be restored.

       Once this separation had been achieved, the third step in the rhetoric was to argue that children could not be expected to assimilate more than a limited number of these religious systems. Christianity would obviously always be one, and thus Christianity would predominate. In order to secure this predominance, the balance between Christianity and other religions would he carefully monitored. This was often expressed in statistical terms (see Brown, 1994, p. 5). A stated percentage of the curriculum should be devoted to Christianity. The recommended percentage varied from 50 per cent to 75 per cent. The remaining time should be devoted to the study of the other religions, on a limited basis. It was claimed that this would be sufficient for one or two other religions at the appropriate key stage to be taught ‘properly and at sufficient depth to be treated with the respect and intellectual integrity they require’ (ibid.).

       Finally, having passed through its denunciatory stage (mishmash) and announced the restoration of religious integrity, the preponderance of Christianity was justified by appeal to the British cultural heritage: ‘The legislation governing religious education and worship in such schools is designed in RE to ensure that pupils gain . . . a thorough knowledge of Christianity reflecting the Christian heritage of the country’ (DfE, 1994, para. 7). It thus became apparent that the interest was not so much in Christianity as a world-wide mission or movement but in the integrity of the traditional religion of Britain. Britain was to he understood not as a multicultural society hut as containing a limited amount of ethnic diversity, mainly confined to the large cities.

       A few examples will enable the reader to sense the tone of the rhetoric:

Many of our children are in schools where they are denied the experience of religious worship at all and where teaching about Christianity has either been diluted to a multi-faith relativism or has become little more than a secularised discussion of social and political issues. (Cox, 1988, p.4)

many of the Agreed Syllabuses and the new GCSE Religious Education examinations have failed to enshrine the centrality of Christianity. Indeed, the opposite is often true: Christianity is submerged in a welter of shallow dabblings in a variety of other religions, resulting in a confusing kaleidoscope of images of faiths, doing justice to none. (Ibid.)

This was described as ‘the debasement of Christianity in our schools’.

Of course, they can and must be given some understanding and knowledge of other major world religions, but this does not mean that we should jettison our responsibility to provide Christian worship and the study of Christianity as the major faith of this land. (Ibid., p. 5)

John Burn and Cohn Hart (1988, p. 5) quoted a speech by Robert Kilroy-Silk in which he referred to ‘the fashionable but meaningless multi-race creed . . . an artificially created mongrel’ (The Times 8 April 1988).

       A typical feature of rising religionism is to count how many representatives on a certain committee each religion might have. So Burn and Hart (1988) told us that on the agreed syllabus conference which created the Brent syllabus of 1985 there were fifteen representatives of religions other than Christianity on the 23-person ‘other denominations’ group. The corresponding committee in Manchester had 23 non-Christians and twenty-two Christians (ibid., p. 16). The implication was that Christians were being submerged, losing control, being overwhelmed. Unless the law was changed, it would ‘condemn children living in certain boroughs to learn little of the Christian faith’ (ibid., pp. 23f). Burn and Hart called upon Parliament to ‘amend the present Education Reform Bill in such a way that Religious Instruction is defined as being predominantly the study of the Christian religion’. The law should set up ‘machinery . . . to ensure the creation of national guidelines for predominantly Christian religious education’. The ‘other denominations’ committee of the agreed syllabus conference ‘should be made up of members of Christian denominations other than the Church of England’ (ibid., p. 29). Representatives of the other religions were to be excluded.

       A characteristic of the British literature of religionism is that other religions are seldom if ever attacked directly. We might be told, as in the previous example, that on a certain committee there are 22 Christians and 23 non-Christians. We are not told why this matters, or who bothered to do the counting. Everything is by innuendo. The explicit attacks are reserved for humanism, atheism and communism. The other religions are always spoken of with respect, but they must keep their distance and they must know their place. They must he separate from Christianity and from each other, because only in this way can their proper place be estimated. Separation makes it possible to count, and then proportions can be reckoned.[4] Only in this way can a preponderance of Christianity he guaranteed. Although official language towards the other faiths remains courteous at all times, the actual implication of the policy, the meaning behind the words, became clearer each year.

       From the point of view of the religionists, the water was muddied rather than clarified by the Education Reform Act (ERA) 1988 s. 8(3). Whereas it had been hoped that the agreed syllabuses would have been predominantly Christian, a compromising form of words was presented to the House of Lords by the then Bishop of London, Dr Graham Leonard, to which the Christian religionists reluctantly agreed (Hansard, House of Lords, 21 June 1988, col. 639; Hull, 1991, p. 19). This required new agreed syllabuses not only to ‘reflect the fact that the principal religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian’ but also to ‘take account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’ (Education Reform Act 1988 s. 8(3)).

       It had become clear that this form of words was little more than a description and thus a confirmation of the general approach of the agreed syllabuses throughout the preceding two decades, and that the new law could be interpreted as requiring the teaching of a world religions syllabus. The expression ‘shall reflect’ could be interpreted in many ways and several different kinds of syllabus might be compatible with this requirement.[5]

       In spite of this, Christian religionism refused to give up. It was insisted that unless an agreed syllabus was clearly divided between the various religions, system by system, in such a way as to guarantee Christian preponderance at all stages of schooling, the so-called requirements of the Act were not being fully met. Attempts were made to bring the Local Education Authorities, which have the responsibility for syllabuses, into line, but these had little effect.

       A fresh attempt was made in 1993 to marginalise the other world faiths but with one or two exceptions these attempts failed. The press sensed the atmosphere with the headline ‘Tory Christians lose faith battle’ (The Times Educational Supplement 14 May 1993). Indeed, the Christian religionists seemed to welcome the military metaphors. Lady Olga Maitland, commenting on the model syllabuses, said: ‘Christianity is once again fighting for survival in the school room. This is no novelty; wars have been waged for centuries over religious tolerance. The fight is going on ... this has become another battle ground ... A mishmash of multiculturalism has crept into RE’ (Education 14 January 1994, p. 32).

       The DfE Circular 1/94 gave the official government interpretation of the religious education and collective worship legislation. School children were to be given ‘a thorough knowledge of Christianity reflecting the Christian heritage of this country’ and a less-thorough ‘knowledge of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’ (DfE, 1994, para. 7). This distinction between the heritage religion and the represented religions marked a new stage in the development of religionism. The heritage which was of interest to the government was only the predominant one: ‘Religious education in schools should seek to develop pupils’ knowledge, understanding and awareness of Christianity, as the predominant religion in Great Britain’ (ibid., para. 16). Judaism, in spite of its centuries-old tradition in Britain, was not to be part of this country’s heritage. Judaism is, presumably, only represented in this country. Represented religions have no real home here.

       The distinction between being the heritage and being represented applied not only to the content of what was studied in religious education but also to the children themselves. Collective worship was given a much stronger Christian theological profile such that it became impossible for children from Muslim, Jewish and other traditions to take part in the collective assembly. The expectation was that schools would make applications for part- determinations which would enable Muslim pupils to worship as a single religious group. Similar part- determinations would follow for pupils from other religious groups.[6]

       The connection between collective worship, religionism and communalism is particularly striking. Let us take the case of Crowcroft Park Primary School in Manchester. A small group of parents protested about the collective worship offered by the school, on the grounds that it was not distinctively Christian but included some elements from the other spiritual traditions represented in the school (Manchester City Council, 1991, p. 12). The Secretary of State supported the LEA in dismissing the complaint, pointing out that section 7 of ERA 1988 quite clearly permits collective worship to be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character: that is, non-Christian children could take part and elements from various religions could be included.[7] Thus the attempt to purify collective worship, which would have divided children on religious grounds, failed. It is interesting, however, to realise that the complaint from these parents did not begin with questions of worship and religious education, but with the exposure of their children to foreign food served in the school cafeteria. There were also protests about the children being exposed (a favourite word) to Asian languages (ibid., p. 6). These complaints had already been dismissed by the LEA before being revived under a different guise by the passage of the ERA in 1988. New possibilities were then presented for stirring up ethnocentrism and xenophobia, made all the more powerful by the religious context.

       A somewhat similar incident took place in two Birmingham inner-ring primary schools. A group of Muslim enthusiasts protested that although what the schools were actually doing in collective worship was unobjectionable it was nevertheless the case that in law Muslim children were being treated as if they were engaged in Christian worship. This objection was understandable and indicated an important sense in which the 1988 legislation is divisive, since it clearly distinguishes between families on religious grounds. Of course, the legislation makes provision for groups other than Christian. An application can he made on their behalf for a part-determination which, as we have seen, would enable them to worship in a manner which was wholly or mainly of a broadly Islamic character. Instead of seeking a part-determination, however, one of’ the schools made a successful application for a whole-determination. This had the effect of lifting the requirements for section 7 (that is, Christian worship) entirely, such that no pupil would be treated as belonging to a specific religious tradition, and the natural sensitivity about Muslim children being treated as if they were Christians was removed.

       The Muslim enthusiasts were, however, not satisfied with this response. They insisted upon a part-determination and refused to accept a whole-determination. It is natural that Muslims should argue that when Christian children have ‘their own act of worship’ Muslim children should also have their own. But when no child is being treated as a member of a religious tradition but all children are being treated as children attending the school for the purpose of their education, and all are invited to attend and take part in a ceremony of collective worship which will draw upon all the spiritual traditions represented in the school, the case collapses. This particular group of Muslims did not want Muslim children to take part in the common and ordinary collective spiritual life of the school. Other indications from the area suggested that this was part of a general programme of heightening religious sensitivity, including community and po1itical awareness which was clearly religionist in character. It was significant that in the school in question the Muslim parents who wanted a separate Muslim assembly were drawn from one ethnic group. Other ethnic groups, although equally devout Muslims, were happy with the collective worship of the whole school.[8]

       One must be sympathetic towards Muslim religionism in Britain, since to a large extent it is the response of a proud and cultivated people to the indignities and marginalisations which they have experienced. When Christians claim to predominate, Muslims will naturally seek to find at least some ground where they also can predominate. As Cantwell Smith (1946, p. 170) remarked so many years ago, religionism is ‘like a habit-forming drug, which, as long as it is administered, is needed in ever increasing doses’. Religionism characteristically creates a spiral of escalating tension. It is easy to whip it up; it is extraordinarily difficult to calm it down.

       Draft versions of the model religious education syllabuses prepared by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) were published for consultation on 25 January 1994. These were consistent with the religionist policy which we have been tracing, it was assumed that the legislation only permits one kind of syllabus: that in which religions are to be taught as coherent entities one by one in complete separation. The separatist claim was quite explicit, since the introductory booklet argued that an approach to understanding religion which drew upon more than one religious tradition was unacceptable (SCAA, 1994, p. 5).[9] It was interesting that the statements (required by the DfE) of percentages to be devoted to Christianity and the other religions were to be withdrawn, following advice from the legal branch that the law did not require or even permit such percentage indications,[10] but when the working party withdrew not only the percentages but the diagrams indicating visually the proportions to be devoted to different religions, this diagram was instantly replaced by direct authority of the Minister involved.[11]

       It is not surprising that the representatives of the Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim and Buddhist traditions were disappointed and offended. They were being marginalised, and they knew it.’[12] The sad thing is that for years, for decades, religious education syllabuses had given a prominent position to the Christian faith while allowing for a less prominent place for the other religions, and every- one was more or less happy. That was because the atmosphere in those days was not religionist. Nobody bothered to count how many Buddhists or Sikhs were on a committee. It never occurred to the Muslims and Hindus that Christians were trying to dominate. The thinking was educational, not religionist.

       In contrast, the model syllabuses were set tip from the beginning in the wrong way. A group of Christians was invited to draw up a Christianity syllabus; a group of Muslims did a similar job for Islam and so on. Right from the start, people involved in an educational project were invited to think of themselves as primarily members of a particular religious community. The result was predictable, and presumably well planned.[13]

       An alternative strategy, which would not have yielded a religionist result, would have been for a committee comprising people from various religions and perhaps some of no religion, including teachers and educators, to draw up a syllabus indicating the best possible religious educational experience for children in British schools today. Indeed, several such groups could have been established, and a variety of approaches might have been generated. All this could have been published, and the variety and freedom permitted by the law would thus have been reinforced. The local creators of agreed syllabuses would thus have had plenty of inspiration and various examples. Instead, a separatist approach which insisted upon its own supremacy was created, with clear religionist implications for the future. Fortunately, the model syllabuses only have advisory status. The religionist pressures come mainly from the top, as is to be expected in what is ‘quite clearly a part of the ideological superstructure of British political and social power,[14] but at the local level we may hope that the human realities of making contact will overcome the desire for a purified integrity.

III Anti-religionist education

Just as anti-sexist and anti-racist educational programmes seek to combat sexism and racism, we need to create an anti-religionist education. This should be provided not only in school religious education hut as part of the adult education programmes in every church and parish. every mosque and synagogue. Speaking from within the Christian faith, it is clear that Christian education should be evaluated as to its faithfulness not merely to the Christian tradition but to the Christian mission. In other words, what matters is not an exact transmission of the tradition hut an encounter with the vision which the tradition represents, the purpose of God in reconciling human beings in Jesus Christ. That purpose was not just reconciliation with God, but reconciliation between human individuals and groups. Christ is our peace, who has broken down the barrier which divides us and is making of all people one new humanity (Ephesians 2: 14f). Any religionist tendencies which the Christian tradition might possess should be overcome in the name of the Holy Spirit who is still revealing new things through the old things (John 16: 12f.).

The anti-relionist curriculum. Strand 1:

       This task cannot be accomplished inerd’ through encouraging tolerance of other religions. Even the religionists speak of tolerance and respect towards other religions, although their actions belie their claims. It is necessary to realise that the Christian religion has acquired intolerant elements and that therefore a deconstruction is necessary.
       The experience of the early Christians was that they entered into peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. In reporting that this experience was to be found only through Jesus Christ, the Christians were not making comments about Buddhism and Hinduism, of which they knew nothing, nor about Islam or Sikhism, which had not as yet entered the world (Smith, 1981, p. 171). As for Judaism, it was clear that the great prophets and law givers of the Hebrew Bible walked in peace with God. The Christians had experienced salvation only through Jesus Christ and this is exactly what they said. We misunderstand their spirit of love and peace iii Christ when we apply their insights to our modern pluralist and competitive religious world, turning the grace of God to which they are witnesses into a religious system through which we weak little people find powerful identities.

       God has no pets, and as Juan Luis Segundo (1973, pp. 40-4) has shown, it is a great responsibility to be called to participate in the world-wide mission of God through Christ. There are thus responsibilities in being Christian; it is less clear that there are advantages. Such advantages would instantly tribalise humanity. The important distinctions recognised by the Kingdom of God do not lie between one religious system and another but between the rich and the poor. It is God’s intention to fill the hungry with good things and to send the rich away empty. We have no warrant within the grace of God for claiming that it is God’s intention to fill the Christians with good things and to send the non-Christians away empty. This is not the way of God.

       Just as anti-racist education goes beyond the question of racial prejudice, so anti-religionist education must go beyond the mere encouragement of tolerance. Two elements in the syllabus may be expected. First, the systems approach should certainly continue, that is, the presentation of religious traditions one by one. However, critical methods of interpretation will help both children and adults to distinguish the salvific from the religionist elements in the Bible, the history of doctrine and present-day Christian experience.

       This may be described as the deconstructionist requirement. Moreover, although deconstruction is in a sense an internal matter the each religious tradition and thus requires a more or less systematic exposition from within that tradition, it cannot be conducted in isolation from other traditions. Recognition of this will restore a good deal of reality to the way the religious traditions are treated .After all, no religion came into the world in isolation. Every religious tradition was born into a world already full of religions and has evolved in a continual dialogue with one or several other religions. This pattern of coexistence and mutual influence has differed in, let us say, China on the one hand and the Middle East on the other, but it has always been in a context of relationships.[15] The result of this interchange is seen not only in the frequent borrowings between traditions (for 1000 years the Buddha had a place in Christian hagiography) (Smith, 1981, pp. 7ff.) but will affect what are sometimes called the core elements. The medieval Christian doctrine of God drew upon the Iberian theological melting-pot where Jewish, Muslim and Christian theologians were in contact with each other. Christian eschatology evolved under the influence of Zoroastrianism and today hundreds of new Christian denominations are being formed, particularly in Africa and in South America, which draw upon primal religious traditions and folk knowledge. If we were to think not so much in terms of Christianity as an absolute and unqualified essence but of participating in the influence and the inspiration offered by Jesus, we would come closer to the nature of Christian discipleship.

The anti-religionist curriculum. Strand 2:
universalising faith

       The second strand in an anti-religionist curriculum will consist of the study of the religious experience of men and women in a global perspective. We know today what God, presumably, has always known about us: that our religious history as a species is ultimately one and indivisible. There is a world-wide history of religious consciousness. Each religious tradition is more richly understood within that global context. Thus an important object of religious education is religion itself nor just the religious traditions, hut the religious sensitivity which millions of men and women, boys and girls, still possess, whether within a particular so called tradition or completely outside it. What matters in religious education today is not only what happened in the formation of the religious experience of humanity, that is, the religious past, hut what is happening today to the descendants of the men and women who made those traditions: that is, all of us. How are human beings today to respond to that to which the spirituality of all religions hears witness?
       This kind of study involves inter-religious and trans-religious topics treated from a dialogical perspective. As the connections between religion and conflict seem in so many ways to be getting stronger today, it is the task of religious educators, whatever their faith background or lack of it, to contribute to this anti-religionist enterprise. In this way religious education can play its part in the liberation of religions and could make a valuable contribution to peace and reconciliation.

* Based on a paper delivered to the International Conference on Religion and Conflict held in Armagh, Northern Ireland, 20-21 May 1994. I am grateful to the St Peters College Saltley Trust in Birmingham whose grant enabled this paper to be revised and prepared for the present publication.

[1] Contrary to Barnes (1997), I do not believe that religionism can be inferred directly from a religious doctrine, although religious doctrines may permit or support religionism in varying degrees. I have discussed the relationship between Christian doctrines and religionism in my lecture The Holy Trinity and Christian Education in a Pluralist World (Hull, 1995a).

[2] I have discussed the characteristics of such an identity in a case study approach in Hull (1996).

[3] The same concept, that of a mixture of disgusting or ill-assorted foods, may also appear as hotch potch, mess of pottage and so on. I have discussed this rhetoric in Hull (1991).

[4] A typical example of the desire to count so that proportions can be so arranged as to secure the marginalisation of the smaller religious groups is found in the 1993 Education Act: “The numbers of representatives of each denomination and religion are required to reflect broadly the proportionate strength of that denomination or religion in the local area’ (Circular l/94, para. 111).

[5] It is interesting to note that the legal opinion obtained by the Secretary of State for Education dated 12 June 1990 in connection with the complaint received against the recently published agreed syllabuses of’ the London Boroughs of Ealing and Newham confirms this: ‘The fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian could be reflected by devoting most rime to Christian traditions but in my opinion the flexibility inherent in the word “reflect” means that this could be done in other ways e.g. by comparison with other religions and discussion as to the differences and similarities between Christian and other traditions’ ( § 9.5). Unfortunately this crucial passage was omitted in the letter of guidance which the then DES sent to Chief Education Officers on 18 March 1991, and the government persisted with its policy of a narrow interpretation of the law, contrary to its own legal advice and in spite of the deterioration of relations between religious communities which inevitably followed. Such a policy, in the context of debate which I have described, was dearly a manifestation of religionism.

[6] I have discussed the implications of Circular 1/94 regarding collective worship in Hull (1995b; 1995c).

[7] Letter from the Secretary of State for Education, 23 June 1992. Mr Justice McCullough in rejecting a appeal for a judicial review against the ruling of the Secretary of State provided a very fine summary of the case and of the law on 26 February 1993.

[8] ‘Religious row at crisis point’. Metro News (Birmingham, 5 May 1994.

[9] The introductory document urges use educational grounds against syllabuses which draw upon several religions. The authors do not claim that the law would prohibit such syllabuses, since it had been clear ever since the legal ads ice of 12 June 1990 that this was not the case (note 5 above). The SCAA, following guidance from the government did not see fit to commend the range of syllabuses which the law permits.

[10] Letter from Rosemary D. Pearce, Schools 3 Branch of the DfE, 28 October 1993, to Barbara Wintersgill of SCAA.

[11] An account of the events was given in a letter from the Methodist representative on the SCAA Model RE Agreed Syllabuses Monitoring Group, the Reverend Geoff Robson, in his letter of protest to Mr Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, 11 January 1994. The bar chart itself appears on page 6 of the Introduction.

[12] ‘RE syllabus attacked for Christian bias’, Guardian, 25 January 1994, p. 8; ‘Call for balance in religious education’, Independent, 25 January 1994, p. 6; and ‘Faiths unite against new emphasis in RE’, The Times, 25 January 1994, p. 2.

[13] The background is provided in SCAA, Model Syllabuses: Faith Communities’ Working Group Reports 1994, where members of the working groups are also listed (pp. 35-6).

[14] I have discussed something of this background in Hull (1992b).

[15] See the general approach suggested by the various contributors to Hick and Askari (1985).


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