The Nature of Religious Education


John M. Hull

in Hooshang Nikjoo and Stephen Vickers (eds) Distinctive Aspects of Baha'i Education: Proceedings of the Third Symposium on Baha'i Education,  The Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1993, pp. 13-19


Yesterday, in my office, I had a rather interesting time. I read through a whole lot of press cuttings from newspapers and periodicals in Britain over the last two or three weeks giving a picture of developments in British religious education. Religious education is passing through a time of conflict, which is raising important questions for the relationship between religions in British society and the nature of schooling.(1,2)

Before taking up these points, however, I will try to summarise my own response to the question I have been given about the nature of religious education. I will then relate this to contemporary events. Religious education has three fundamental purposes in our society. First, it seeks to communicate to persons who are not religious a basic understanding of religion. Secondly, it seeks to communicate to persons who are religious a basic understanding of themselves. Thirdly, it seeks to make available, both to the religious and to the non-religious, the benefits of the study of religion. That third aspect we may call the gifts of religious education, which are offered to pupils, and indeed to adults: the gifts of religious study.

The first of these purposes refers to the role of religion as part of the general curriculum. In England and Wales religious education is part of the compulsory provision in schools, required by law.(3) It is part of the basic curriculum, which must be taught to all pupils of compulsory school age, and (in the case of religious education only) beyond the minimum school leaving age. It is taught to pupils who come from religious family backgrounds and to those who do not. Because this first purpose refers to the general educational outcome of this subject, it may be described as making contribution to all pupils qua pupils. Young people are here considered not as believers or unbelievers but as students.

Secondly, religious education seeks to offer a self-understanding to those who are religious. Some years ago we might have made sharper distinctions between the task of religious nurture (the fostering of religious faith) and that of religious education in offering a critical perspective on the nature of religion. This distinction, while still useful, is perhaps too sharp. We must recognise, more fully than we did ten years ago, that religious education does have a contribution to make in the encouragement of faith as well as in the education of the secular person. It would be strange if religious education was of benefit to all pupils except those who were religious. Religious education must seek to offer encouragement to those young people who are from religious families. What kind of encouragement will this be? It will largely consist in the affirmation of their identity, offering an opportunity to engage in the critical study of their own tradition along with young people from other traditions. They will thus be able to evaluate their self-understanding. Religious education will make a contribution towards their human development and maturation as religious believers equipped to take a mature and intelligent part in adult society.

The third purpose refers to the contribution of religious studies to the general welfare and educational advancement of young people.(4) In the University of Birmingham we have a project that has to do with the religious education of young children: Religion in the Service of the Child. Central to our approach is the concept of the gift. We take a number of items of religious belief and practice, such as a passage of scripture, a sacred story, a sound such as the Islamic call to prayer, a statue, or an item of devotion such as rosary beads. Of each of them we ask what its gift might be to the imagination of the child. We are developing not so much the children's concepts as their images. Religious education has tended to be too heavy on conceptual development and too light on imaginative development. The gifts that the religious materials have to offer children are not necessarily religious. They may include the provocation of curiosity, the stimulation of questioning, deeper insight into the family backgrounds of other young people, and the knowledge of the lives and backgrounds of other people and other cultures. There may also, of course, be religious gifts. Reference has already been made to the fact that religious education naturally has a contribution to make to those who are religious as well as to those who are not. (5,6)

These then are the three basic purposes of religious education as I see them. In fulfilling these purposes in the school system in England and Wales, to go no further afield, religious education has tended to take a number of different approaches.

First we have what might be called the transmissional approach. secondly the descriptive approach. thirdly the personal approach. and finally the approach through ambiguity and criticism.

There is an understanding of religious education which emphasises that its task is mainly to transmit the religious tradition. This approach is currently gaining ground. Indeed some people suggest that children should be taught in separate religious groups in schools, that Christian children should not be taught with children of other faiths, nor should they be taught very much, if anything, about the religion of their neighbours, but Christian children should be taught Christianity. Muslim children should be taught Islam. It is on the basis of such a belief that we find the current interest in relating agreed syllabuses to the characteristics of the local population. In other words, in an area where there are a lot of Muslims you would have an agreed syllabus which contained a great deal of Islamic teaching, and so forth.

I believe that this transmissional approach is mistaken. It would create a situation where we no longer had a community-based religious education which sought for common understanding. We would, on the other hand, have a system which could best be described as parallel instruction. Each child would be taught in separate and parallel groups.(7) Behind this understanding of religious education is a conception of religion which looks upon its mission largely in terms of self-reproduction. This takes us into questions about the nature and destiny of religion itself in our modem world. Is the mission of religion to be summarised in terms of religious reproduction? Or is the mission of religion, in our world today, something greater than mere reproduction?

There is a profound conflict taking place within my own tradition, which is Christian, in many parts of the world today. There are those who believe that the purpose of Christianity is primarily to reproduce itself. Reproduction (the usual word used is evangelisation) would seek to over-populate or out-grow the population of other religions. Its end goal would be the situation where Christianity supplanted and replaced all other religions. This might be described as the re-establishment of Christendom. For some Christians, this is such a fundamental understanding that they find it difficult to conceive of any other kind of Christianity .

There are, however, Christians who take a different view, which is that Christianity does not exist for itself, that the function of the Christian faith in the world has something to do with the destiny of our species as a whole, that Christianity is an instrument in a larger providence. Christians who take this point of view must challenge the transmissional model. That model, conceived in terms of reproduction, becomes little more than a domesticated instrument of religious aggrandisement. We can understand many of the conflicts in religious education in our country at the present time by realising that the transmissional model has become more powerful and is now taking tribalistic and sectarian forms. If unchecked, these trends will separate our religious communities and will lead to the breakdown of dialogue between world faiths.

The second approach is that which describes religion. The technical word for this approach is phenomenological. This movement in British religious education is very influential. It has contributed greatly to the improvements, both in content and method, which we have seen in British classrooms in recent years. The approach is based upon twentieth century methods in the scholarly study of religion. It emphasises that the object of study is the manifestations of religion, the forms of the religious life. Such study is to be objective, descriptive and non-evaluative. The final authority as to religious faith and practice is the believer, and the phenomenological approach has led to a greater respect for. and attention to the religious believer. The ultimate aim of the study is to enable young people to appreciate the religious life from the point of view of the believer, to have empathy towards the religious consciousness of others.(8)

The phenomenological approach, for all of its success in establishing an objective I social science approach to the teaching of the subject, is unable to take account of I one fundamental feature of religion itself. This has to do with the connection between religion and false consciousness, or the intrinsic ambiguity of religion. If the consciousness of the believer is to be taken as the ultimate norm and authority for religion, it must be assumed that believers know themselves and their religion in an unambiguous manner. In other words, the phenomenological approach does not permit an understanding of the role of deception in religion. There seems to be no place for what might be called a ‘pedagogy of deceipt’. If we consider the ambiguity, the false consciousness and the self-deception which are such prominent features of religion in our time, then a religious education which fails to grapple with those aspects of religion cannot be completely adequate. The phenomenological approach is an important strand in religious education and should be strengthened. But I also wish to see it employed with other approaches so as to overcome its limitations.

In the personalist and existentialist approach, religious education offers itself as a contribution to the young person's quest for meaning in life. This is the religious education which deals with ultimate problems, with mystery and awareness, that which seeks to provoke an enquiry into values and commitments in living. This is another important strand in the British tradition of religious education.(9, 10)

Although it is as important and necessary to the religious education process as the phenomenological method, the personal existential approach has its limitations. In its attempt to enable young people or adults to discover meaning and purpose in their lives, the personal/existential approach tends to become excessively individualistic. It fails to place the quest for meaning within the structural institutional context of modernity. At its worst, the personal/existential approach tends to be expressed in a series of bourgeois asthetic values: kindness to others, doing good deeds and obeying the laws are typical features; while questioning, clear thinking and responsibility place emphasis upon the autonomous citizen. One seldom finds study of justice in the economic order or of the prophetic tradition of social reform, and religious education which does not equip young people to grapple with the great questions of justice in our time is surely deficient. Perhaps this can be a weakness of an approach which concentrates too exclusively on the personal, individual quest for meaning in life.(11)

It is possible to make too much of the so-called problem of the meaning of life. The problem about life is not its meaning but its pain. The question about the meaning of faith in God is seen in a different perspective when God is committed ,to the enterprise of justice on behalf of the poor and the marginalised of this world. In that context faith in God becomes real.(12) Take faith in God out of that context and no amount of questing will bring meaning back to a life founded on injustice.

As we examine the nature of religion under the conditions of modernity in Western If societies today, one outstanding fact emerges: the essential ambiguity of religion. n How can it be that religion is associated both with some of the most exploitative :f aspects of our capitalist tradition and also with those who seek, on behalf of the y oppressed, to discover justice and peace? Religion has this two-edged quality. It can n be spoken of in personal as well as social terms. Religion functions in people's s lives very much the way that sexuality does. It is the source of some of our greatest e joys and of our deepest ills. Religion can operate parasitically upon people's lives, leading to regressive forms of fetish-like infantile faith; it can also function as a source of strength, courage and creativity.

Amongst our religious friends we recognise both kinds, those whose personalities appear to be fettered and made infantile by faith, and those whose personalities appear to have grown stronger and more creative through faith. Religion acts as a parasite; it also acts as a launching pad. This ambiguous character of religion, so central to the way it functions in life and society, is something which religious education must take on board.(13)

Let us return in the light of these distinctions to the present controversies. On 18 March 1991 the Secretary of State issued a letter to chief education officers, which was reported in the press on 21 March. In this letter Kenneth Clarke transmitted legal advice which he had received about the interpretation of Section 8.3 of the 1988 Education Reform Act. This Section states that any new agreed syllabus must reflect the fact that the principal religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain. The legal opinion is fair and balanced emphasising that any agreed syllabus must be specific about the character of the Christian traditions which are to be taught and must be equally specific about the teaching and practices of the other major religions represented in Great Britain. No agreed syllabus, the legal advice says, can be exclusively based on the Christian faith. No syllabus can be legal if any principal religious tradition is omitted. This establishes more firmly that world religion syllabuses are now legally required in this country. The letter also points out that religious education is not to urge any particular religious belief or commitment upon pupils. Decisions about the balance of content are to remain at the local level and will be determined by local as well as national circumstances.

Comparison between what the letter says and what the press reported reveals a striking contrast The headlines said Clarke ‘urges emphasis on Christian education’ and ‘schools told to focus on Bible’. These descriptions do not correctly represent the Secretary of State’s letter. It is no more true that Christianity is to be emphasised than that the teaching and practices of other world religions are to be emphasised. On 4 April 1991 The Times and other newspapers reported that the Secretary of State had advised the London Borough of Ealing that its agreed syllabus was unlikely to meet the requirements of the Act. This, however, was because the syllabus is vague. Any new syllabus must be more specific, both in what it says about Christianity and in what it says about world religions. There is no criticism in the Government's letter of the spirit or the balance of the Ealing syllabus; its approach must simply be spelled out in greater detail. To represent the letter as if Ealing was being rebuked because it wasn’t Christian enough is to ignore the facts. It is hard to resist the view that a fair and balanced legal interpretation of the Act is being thrown off balance by the influence of a small group of Christians ,.. who do not accept the nature of religious education as I. have described it.(14,8) Their emphasis upon Christianity at the expense of other religious traditions may force the subject into a position where its role in the creation of understanding and harmony between people of all communities will be undermined.


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