Its Time To Scrap Religious Education

It seems that Michael Gove’s ministerial postbag is getting more and more interesting by the day:

Teaching unions, educationists, religious bodies and the British Humanist Association (BHA) have issued a joint call to the government to end compulsory worship in schools.

The appeal has been made to the Secretary of State for Education the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP and reported in the Times Educational Supplement and teaching news sources.

Scrapping compulsory collective worship in schools would certainly be a step in the right direction, but why stop there?

Why should we not go the whole hog and get rid of compulsory religious education as well?

At least part of the case for dispensing with compulsory religious education is well made in Ofsted’s most recent thematic report, ‘Transforming Religious Education‘:

110. In reviewing the overall findings about the quality of RE in schools, it is evident that there is uncertainty among many teachers of RE about what they are trying to achieve in the subject. The uncertainties are related to:

– the core purpose of the subject
– how attainment is defined
– the way pupils’ progress is defined
– how key concepts and questions can be used in RE
– how to secure continuity and progression in the RE curriculum
– the way to structure and define a clear process of learning in RE
– the approach to teaching about Christianity
– ways of balancing the need to foster respect for pupils’ religions and beliefs within open, critical, investigative learning in RE
– the place of teaching about humanism and non-religious beliefs.

Seriously, many RE teachers do not, in Ofsted’s estimation, have a clear idea of the core purpose of the subject they’re teaching, let alone how to define and measure pupils’ progress and attainment.

That might seem an astonishing observation, if taken in isolation, but its one that is much easier to understand when its placed into its proper context and viewed against some of the challenges for RE teaching that Ofsted identified in its previous report, ‘Making Sense of Religion‘:

– RE cannot ignore diversity within each religion, teaching about a religion as though it were a monolithic set of beliefs and practices. Each religious tradition encompasses variety, and individuals and groups within it will interpret their faith in very different ways.

– RE cannot ignore controversy. We should dispense with the notion that we should encourage pupils to think uncritically of religion as a ‘good thing’. Religion is complex and its impact is ambiguous. Pupils are aware of this ambiguity and must be given the opportunity to explore the issues openly.

– RE cannot ignore the social reality of religion. Most of the issues in the RE curriculum for secondary pupils have been about ethical or philosophical matters, such as arguments about the existence of God, or debates, from a religious perspective, about medical ethics or the environment. It has been unusual to find questions about religion’s role in society, changing patterns of religion in the local community, or the rise and decline of religious practice. It now needs to embrace the study of religion and society.

Little wonder, then that RE teachers and, perhaps more so, the clerically-dominated local committees (SACREs) that are responsible for setting the RE curriculum for notionally secular schools in their area are getting mightily confused. Ofsted are asking, if not demanding, that critical thinking should be introduced into subject that, in reality, has only ever been intended to smuggle religious instruction and indoctrination into non-religious schools via the back door – and as recently as the 1960′s religious education was conducted under the name ‘religious instruction’ in most secondary modern schools.

The shambolic state of religious education is, of itself, reason enough to divest it of its privileged position in state education but of far greater concern, to my mind, is the knock-on effect that RE’s privileged status has on other subjects.

It is, for example, nothing short of a national scandal to find that leading academics, including three Nobel laureates, are having to campaign for the inclusion of the teaching of evolution in the National Curriculum, particularly at primary level. If nothing else, the omission of evolution from the primary curriculum makes an absolute mockery of David Willetts’ assertion that:

“The two best ways of getting young people into science are space and dinosaurs. So that’s what I intend to focus on.”

Any focus on science is to be welcomed, of course, but to attempt to engage the interest of children via paleontology without placing the fossil record in its proper evolutionary context is at best utter nonsense and at worst the kind of dangerous nonsense that creates a gap in the curriculum in which the kind of idiotic painting of Adam riding a dinosaur favoured by Young Earth Creationist and other professional Liars for Jeebus/Allah can readily fester.

It is, also, not just science that suffers for the sake of protecting religion and religious education from critical inquiry.

Britain has rich, varied and highly influential tradition of philosophical and political thought of which the vast majority of state-school pupils remain utterly ignorant by the time they complete their education at the age of 16-18. It is not only possible but absolutely the norm for British children to complete between 11 and 13 years of education without once encountering, even in passing, the likes of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, John Rawls or Isaiah Berlin. An entire field of British thought and culture, one that has easily left as much of an indelible mark on Western civilisation and culture as the Ancient Greeks (Plato, Aristotle) and the French Philosophés of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau) and yet it is nowhere to be found in our own national curriculum other than as an option in post-16 education.

Maybe there’s more than a bit intellectual snobbery and elitism at work here – “Philosophy? Ah, yes, but that’s tricky stuff and not really for the consumption of the masses” – but I think its no coincidence at all that many of thinkers I’ve listed above have either mounted direct and, in some cases, devastating criticisms of religion and religious belief or have, at least, introduced and expounded ideas that challenge the received wisdom of othodox religious doctrine and dogma and, more often than not, find it seriously lacking in coherence and credibility.

At the very least, if secondary pupils can be expected to tackle complex “arguments about the existence of God, or debates, from a religious perspective, about medical ethics or the environment” then they can surely be expected to look at those same issues and arguments from a broader, and much more critically inclined, philosophical perspective.

To my mind, the best argument for scrapping RE is the fact that – at least at secondary level – we can readily replace it on the National Curriculum with something better, a broad-based ‘humanities’ course which encompasses philosophy, comparative religion and, yes, even theology – if we’re to make British philosophical thought a central plank of a new curriculum then the likes of Aquinas, More, Newman, Wesley and Wycliffe are no less deserving of inclusion than Hume, Paine or Bertrand Russell.

Who knows, a challenge of this kind might be precisely what ‘religious education’ needs to up its game and raise standards. An end to the culture of protection and a bit of competition in the open marketplace of ideas seems unlikely to do much for the quantity of believers leaving the state education system but it may help improve the ‘quality’ of those who do leave school with the religious beliefs intact.