Religious Education is taught by law in all state schools in the United Kingdom. What should it be teaching? Should it be taught at all? This has been the subject of much debate during the last few decades. Older people are likely to remember being taught “Scripture” or “Religious Instruction”, the clear aim of which was to help children to become good Christians. During the sixties and seventies, religions other than Christianity began to be taught alongside in many state schools and the subject became “Religious Education”. In response to an increasingly secular society where only a minority were churchgoers, various experiments began to try to make religious education more relevant to children’s own diverse backgrounds and experience. This produced a backlash in the eighties, when the Conservative government tried to make sure that Christianity had pride of place (even though other religions should also be taught) in the 1988 Education Act.
On the surface, the debate about religious education may appear to be based on a dispute between Christian and non-Christian interests struggling for influence in education. In fact, it’s a philosophical dispute rather than one about faith, and I shall argue that it can only be resolved philosophically. However, before doing this it’s necessary to clarify what the competing philosophical positions are.
The competing philosophies of Religious education
This is the traditional view and the one which still holds sway in Roman Catholic Schools. According to confessionalism, the aim of religious education is to instruct children in a particular set of religious beliefs. Confessionalists argue that you can’t understand any religion properly except from within its beliefs, and children must accept the beliefs first in order to understand the values.
Confessionalism rests on a Foundationalist view of knowledge and an Absolutist view of ethics. There are some truths which are absolutely certain, known in this case through revelation from God via an authoritative scripture or person. Once you accept these truths then you can work out other things which are true or false, right or wrong on the basis of them. Other views are only taught in order to show they are wrong.
The obvious problem with confessionalism is that we may not share its fundamental religious beliefs, or agree that any given source of revelation is authoritative. Confessionalism lost its grip on state schools during the sixties because many people no longer accepted Christian belief as true, and there were also increasing numbers of people of other religions in the U.K.
One response to the shortcomings of confessionalism is to conclude that religious education should not be taught at all in state schools. This is the governmental policy in secular states such as the U.S. Religion is seen as a private matter, and parents who want religious education for their children must arrange it privately. It is believed that to bring it into state schools is only a recipe for conflict.
Secularism in fact shares the fundamental assumption of confessionalism: that you can only teach religion in a context where everyone shares the same beliefs. If people have differing religious beliefs, these are completely irreconcilable so must be kept out of state education.
However, secularism raises further difficulties. Is it not very divisive to keep religion completely in the private sphere? Children are not brought up to discuss and understand their religious differences, so religious beliefs are less likely to become amenable to reason. A secularist policy could provide a breeding-ground for fundamentalism and intolerance between divided groups within society, as it seems to have done in the United States.
In Britain a third way has been taken which is neither confessionalist nor secularist, which can loosely be called “Non-confessionalism”. Religious education is taught in state schools, and is seen as important in helping children understand religion and gain a sense of values. However, several religions are taught and no one religion is presented as true. I will distinguish two sub-positions which represent the extremes of a spectrum of views within non-confessionalism : Instructional non-confessionalism (a term I have coined) and Experientialism.
Instructional non-confessionalism agrees with secularism, that in a society with no clearly shared religious beliefs a state school should not just promote one religious view. On the other hand, religion still needs to be taught in state schools so that children will have some understanding of religious points of view and be able to choose one of the available religions if they wish. The instructional non-confessionalist also agrees that you can only fully understand a religion by accepting its foundational beliefs. He/she solves this problem by arguing that religious education should instruct children about the different religious beliefs from a completely objective standpoint. Once they have understood enough facts about religions, it is argued, children will then be in a position to choose for themselves which religion to believe in or not believe in.
This approach raises a number of problems. Children learn best in all subjects through activity, but this philosophy of religious education effectively rules out any “religious” activity for fear that this will provide unfair publicity for one religious belief over the others. Only teaching about religion is likely to lead to a dry, impersonal kind of lesson. This approach also assumes that the teacher can be totally objective, which is an impossibility, given that the teacher will have his/her own background and way of understanding things, however sincerely he or she may try to be objective. The children will also enter the classroom with their own differing views and experiences: the “choice” that they make at the end, supposedly based on all the facts they have been given, is far more likely to be based on these influences. Simply given an array of facts about religions, why should a child come to value one rather than another? If the child gains any value out of this kind of teaching, it is more likely to be the assumption that there are no absolute values at all, and all religions are as good or bad as each other: the view known as relativism.
Experientialism is an alternative view at the other end of the non-confessionalist spectrum which developed during the eighties. The fundamental idea here is that religious education should build on and relate to a child’s experience. Rather than learning about religions on their own terms, children should learn what religion in general has to contribute to help them understand their own experience. Experientialist religious education particularly makes use of practical exercises, such as, meditation, re-enacting religious rituals, drama, creating symbolic art etc.
The underlying philosophy of experientialism is radically different from that of the other three philosophies of religious education It does not assume that children cannot actively understand religion without adopting a set of beliefs first. It also treats “religion” as a whole rather than assuming that different “religions” are completely irreconcilable. It questions the foundationalist theory of knowledge of all the other theories and instead substitutes a constructivist one: the child actively constructs a picture of what he/she takes to be the truth in terms of beliefs and values, rather than receiving certainties from on high.
Although experientialists have presented their ideas in a way which is respectful of religious traditions, I think there is a fundamental philosophical conflict between experientialist constructivism and the epistemology of revelation. Theistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are strongly foundationalist, being based on revelations from God, and any attempt to select from their beliefs and practices and construct something new is bound to conflict with this.
Religion and Education
What all these different philosophies of religious education point to is a fundamental difficulty in reconciling what is normally taken to be “religion” with education. The goals of education are, broadly, to help people (particularly children) gain understanding of the world around them and gain skills and values which will help them to contribute positively to society. “Religion”, on the other hand, is commonly understood to have the goal of bringing people to certain sets of beliefs which they may then apply in the service of God’s will, the ultimate good.
My argument is that these two sets of goals, as stated, are simply irreconcilable. In order to avoid secularism and have a religious education with a positive part to play in society, one of these goals must change. It is not the widely-agreed goals of education which should change, but the goals of religion which must be seen differently, at least where religious education is concerned. I would argue that we need to see religion not primarily as beliefs, but as practices: to try out a practice such as moral behaviour or meditation you do not need any other beliefs than that the practice has value and a chance of working. Even those who do not ultimately see religion in these terms (including most Christians) need to adopt this view pragmatically in order to create an effective religious education
The problem in reconciling education with revelation is a logical one. Let’s suppose we have three different supposed revelations from God, which we’ll call a, b, and c. These revelations are based on different authorities which claim to be exclusive (e.g., different scriptures), so that even if they overlap in content you cannot accept one without rejecting the others. In education, then, there are two alternatives: (1) teach that one revelation, say a, is true while the others are false (Confessionalism), (2) Not teach anything, or teach the content of the revelations without any claim that any of them are true or false (secularism/instructional non-confessionalism) . Option 1 alienates anyone who believes in revelations b or c, or indeed anyone who does not believe a to be true. Option 2, however, teaches a fourth proposition d, namely that a, b and c are neither true nor false. Option 2, then, does not succeed in avoiding taking a view of the subject: instead it takes a relativist view.
Wisdom and Relativism
Relativism is a philosophical view which rejects all absolute truth-claims on the grounds that any truth-claim can be doubted. But, as I have noted, this position involves making another truth claim, so truth claims are impossible to avoid. In the case of religious education the truth of this objection to relativism can easily be seen in practice: a teacher in a classroom cannot avoid taking a position simply through the way in which he/she teaches. Whatever position he or she takes, pupils will be influenced by it as regards what they take to be true.
Not only is relativism logically contradictory in this way, but it is damaging for people to hold this view. Without clear values people do not adopt clear motives, so they tend to act confusedly, veering inconsistently between motives, following the crowd or taking refuge only in the satisfaction of their immediate desires. So relativism tends to be accompanied in modern society by nihilism and consumerism, a feeling of emptiness until we can get the next fix. If human happiness is of value, relativism works against it.
My argument is that most religious education, as practised in schools until relatively recently, has actually worked against its objective of helping to give children a sense of values. Confessionalism has created relativists because children have not believed what they have been taught and been alienated from the idea of truth as a result. Secularism has created relativism because it has left children ignorant even of the idea of a true belief tested by experience. Finally, instructional non-confessionalism has perhaps done the most to create relativism by teaching according to an implicit relativist view. This relativism is an indirect result of the power that theistic and revelatory views of religion have had over religious education
The alternative view is to see religion as wisdom, as experientialism does. This means that religious tradition is seen as a storehouse of the realisations which human beings have had about the truth, value, and transforming life positively. The contents of this storehouse are to be discovered and utilised for oneself. Hence, although some of the claims made by religious traditions may turn out to be true, we only discover them to be true (or false) by trying them out on a provisional basis.
This approach is not relativist because it does not rule out the possibility of truth – indeed it actively seeks it. It is fundamentally a Buddhist approach, but also in harmony with the ancient Greek approach to philosophy, where philosophy was seen as a way of life and not just an intellectual exercise. However, I put it forward here simply as a means to resolving the difficulties in finding a successful philosophy of religious education. If “Buddhism” or any other label applied to this view makes it into another belief to be prematurely accepted or rejected, then no further progress will have been made.