There’s a big debate going on in Religious Education due to the ever shifting political sands our subject seems to be built on at the moment; but where is the rock our subject should be built on? What’s the actual purpose in schools? There are a few major camps…
The deeper study of the religions; the exploration of traditions looking at the way the culture and history of faith groups has interpreted teachings to change daily life for believers; or unpicking the messages in scripture to understand the messages behind the stories. It can even be the study of exegesis and the way the nuances in translation have changed our understanding of faith over the millennia. For those interested in religion as an academic pursuit we have a wealth of literature, historical documents and real world experiences to draw from in the study of RE. This is for many specialists the purest form of our subject.
Others see RE as an expression of critical thinking and unpicking the truths of the universe though philosophy. (Always good to remember that the literal translation is “love of knowledge.”)
The content is often merely a tool to explore the truths of life; looking at comparison, searching for the similarities and underpinning themes.
There’s also the purist value of constructing beautiful arguments and the intrinsic worth of thinking hard. These practitioners offer many valuable skills to those looking to develop their studies further in many fields.
How should we live? Some specialists despair at the movement to explore morality without the underpinning of religious teachings, but looking at how we should live our lives has real value to our students and to our society.
The messages in all major faiths are those of how to live our lives and generally (not in all cases) make society a better place. In many ways this is what RE should be about. The how is important but to make it RE and not just a lovely chat it must be explored in parallel to the why? The why being the religious teachings, scripture and underpinning tenets of the faiths we study.
In my (occasionally) humble opinion I think the best of RE offers a rich tapestry interweaving these first three themes. Perhaps that’s more preference than purpose if I’m honest with myself, this isn’t an easy issue to unpick.
Some feel that their duty is to convert others to their faith and this draws them into our profession (assuming if you’ve read this far you’re an RE teacher.) Although I appreciate that these individuals have a desire to save our eternal souls for whatever God they believe in the circumstances of our employment is that we are paid to teach; clergy are paid to preach.
In faith schools where there is a clear ethos and belief system in the school the line obviously blurs somewhat, sometimes creating a special culture and purpose within a faith learning community; at other times it reaches the national news and new government initiatives appear, which leads me neatly into…
Although I don’t support the philososophy of those who jump on every political Trojan Horse which could buy our subject a little time before what some percieve as our inevitable demise; from British Values to SMSC there’s a lot of ways to convince people that RE is essential to these current agendas.
David Ashton laments the politicising of RE here. (An excellent RE blogger I recommend to all those with an interest in RE.) David raises some serious concerns about the purpose of RE that worry many specialists; the interesting alternative to consider is the relationship between politics and the pulpit for so many years and the fact that religion itself has always been influenced by politics due to the nature of power and attempts to control the culture of the masses.
In terms of skill set we also need to consider who is best prepared to explore difficult, controversial, sensitive and emotional material. I would argue that RE teachers are ideally suited whether many like that fact or not.
So what is it good for?
You know my thoughts but I’d love to hear your ideas. I feel this is one of the biggest themes for discussion as specialists in RE and something we should be reflecting on as it directly impacts our classroom practice.
If you have a blog on this please feel free to link it in the comments.