The liberation of Religious Education in secondary schools

This essay forms part of the part-time PGCE course I am studying towards this year. The purpose of this particular task was to encourage teachers to consider the contribution their subject has upon the development of pupils. Upon reflection I realised that RE has a great deal to offer students, but only when studied in the correct form. In this essay I draw out the differences between comparative religion and theology as academic endeavours. I then go on to question the value of a programme of study based upon the former, claiming that it is when a secondary student studies the latter that there is greatest scope for development. The essay required that I consider the ‘social, cultural, intellectual, spiritual and moral development of pupils’. Whilst each of these aspects of development are of course heavily interrelated, for the sake of clarity I will, as far as possible, consider each of them in isolation. It is also important to mention that each of the sub-headings in this essay are potentially fruitful areas of study for a MEd. As such, this piece is intended to give an overview, rather than stand up to the inevitable analytic scrutiny of Oriel Theologians. That being said, I hope you enjoy my thoughts regarding the value of theology at grassroots level. As always, comments and feedback is encouraged!

Section 1: The contribution to the social and cultural development of pupils

When considering the contribution of religious education to the social and cultural development of pupils, it is easy to see the important role the subject can play in the modern world. With the rise of Islamism has come a reaction not only against mainstream Islam, but also against the very concept of a religion. Comprehensive media coverage of the atrocities committed in the name of religion has made the communal psyche wary both of religion and the apocalyptic and eschatological nature of a number of the religious claims made. Such misconceptions are exacerbated by the perpetual chirping of the militant atheism movement, epitomised, arguably, by Richard Dawkins, who in his pseudo-academic publication ‘The God Delusion’ claims that ‘Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.’  However, a society controlled and shaped by a fear of the beliefs of others is weakened and compromised.  Freedom of expression, tolerance and above all understanding are the cornerstones of a pluralistic society. Thus, it falls to the RE teacher to not only convey the central tenets of religions to pupils, but also to translate the key ideas into the conceptual language of the students, not just providing knowledge, but aiding understanding.

In order to achieve such a goal, I strongly believe that it is important not to undersell the subject. A broad, vague subject based upon comparative religion is of little or no use to the social and cultural development of pupils. In The Westhill Project: Religious Education as Maturing Pupils’ Patterns of Belief and Behaviour, Rudge puts forward a strong case for the rejection of such a programme of study. On encountering such a programme he commented that: ‘It was a religious education of facts, founders, festivals, and frilly bits, which did justice neither to the great religious traditions it purported to represent, nor to the needs of pupils growing up in a rapidly changing world dominated by secularist, materialist and pluralist norms.’ Such an approach risks making religious studies descriptive, with all inquiry being formulated around what certain groups do, and what it is they believe. This approach is widely associated with the study of comparative religion, and as such all subsequent references to ‘comparative religion’ will refer to Rudge’s description. Instead the question to be pursued is why do certain religious groups believe what they believe, and do what they do. Whilst I may seem to be stating the obvious, one need only look at the common entrance examination in RE to identify such an issue in the subject. The entrance paper for many independent schools is little more than a test of memory. Students are required to recount Biblical stories, describing and explaining key moments. Analysis and evaluation are left at the door of the exam hall.

How then does one avoid under-selling the subject? The key lies in teaching theology rather than teaching comparative religion. As Trevor Cooling points out in his account of The Stapleford Project (a project charged with producing a range of materials to support teaching about Christianity in school religious education), in order to establish genuine understanding and excellence in learning, one must go ‘to the heart of a subject, rather than continually scratching at the surface…’. He continues, pointing out ‘the importance of identifying the key concepts that are central to religious education, rather than planning a curriculum solely around the information that was to be learnt’. Without ever fully understanding the key beliefs of a particular religion, a pupil can never be expected to harbour anything more than a passive acceptance of an alien religion. Such passive acceptance is quickly exhausted in the face of the aforementioned media scaremongering, meaning that as educators we must support pupils in developing insight from within.  I am not suggesting as extreme a claim that students should be taught exclusively by members of a particular faith, but instead that they be taught the theology or philosophy which underlies a faith. Let us consider the Christian doctrine of resurrection as an example. As a belief considered in isolation it holds little credibility. It conflicts with everything a pupil has learnt not only in their other studies, but throughout their young lives; people do not come back from the dead. As such, you could forgive a student for holding such a belief to be ‘stupid’, or any other adjective expressing their disinterested condemnation of the concept. However, when the doctrine of the resurrection is taught in light of consideration of human nature, hamartiology, and our existential futility, it becomes clear why somebody might hold that particular belief. That is not to say that a pupil should, or even could personally hold such a belief, but instead that they will be able to intellectually sympathise with it. They will have a level of understanding of the concept from within.

Although largely discredited in modern pedagogical discussion, it does remain important to reject the findings of Goldman (1964, 1965). His claim, influential amongst his contemporaries, that children were unable to handle abstract religious and philosophical concepts until later in their teens, was disastrous for the subject. His work encouraged teachers to set descriptive work, viewing the authentic content of religions as beyond the grasp of pupils. However, it is not a case of a student being ready or unready, but rather of codifying said beliefs in language the pupils can engage with. ‘In other words, it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that any concept tackled is presented in a way that is age or stage appropriate so that it will make sense in that child’s world of experience’. The onus is thus upon the teachers not only to have an adequate grasp of the theology themselves, but also to be able to differentiate and simplify said concepts. This claim is echoed by Gilbert in: ‘Why Do I Need a teacher When I’ve got Google’. When answering the question which makes up the title of his book, Gilbert can answer the question succinctly- ‘Well, if you’re rubbish, I don’t’. However, a good teacher humanises the classroom, and makes the wealth of material on the internet accessible to students. If a year nine student were to google the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, he would most likely be directed to New Advent- the Roman Catholic Encyclopaedia. Yet on such websites the pupil would no doubt become lost in the technical Aristotelian talk of ‘substance’ and ‘accidents’. This is a prime example of where the teacher can bridge the gap, converting and translating the concept and complex doctrine into terms and language the pupil can understand and engage with.

Thus, religious studies can be of most use to the cultural and social development of a student when it is studied as theology, rather than as comparative religion. Only through engagement with the theology of a religion one can gain insight into why certain people believe what they believe, and without this understanding, our pluralistic society is at risk of coping with atrocities performed by a minority under the banner of religion. Such understanding would allow pupils both to understand why the individuals responsible for such crimes are compelled to commit them, but also why they do not reflect other core tenets of the faiths in question.

Section 2: The contribution to the spiritual development of pupils

When considering the impact of the study of religion upon the spiritual development of pupils, it is important to reiterate points already made regarding the study of theology rather than comparative religion. Rather than recycle arguments which have already been used, it will suffice to say that it is only genuine engagement with the central ideas of different religions from within that will allow genuine spiritual engagement. Simply put, it is the ideas and concepts underlying religion with which people engage spiritually, rather than with a description of religious practise.

However, when seeking to encourage the spiritual development of pupils through the teaching of religion, is there a risk that it becomes confessional? Once again, here the onus is upon the teacher to ensure that the concepts are transmitted accurately, without attempting to gain the approval or acceptance of these beliefs from the students. The educator must not abuse his or her position of responsibility, and from personal experience, I have found pupils all the more willing to engage with material when they trust that their teacher has no covert agenda.

It is also important to emphasise that theology and doctrinal teaching are neither catechetical nor static.  It is not simply a case that the study of theology is of a ‘rote form of learning’ (Cooling) where the repeating of technical terms encrypted in tradition accounts for the attainment of an educational goal. This is particularly true when studying the Bible. Rather than viewing the process as one of gathering information and acquiring knowledge, there should be interaction between the text and the student. What does the text bring to understanding the life of the student, and what does the experience and historical context of the student bring to understanding the text? As Cooling points out- ‘Living in the light of a story is a creative process and demands the development of interpretative skills. Repeating statements is not enough’. This is not to say that one allows students to use eisegetical methods to indiscriminately savage received tradition, but instead to say that the process should be one of active interaction, rather than passive absorption. Such heightened levels of involvement in the study of religion provides a platform for the spiritual development of the pupils involved.

Section 3: The contribution to the intellectual development of pupils

Many assume that the studying of theology risks impinging upon the intellectual autonomy of the students studying. There is an argument to be made that when one teaches theology rather than comparative religion, and teaches said religions from within, that one is ‘schooling’ rather than ‘educating’. This is to say that if one is having to translate complicated concepts for students, to what extent do they simply end up thinking your thoughts? Ian Gilbert highlights this issue- ‘How much of what goes on in schools is the development of children’s own thinking- ‘education’- and how much of it is training them to think our thoughts- the ‘schooling’ that John Taylor Gatto refers to…’. How much truth is there in such a claim? Can the teaching of theology be accused of being prescriptive and of contravening a pupil’s autonomy?

When seeking to answer such a question I need look no further than the Theory of Knowledge (ToK) course taught by my department as part of the IB Diploma. The ToK course can be seen as an accessible form of epistemology (although to teach ToK as epistemology is a methodological mistake, something which is a discussion for another essay), and epitomises the critical approach students are encouraged to take in the subject. ToK encourages students to take a step back from their studies, and rather than considering each of their subjects as an inwards-facing quest for knowledge within a particular sphere, to instead analyse their knowledge as a whole, putting emphasis upon the forms it takes and the ways in which we acquire it. By critically looking beyond claims made by particular subjects, and focusing instead upon the sources and forms of knowledge which said claims are comprised of, the autonomy of students is not violated, but instead nurtured and encouraged.

It is neither an accident nor timetabling coincidence that ToK is taught largely by the RS department. This is because a similar methodology exists when teaching theology, one which attempts to foster independent and critically reflective thinkers; the focus not solely about content, but also about one’s approach. In critically evaluating fundamental religious claims and questions for themselves, the student is empowered and made sovereign over their own beliefs. Here I think that Emile Lester’s thoughts on autonomy in religious education are particularly apt. He claims that ‘A religious education for autonomy and tolerance must promote the student’s critical independence…It should not toss students headfirst into an ocean of religious belief with only their reason as a raft, but it must require students to get their feet wet.’ We equip a student with the ability to see through generalisation, presumption, and fallacy. When these analytical tools are applied to the carefully selected core themes of different religions, we begin to develop students who are both tolerant and reflective. It is also important to point out that in providing students with such tools, it is not the case that we are inevitability cultivating scepticism. As Lester points out, a religious believer who has held his belief up to critical scrutiny, and as such holds his belief ‘autonomously and reflectively’, will have strengthened his faith. These are not simply the tools of the philosopher, but instead the tools of reflective man.

Section 4: The contribution to the moral development of pupils

It is not difficult to see the moral value of studying religion to a pupil. Should one examine the syllabuses studied by most schools, one is likely to find an ethics paper of some form. The majority of these syllabuses rely heavily upon applied ethics, and as such inherently avoid the risk of becoming overly descriptive. Where fact and content is relayed, it is with the super-objective of enabling students to apply said content during the evaluative process of application. I would argue that studying such courses has a positive impact upon the moral development of pupils in two ways; firstly forcing students to critically consider contemporary moral issues, and secondly that such study provides a framework with which students can evaluate all of their actions.

The appeal of many religious studies syllabuses is that they balance the highly conceptual study of courses such as philosophy of religion, in which students consider questions which have troubled man for centuries, with the study of ethics, a course which allows students a genuine feeling of ownership. What I mean by the term ‘ownership’ is that they are encouraged to come to their own opinion, and should they justify and back up their claims, they are entitled to take a different stance to every other student in the class. In my experience students find such ownership both motivating and empowering, particularly in a system with increasingly prescriptive exam courses. Students are encouraged to work out what they think in relation to contemporary issues such as three-person babies, melting polar ice-caps, or the conflict in Syria. Time spent scouring the BBC news homepage is not a form of procrastination, but instead is time wisely spent. Such a process encourages the development of a generation aware of current affairs and issues, and one able to offer a justified ethical stance on said issues.

As aforementioned it is also vitally important that the study of ethics provides students with competing frameworks with which to judge ethical situations. For example, pupils can choose between adopting a teleological, consequence-orientated approach, and a deontological, and duty based approach. They can either choose to see morality as objective, or as entirely relative, and that is without considering the countless shades of grey which exist in-between. Such frameworks give students a lens through which to understand and judge the world they live in. Rather than passively stumbling through life, they are critically engaged with it. Whilst I do not think the system encourages students to adopt a particular moral stance, it avoids releasing students into society who are plagued by indifference. Students may not have come to conclusive answers, nor is it likely that their opinion upon leaving school will remain unchanged. However, in creating students engaged with morality and asking the right questions, the subject does much l towards creating balanced students, but also balanced individuals.


What then have we learnt about the potential impact of religious education upon the holistic development of pupils? As an educator I feel privileged to teach a subject with so much scope for impact upon the lives of students. We have the opportunity to release into society balanced, critically reflective, morally aware, and tolerant human beings. Nonetheless the subject’s potential impact is only unlocked when the subject is liberated from the misconception that the study of religion should take the form of comparative religious studies rather than theology. Engagement is only achieved when students confront and engross themselves in the question ‘why?’. Emphasis must be upon this question and the implications the resulting answers hold, rather than the passive asking the question ‘what?’.  Without engaging with religions from within, students will always view them from without, something which I believe will have telling implications for society. Theology is not synonymous with catechism, nor is it necessarily confessional, instead it is genuine engagement which leads to authentic understanding.


2 thoughts on “The liberation of Religious Education in secondary schools

  1. Agreed with Brendan: does an excellent job of stating that it’s important to teach the core concepts which underpin religious thought, without assuming (as I think I’ve seen happen) that all religions/iterations of the same religion rely on the same core concepts.

    On another note, this is damn good for the PGCE! Hope you’re enjoying the course!


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