Monday, June 07, 2010

Studying the unknowable...

I was watching the BBC news yesterday morning whilst munching my cereal when a little story popped up about religious education. Ofsted (our schools watchdog) inspectors have determined that religious education in the UK is "inadequate"; according to a survey of students there seemed to be a great deal of confusion regarding the "purpose" of RE and uncertainty about what it was supposed to achieve.In my view Ofsted have reached the wrong conclusion, RE is not inadequate, but misguided.

Religious education should focus on discovering what different religions are about and what people use them for, but from a rational perspective. For example, an early attempt at science, ethics and philosophy, power and control, comfort, true, false, subversive, a force for evil, a force for good and so on. RE should not become "religious instruction" as some religious figures are suggesting it should and so it shouldn't have any specific bias toward Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other faith. It should be comparative and neutral, aiming to inform students about the historical and cultural dimensions of all the main religions and their evolutionary paths. The underlying ethos should be one of accuracy, tolerance and balance i.e. discussing the darker aspects of organised religion and not just selective relativist sophistry. Humanism and Atheism should also be thrown into the mix even though these world views are not religions per se, it is hard to see how a history and nature of religion can be contemplated fully in their absence.

If all this is too hard, as I suspect it will be because of the dogmatic nature of most religious viewpoints (i.e. consensus will be impossible), then the subject should be dropped altogether, cover religion as part of history and replace the one hour per week with a strictly secular (i.e. unbiased) exploration of morality and ethics.

Interestingly the BBC interview I saw featured a representative from the NSS (National Secular Society) who took the view that religion is in decline anyway therefore RE should become optional. Whilst the statistics were on his side I disagreed with his conclusions. I believe that comparative religion is an important (albeit intractable) subject. I would argue that it is difficult to understand where we are as a culture unless we understand something about how we got here. The presenter got slightly bent out of shape by the NSS line because he felt that RE was the only way children could be taught about morality and ethics; a stunning example of religious "indoctrination" and therefore a lack of religious "education" i.e. the reporter was simply aping the religious meme that religion and morality are somehow the same thing, clearly the educational value of RE for him as a child was as poor then as Ofsted say it is now!

Here's an idea, how about we only allow atheists to teach RE... :)


Chairman Bill said...

I'd treat it as part of a philosophy course.

Elizabeth said...

I agree with you, as usual!

Steve Borthwick said...

CB, it's certainly a sub-set of philosophy, perhaps "history of philosophy" as philosophy has moved on a lot in the last 2000 years.

E, great minds etc.. ;)

Lisa said...

I hate the idea of religion being taught under the guise of philosophy!

I have studied (amongst others) molecular bio and philosophy, and phil is much, much harder. The thinking is so much more rigorous than any science I have ever done (which is just life science at uni level).

But still, don't demean the rest of philosophy by linking it with religious instruction. I think it should fall under the rubric of sociological studies. Or maybe under creative writing. ;-)

Steve Borthwick said...

Lisa, true! religion is to philosophy what astrology is to astronomy or alchemy to chemistry etc. i.e. an early attempt at it.