Religious education may disappear altogether as a subject if it does not come to terms with the rise of non-religion. This is despite its position as the only subject in the curriculum protected by law.
A report from the think tank Theos in October concluded: “The public think RE is an unimportant relic. Pupils do not enjoy it as much as most other subjects, and secondary school students are withdrawing from taking exams in it. The stark reality is that some radical rethinking is necessary if the subject is to survive at all.”
About 70 per cent of the pupils over 15 now identify as non-religious, and the percentage may well be higher in the lower age groups, according to Dr Lois Lee of the University of Kent.
Is the answer to switch the focus of the subject from religion to “worldviews”?
It is not as if the problems that religions are concerned with have disappeared along with the organisations that used to deal with them. “World religions have made the space for a study of existential and ethical cultural issues. The religious language doesn’t work any more, but the issues are still there,” Dr Lee says.
But at a virtual seminar on the problem, organised by Kent University, there was general agreement that the way religion was taught at the moment was a hindrance to understanding the problem. For the past 40 years or so, while organised Christianity has been moving to the periphery of public life, the model for religious education has been the study of many different kinds of world religions.
Pupils are taught what Muslims, or Sikhs, or Jews, believe, as well as Christians, but are given little help to reflect what they themselves might believe if they belonged to the great vaguely humanist majority.
Ruth Wareham of Humanists UK pointed out that there were still education authorities that resisted the presence of organised humanism on the syllabus. But it was taught, when it was, as another belief system, set alongside other religious belief systems.
Dr Lee said research had shown that people inside a non-religious world view were not organised, and had no centre. In fact, a sense of being outside a community was one of the things they tended to have in common, she said. But they had cultural markers in common: scientists like Charles Darwin, authors such as Terry Pratchett. Their views were shared through friendship groups, rather than through anything more formal.
But the same, she said, was increasingly true of religious believers. “Those with traditional religious beliefs increasingly develop their world views in contact with but outside of the institutional background.”
All this is missed in the conventional treatment of RE, which treats it as the study of competing theologies. Professor Trevor Cooling, the convenor of the seminar, and the lead author of the Theos report, said RE as a subject would shrivel and die if it were not somehow to be reconnected with the lived experience of pupils. That had very little to do with any organised orthodoxies, he said.
“If it’s not made relevant to the people who are in the classroom then there are going to be problems justifying the existence of the subject,” he said.
In a wider perspective, there is a general agreement that our society is more fragmented and polarised than it has been in living memory. Public disputes are increasingly marked by a profound disagreement over what counts as facts, and what counts as authority.
Whether it is Brexit, vaccination, or the rise of Trump in the US, the two sides cannot even agree on what it is they disagree over. Such disputes are “religious” in the disparaging sense of the world, in that they cannot be solved by the application of logic and rationality.
But they are also religious in the descriptive sense: they are they kind of problems that religious traditions have evolved to deal with. And the less we understand those traditions, and even the humanism that has largely supplanted them in the West, the more powerless we will be in the face of the vast incomprehensions and anxieties that threaten all our societies.