By Ruth Peacock
The study of religion is going through a fundamental rethink in schools and universities in Britain.
Courses in biblical studies and examination of single religious traditions are making way for “worldviews”, exploring the way people make meaning in their lives.
In 2018, Damian Hinds, who was then education secretary, rejected a proposal “at this time” to rename religious education (RE) “religion and worldviews”, amid concerns that it would dilute RE teaching.
The Commission on Religious Education had argued that “religion and worldviews” would offer pupils an academically rigorous study of how all human beings make sense of their lives using religious and non-religious worldviews.
But the rejection did not stop the debate nor the passion for change in schools and now at least one university, Durham, has adopted the approach in teaching students at degree level.
The move in Durham is directed by Professor Douglas Davies, who is so convinced at the importance of the change that he has written a book to help academics and school teachers think through how to teach worldviews.
He told a Religion Media Centre online briefing that students often turn up at university expecting a tour of world religions, to learn about the doctrines and practices of major faiths.
Instead, he said, they are offered a toolkit to help understand how behaviour often described as religious or spiritual shares underpinning ideas and themes. It is “essentially an exploration of meaning making”.
His book, Worldview Religious Studies, organises these underlying ideas into 10 categories: for example, the scientific worldview, the ancestral worldview and the mystical worldview. Each view enables a sense of depth in life and each is expressed in society across the religious and secular spectrum.
For example, making gifts, singing at football matches, the process of scientific inquiry or personal identity rooted in a nation state, can be understood by identifying the underpinning worldviews and then seeing comparisons.
He said the approach sought to overcome the distinction between religious and secular challenges, although he has observed one difference. In their worldviews, traditional religions have an idea of destiny.
“The destiny factor can either be afterlife, in paradise, in heaven, or in transmigration, for example, or the destiny can be in seeing your descendants,” he said. Secularisation shrank the destiny factor.
Professor Davies shared the vision of the RE teachers and education professionals campaigning for a worldviews approach in schools, that the outcome was a greater appreciation of diversity, personal identity and cultural awareness, “a sense of being in the world with others”.
Dr Kathryn Wright, chief executive of Culham St Gabriel’s Trust — which advocates an education in religion and worldviews — told the briefing that a recent survey suggested more than two-thirds of the public thought that having an understanding of the diversity of worldviews was particularly important.
RE syllabuses are set by local authorities and some academy trusts. They are meant to develop knowledge and understanding of religious and non-religious traditions, including their diversity and impact on individuals, communities and society, but the curriculum now followed is hugely variable and can be very inconsistent.
Dr Wright said it was particularly significant that recent changes to exam syllabuses meant students now reviewed the diversity found within faith traditions. From a young age, it was important to teach children that there is not one particular set way of thinking, particularly within organised religions.
Deborah Weston, who chairs the policy unit for the Religious Education Council and NATRE, said businesses had taken an interest in this new approach, as young people today prepared for work on the global stage. But policymakers had indicated they did not think the public cared about religious education any more as it was not relevant, despite 85 per cent of the world’s population being affiliated to a religion.
For Dr Tim Hutchings, from Nottingham University, there remained an issue to align the approach in universities and schools. If worldviews took off in schools, universities must move at the same pace and this would be the new frontier on which universities would compete.
Professor Davies had a word of advice for the media: when covering a story about religion, delve deeper: “The vox pop — that can both be the blessing and the curse of journalism,” he said. Instead, he advised journalists to see knowledge and religion as an iceberg. The opinions and practices of religious leaders “are above the sea, and you don’t see the seven-eighths below. I can see that it’s a constant problem for journalism.”
View the briefing on our YouTube channel here