Teaching religion: what makes people tick?

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With 70 per cent of people aged 15 to 24 identifying as “non-religious”, it is perhaps easy to see how a timetabled lesson in religious education fights for relevance.

But renamed “religion and world views”, the subject enables a pupil to understand themselves and their community, analyse the world surrounding them, with its multiplicity of world views and customs, and make choices for the way they lead their lives.

The “important and profound shift” in the way the subject is defined was the subject of the latest Religion Media Centre zoom briefing. Not indoctrination or instruction, religion and world views is simply about “what makes people tick?”

The approach was explained by Dr Kathryn Wright, chief executive of Culham St Gabriel Trust: “It’s more than a belief, which is often cerebral and a kind of outworking of a world view. Basically it’s what makes people tick and why they do what they do. It’s not diluting in any sense the study of religion. In fact it’s more important to study religious and non-religious world views and this is an organic change.”

She said the name change was much more than making the subject relevant: it was about helping pupils and the wider society understand the nature of religion.

The trust is organising a one-day virtual conference this weekend for teachers to explore the changing ideas in the field, by reviewing research and sharing best practice. This will include considering how religion and world views threads through other subject areas, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, and how joined-up education can help young people navigate the current crisis.

The new approach is much more than a timetabled subject for the 53 schools run by Oasis Community Learning, the multi-academy trust founded by the Rev Steve Chalke. Understanding the essential place of religion and world views lies at the core of its corporate life.

He told the briefing that religion, Christianity, atheism, humanism, communism were all world views and they were all connected with religion, even godless religion, because they were about living at peace with ourselves, maintaining positive and healthy relationships with others and making a positive contribution to society.

Everyone in the school community was led through these three principles at the start of the academic year, he said, and the whole curriculum was seen through that lens. Adults and children asked themselves questions about their own values and vision. Making this work in a school community involved setting out nine “habits”, for example “be joyful” and “be humble”.  Children from faith backgrounds considered this alongside their faith, others would pick up on human traits alone, he added. 

This debate on the definition of religion and how it is taught is also present in higher education. Dr Lois Lee, senior lecturer in the department of religious studies at the University of Kent, pointed to data suggesting that 70 per cent — “a huge number” — of 15 to 24s identify as having no religion.

The consequences of this for the study of religion were profound, she said: “You have to foresee one of two things: either the concept of religion becomes less and less interesting or becomes interesting to people only as something that other people do and it becomes thought of as exotic and perhaps weird and perhaps dangerous.”

She said there was a strong concern about the way religion was valued by students, whose experience of religion was often grounded in the classroom. It was to do with identity, with students asking whether the degree was valuable, and whether studying religious studies was the story that students wanted to tell about themselves, she said.

Dr Lee believed the shift towards “religion and world views” was crucial: aspects of human life for the non-religious were analogous to the religious.  She said it was “how people conceive of what life is”, which may be an intellectual pursuit or embodied in relationships, but it was always transcendent.

It was important, she felt, that an inclusive approach to the study of religion and world views had the effect of engaging pupils, helping them see they had a stake in the subject leading to personal development.

Dr Martha Shaw, an associate professor in education at London South Bank University, said the word “religion” in the title had an important presence, because it was a concept worthy of study in its own right, for example how it was understood in society and the media, around controversy, sexuality and political issues, the “lived reality” of religion.

Asked about the teaching of sacred texts, Steve Chalke said every child challenged the authority of everything, and it was the job of teachers to show how a text became sacred and how the moral debate continued afterwards. It is challenging when the teaching of religion or science challenges fundamentalist approaches and two world views collide. Throwing out religion or ignoring science was not beneficial, he said. It was about interpretation which would always lead to a different place.