Philip Barnes Westminsted address

28 March 2024

(This is the transcript of a talk delivered on Tuesday, 12th March in the Jubilee Room, Palace of Westminster, to a symposium on “What should high-quality religious education look like?)

In this short presentation, I interact with some of the main proposals of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales’ Commission on Religious Education’s Report.

Religious education and religious studies

It is understandable that religious educators should look to the field of religious studies for inspiration. Such a view makes eminent sense, for it is important in studying religions to takes account of their beliefs, values, practices, and distinctive forms of experience and of life. Interpreting the different religions and understanding the nature of religion is central to religious studies. There are religious educators, and the Commission on Religious Education reflects this position, however, who believe that a religious studies approach provides the exclusive model of study which religious education should emulate. In other words, and more pointedly, religious education in schools ought to become religious studies under a different name, let us call it religious studies ‘lite’.

Traditionally, the aims of religious education have extended beyond that of facilitating an understanding of religion to include contributing to the social and moral aims of education, that is, to help students to develop self-respect and a range of other virtues or values that enable them to make wise moral choices and to equip them to contribute positively to society. To these traditional aims we would now want to add: to prepare students to live amidst moral and religious complexity and diversity. These aims and aspirations are shared with families and communities. The natural and obvious place for religious educators to look to ‘re-moralise’ religious education is to the moral content of the different religions: each of the religions has a vision of the good both for the individual and for society; each of the religions has a historically evolving body of moral teaching; and each of the religions has made important responses to contemporary moral issues. There are different ways of conceptualising and incorporating this material into classroom teaching for the purpose of furthering liberal educational (social) aims, which I will not have time to articulate.

Religions and worldviews

One of the ‘signature’ ideas of the Commission on Religious Education is to reconceptualise religions as worldviews; this is believed to produce a level playing field between religious worldviews and secular worldviews—and behind it is the attempt to legitimise study of a range of secular non-religious beliefs into religious education. It is also meant to make religious education more interesting to pupils.  

What difference is there between representing religions as religions and representing them as worldviews? The study of worldviews, as commonly interpreted, is a highly-ramified, intellectual and abstract philosophical form of study. A worldview approach focuses on propositional beliefs about the nature of reality (metaphysics), the nature of knowledge and the method of attaining it (epistemology), and the nature of goodness and of a good life (ethics). The focus is on the intellectual character of beliefs and doctrines. What is omitted in a typical worldview representation of a religion is its history, the lives of founders and reformers, the narrative history of sacred events and experiences, and the institutions that regulate beliefs and behaviour; alongside this, there is also the ways in which a religion is expressed in life, through rituals, rites of passage, festivals and worship. Admittedly the study of (rival) worldviews has its place both in Christian apologetics and in religious studies, but its role in primary and secondary education must necessarily be controversial because it narrows our understandings of the nature of religion and of how religions can be represented to pupils. This narrowing (reduction) is appropriate in certain contexts but not in schools.

The question should be asked whether the representation of religions as worldviews in schools is faithful to the self-understanding of adherents. Do religious adherents primarily think of their religious commitment as commitment to a worldview? Let us take the example of Christianity. Christianity is about following Jesus and a Christian way of life. A presentation of Christianity, which takes account of its different aspects (and in early years education, particularly its narrative quality), that is co-ordinated to the developing and maturing mental and cognitive powers of pupils, offers educational potential at all levels of schooling for teaching that faithfully represents the nature of Christian life, while also engaging pupils. The same point can be made about other religions. Do Muslims think of Islam primarily as a worldview or do they think of Islam as a way of life modelled on the beliefs of the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad, who in their view is ‘the seal of the prophets’?

Personal worldview or a hermeneutical approach

Coordinated to the concept of worldview by the Commission on Religious Education Report is that of a personal worldview: “We use the term ‘personal worldview’ for an individual’s own way of understanding and living in the world.” A personal worldview ‘mak[es]sense of and giv[es] coherence and meaning to the world and to our own experience and behaviour.’ The issue is not whether everyone has beliefs, values, experiences and commitments, it is whether it is helpful to think of these collectively as a worldview. People can hold a range of beliefs and values, not always consistent with each other or consistent with some of their experiences or even with their professed self-identity. In other words, many people, religious and non-religious, and particularly young children who are pupils in schools, do not espouse a personal worldview, that is, they do not have a reflective philosophical view of the nature of reality of the kind that is accurately described as a worldview.

The Commission also speaks of young people “com[ing] to a more refined understanding of their own worldview” as one of the “core tasks of education” (2018: 8). What does refining your worldview mean and what does it achieve educationally? The question for educators is whether personal worldviews are worthy of serious and sustained study, as the Commission proposes. It is difficult to know what contribution to the aims of religious education and to the personal development of pupils is made by focusing on the study of frequently eclectic, unsystematic and unreflective beliefs of individual pupils. It may also be asked what conceptual means do Key Stage 1 and 2 pupils have for recognising and reflecting on their own personal worldviews, never mind the personal worldview of others.

Where one’s worldview does become relevant to religion education (and to education generally) is not as a subject in its own right (which is the view the Commission takes) but as ‘shorthand’ for the beliefs, values or presuppositions that one brings to the study of religions and religious phenomena and religious practices. One’s perspective on religions and religious phenomena is conditioned by what one already believes, i.e. the initial presuppositions that colour one’s interpretation of religion. Certainly, secondary level pupils should be directed to identify and to reflect upon the nature and character of the presuppositions and the beliefs, even prejudices, that they bring to the study of religion, not in order to ‘refine’ what they already believe, as the Commission Report recommends, but to recognise the ways in which their interpretations and encounters with religious phenomena and with religious individuals are conditioned; and hopefully in appreciating this to be more open to the challenges to the individual and to society that religions bring. The focus of religious education should be on religion and religions not on one’s (own) personal beliefs and worldview.

The non-religious and Humanism

Anyone familiar with the recent history of education in England and Wales will know that Humanism has come to occupy, through political representation and legal means, an important place in religious education.

A review of local agreed syllabus confirms just how prominent Humanism has become in religious education. It is prescribed for study in almost all agreed syllabuses. The same amount of time is typically devoted to its study as major religions; and in a few syllabuses, where choice is allowed, the study of Humanism may exceed that of Islam and that of Hinduism. The importance attached to Humanism, however, in classroom content, policy documents and in many agreed syllabuses, is problematic. It is inconsistent with its limited numerical strength: the latest census numbers the adherents of Humanism in England and Wales as 10,000, that is 10,000 out of a population of just over sixty million—16 people out of every 10,000. Furthermore, most pupils will never encounter a humanist throughout their school career. This is not just because of their small number, but because in any relevant empirical research available, no-one identifies as humanist below the age of nineteen. These observations raise concerns about equity, that is, about fairness and justice. Why should Humanism with 10,000-20,000 followers receive as much (and in a few cases more) coverage in agreed syllabuses and classrooms than Islam or Hinduism, which have four million and over one million adherents respectively? If one group in society is over-represented, it follows that other groups are under-represented.

If the number of humanists is small, the number of those that identified as non-religious is large and growing—22.2 million in the latest census, that is 37.2 per cent of the population in England. This is a group that is not represented or studied in religious education. Research shows that the non-religious or the ‘nones,’ contain a range of attitudes towards religion, many will be agnostic, some atheist: a recent survey in Britain indicates that 42 per cent of nones believe in some form of the supernatural, one in five believes in life after death (and so we could go on).

The Commission correctly identifies the relevance of the category of non-religion to religious education, and it identifies both atheism and agnosticism as appropriate for study. Atheism and agnosticism have much to offer educationally. Their study would introduce a critical element into religious education, which research indicates is largely absent, and which shows that religion is not some kind of “protected species” of belief. Their study would also encourage pupils to enquire into the reasons for and against religious belief and practice, such as belief in God and in the afterlife. These issues have a place in religious education. A consideration of atheism and agnosticism is much more inclusive of the beliefs of young people and more relevant to their experience than Humanism, given its tiny constituency.