Religious education – should students have more choice?

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Teacher Andrew Jones argues that students should help shape what is taught in RE and engage all the debates and ideas studied


Should a childs’ religion be labelled by that indoctrinated by their parents, or should they have the freedom to choose? Photograph: www.alamy.com

Having just taught a series of religious education lessons called ‘Religion – Do we have a choice?’, I decided to re-read a chapter in Richard Dawkin’s http://richarddawkins.net/ book The God Delusion entitled Childhood, Abuse and the Escape from Religion. As on my first reading, I was struck by Dawkin’s anger and annoyance at a newspaper labelling children in a nativity as Sikh, Muslim and Christian. The objection is that these children have not had the freedom to choose their religious beliefs and are indoctrinated by their parents.

Dawkin’s objection is indirectly tackled through the series mentioned above as each lesson asks students to evaluate whether an individual chooses to join a religion or whether they have their beliefs and cultural identity assigned to them by family, friends and community.

For example, students explore and debate the merits of infant baptism versus the idea of an adult baptism or whether Brit Milah (the Jewish rite of circumcising eight day-old boys) celebrates 3,000 years of tradition or takes away the child’s right to decide for them self whether to be faithful to the religion of their ancestors.

However, what really interests me is not the deep philosophical debate on choice and rationality, but what the students’ views tell us about the changing nature of religion in Britain today. Importantly, their views not only reveal how our ideas of what is religious or what it is to be spiritual, have radically changed over the last few decades, but they also have massive implications for the content of religious education in secular schools, especially those located in areas where church attendance or affiliation to other religions is low.

Written By: Andrew Jones
continue to source article at guardian.co.uk

27 COMMENTS

  1. It seems obvious: Of course children should have the opportunity to discuss the nature of their beliefs. This should occur in other areas of the curriculum as well. Having said that, I pity the teacher, especially in a religious school, who treats all religions as equal in the RE class. 

    As a side note: why is it nearly impossible to read an article that references Richard without having him misrepresented? 

    “This suggests we may sometimes be wrong to label children as Sikh, Muslim and Christian but, unlike Dawkin’s complaint, this does not suggest a rampant atheism or even secularism.”

    Actually, I’m not even sure what the author is getting at here. 

  2. Religious Education should be universal and should consist of the following:

    Currently most people believe in one or more of the 9,000 plus religions and the 640,000 plus gods they worship.

    Some people do not believe in any gods and explain the universe and life, based on scientific studies such as cosmology, evolution and genetics.

    Religion has resulted in most current cultures, many laws and practices and also the way most people view their life.

    Science has resulted in advancing understanding of ourselves and our surroundings and applying the findings to improve life and technology.

    Religion has existed for tens of thousands of years. There is evidence that Neandrathal Man had religions, cave drawings have been found that are over 30,000 years old and some can be interptreted as having religious significance, ruins of churches have been found that date back over 18,000 years.

    Science and the scientific method  has only existed for 5-600 years though it could be argued that some knowledge of science was required to forge the first metal tools.

    You no doubt are taught your “own” beliefs by your parents and your community and can further these teachings if you wish to have a career the requires religious knowledge. Here we teach reading and writing and arithmetic which we all need and also mathematics and science and technology which are required for most jobs.

    You can read what you like and find out more about subjects you want become expert in. We consider ourselves best at teaching you those subjects that cover knowledge common to everyone. You can use your own time, outside school, to study other subjects and more detail about subjects that are of interest or required by your community or culture.

    We have found that it can be a problem if people discuss religion and politics where there are competing views, rather than agreed facts. You will no doubt form your own views over time and we are sure that what we teach you here will be of use, whatever your views become and whatever career you persue..

  3. The objection is that these children have not had the freedom to choose their religious beliefs and are indoctrinated by their parents.

    No; it’s that they’re being labelled on the assumption they already believe as
    their parents do, even when they’re infants.

     Dawkin’s [sic] objection is indirectly tackled through the series mentioned above as each lesson asks students to evaluate whether an individual chooses to join a religion

    Dawkins doesn’t ask that children think about whether they’re free; he asks for them to
    be free. Again, the freedom he calls for is freedom from labelling, not freedom
    from persuasion.

    what really interests me is not the deep philosophical debate on choice and
    rationality

    There are many things wrong with that comment.
    (1) Those are different debates.
    (2) The debate on choice occurring in AJ’s lessons is about what happens in practice, so is not a philosophical debate.
    (3) Even the “should” debate to which AJ considers his “is” debate to be parallel is a bit too easy to be called a philosophical debate; obviously people should be free from being classified by others before their own opinions can possibly
    have formed.
    (4) Do AJ’s lessons even discuss the rationality issue? Given his conflation (see (1)), I doubt it – not that it isn’t already unlikely a Y8 RE teacher is addressing the fallacies of the cosmological argument.

    [the changing nature of religion in Britain today has] massive implications for
    the content of RE in secular schools in areas where church attendance or affiliation
    to other religions is low

    Why? RE in secular schools is the study of what beliefs and behaviours religions have, not of what religious beliefs are warranted. Therefore, the syllabus shouldn’t be contingent on local religious demographics.

    most non-religious students do not respond to the unit with wholly atheist or
    even secular points of view, but rather with a pick-a-mix of ideas from the various religions taught at key stage 3

    In what sense then are they non-religious?

    Although many reject a belief in a theistic God, they still choose to call
    themselves agnostic.

    That’s a completely separate question from that of whether they cherry-pick doctrines.

    Importantly for the viability of RE in a seemingly secular society, Woodhead’s
    argument centres on the idea that religion in Britain is changing as opposed to declining.

    (1) Again, this *doesn’t* have implications for state RE curricula; see above.
    (2) Stop using “secular” to mean “non-theist”; it’s a term concerning the religious neutrality of the state.
    (3) LW’s statistics aren’t compared with yesteryear; religion *is* declining when you make such comparisons. Do you really think, for example, that belief in a god was ever as low as 44 %, or belief in a god (excluding belief in a god as a spirit) was ever as low as 26 %, 50 years ago? A similar analysis holds for the rest.

    we may sometimes be wrong to label children as Sikh, Muslim and Christian

    Only sometimes? How do you decide when we can or can’t do that?

    unlike Dawkin’s [sic] complaint, this does not suggest a rampant atheism or
    even secularism

    (1) Secularism doesn’t differ from atheism as a matter of degree; they’re completely separate questions.
    (2) RD doesn’t complain about labelling on the grounds that it causes us to underestimate the prevalence of atheism, although statistics such as LW’s do prove that is so; his complaint is that it’s unfair to a child to presumptively label them prematurely.

    it is important that schemes of work and lesson plans in RE adapt themselves to allow students to express their religiosity and spirituality without being alienated by restricted labels or narrow assumptions of what it is to be religious.

    I’m increasingly getting the feeling the school at which AJ teaches is nothing like
    my secondary school was when it comes to RE. Study religions as a natural
    phenomenon, and these things AJ considers important are achieved automatically.
    When do Muslims pray, and what does the pre-prayer washing ritual involve? What
    is the creation myth of Hinduism? Who do Advent candles represent and when are
    they lit? These are objective questions.

    Whether we study Jesus – Man or God?, Does It Matter How We Behave? or Is Prejudice Alive and Kicking?

    Those last two book titles concern ethical topics, not religious ones. We have PSE
    for ethics.

    we should endeavour to give students a choice, or chance, to debate the nature of their beliefs and why they choose to believe what they do. Of course, this
    does not answer the question, “religion – do we have a choice?”‘, but
    it does allow students to be part of what is taught in RE.

    (1) How does giving a choice not answer the questions of whether we have one?
    (2) Do students need to be “part of what is taught” in biology? If the public’s opinions on what killed the dinosaurs have different demographics in different British boroughs, should syllabuses reflect that locally? Should sex education be a debate about morality instead of objectively stating how sex, STDs et al physically work? Is any subject other than RE thought of in such stupid terms by even its more “progressive” teachers?

  4. Children need to learn the basic facts about religions; that all are mutually incompatible, therefore  all but one are false, and by extension the probability is that none are true. 
    That there is no evidence for any of them. That all religions are divisive and therefore cause conflict. That they are used as a tool to control the masses. That they do, indeed ‘poison everything’.

  5. Choice!  What the hell for? Tradition? That tyrrany imposed by the dead!

    The article assumes that there has to be religious education and therefore there should be a choice of what you want to be.   A preposterous premise!

    Would we have lessons in alchemy and encourage school children to debate the various schools of phlogistonism or the philosopher’s stone or different views on the demon theory of disease as an alternative to basic science?

    There should be no religious education at all. We should not be devoting valuable curricula time to discussing utter bolox whatever flavour it comes in.

    I am appalled to constantly hear the religios claiming rights to education and using sophistry to claim ‘scienctific evidence’ for there siliness and discarding real scientific evidence when it doesn’t suit them.  No small wonder they capable of sifting throught their own insane scrawlings and resort to hermenuetics to paint over the nasty bits.
     
    If religious education is to be balanced at all on lifestyle choices it should include secular humanism and atheism as fully acceptable alternatives with an emphasis on you don’t need/have to believe in supernatural stories from your parents to live a good and fulfilled life.

  6. Woodhead’s observation is the “bleedin’ obvious”. It is amazing to me we need academics to make such claims as if in fact it needs academics to do so. This is certainly due power maintaining a status quo built upon inherited ideas from the dark ages of human education.
    1) Religions claim legal protections.

    2) Youths grow up seeing religion claim superiority for reasons largely unstated – trinity et al.

    3) Education suckles up to religious superiority. Youths think surely everyone cannot be so insane – there must be truth to it which cannot be asked questions about but especially which cannot be answered with clarity!

    4) Youths suspect religion must know something education doesn’t.

    5) Youths see there are many claims about the numinous ( this “more than education idea”, plus how humans are generally born evil and must do better – especially at the actions that got them born).

    6) Youths come up with their own cocktail of the numinous amidst the general reluctance of education to slag off all religions as a seriously flawed set of inherited assertions with power over billions. Educational process about life et al becomes a tedious a contradiction due myth!

    7) The numinous gets a “free pass” yet again, in the minds of the majority as that which cannot be explained and which exists within feelings absent thought. No surprises about that memeotion! It’s been ongoing through confusions for thousands of years already – in almost all youths. This is the “piece de resistance” of myth – propagation of emotion that demands resistance to analysis. The recipe for all myth thereby survives in the face of doubting all myth. Some irony hey? 

    8) Karma becomes the residual emotional bias of the above youths minds. Their growing emotions appeal to the perceived adult privilege that claims absence of explanations and education via superstition – an expression of its lack of education via some sense that emotional justice ought to prevail. “New theisms” are born that attempt to self regulate their own legal standing and rights not to be analysed by education per se. I have met many individuals who adopt the same dynamic religion infected them with. A sense of self belief in something they have conspired their minds to devolve to, which resents being asked searching questions and analysed in the same way religion did throughout their formative years. 

    For anyone with a sense of Karma: I sense you have attempted to theorize universal justice in ways that depend on revenge (in other words recompense for suffering). At its worst this suggests the innocent children who suffer and cannot have done wrong must have done so in some previous life. Essentially my take is this simple argument proves Karma is bullshit – which human emotions hang onto in the hope universal justice exists. It does not exist anymore than one pet might be on your dinner plate and another live out its life in a palace someplace. 

    The natural world is not a world of universal pleasantries or postponed ones. Get an education!

    This does not mean we all ought to go about like wild animals killing each other off. Quite the contrary. It suggests we take more responsibility in attempting to do something about the injustices we are able to prevent and to consider how and when forgiveness might be a more rational choice than a desire for emotional revenge that is most usually the mind of the oppressor.

    This last point is a secular shambles, just as much as religion is in its claims an after life solution exists. Justice for all cannot exist. Revenge and forgiveness will each continue to be the answer and the injustice. Neither will be perfectly employed. Each are open to exploitation, lies and deception by criminal minds. We must take heed of this and continue to do things which might reduce injustice amidst a world that will continue to do otherwise.

    I truly think that one of the greatest obstacles to doing this is perpetuating myth and misleading human minds into positions of cognitive dissonance due myth. In effect, “The tragic mind.” – that becomes increasingly, overtly aware its; biology, emotions, thoughts and whole sense of living has been lied to and deceived by those it thought trustworthy!   The response of the self and the escape of the self, from this, is a shocking, living injustice, from which there can be no real escape.

  7. That is prejudice inducing to label children according to religion. They would never say, “this child believes in the Judeo Christian God, this child believes in Allah, this child is a Buddhist, etc…That would be absurd but it is the exact same thing. And yes, I think that RE in childhood is absolutely indoctrination, but how to stop it? They would probably home school them instead, and then what will their curriculum be?

  8. But people have ALWAYS approached religion this way. It’s not a new phenomenon to see individuals interpreting and selecting from a variety of ideas they have been exposed to, it’s an absolute foundational norm. It’s how culture and the history of ideas WORKS. It’s how the human mind works. There never was a “golden age” of mass indoctrinated conformity. If you go back to the Reformation you find both protestant and catholic authorities conducting investigations into what people  on the ground actually believe, and expressing great concern that hardly anyone who hasn’t had a formal theological education understands even the basics of the beliefs they are supposed to have been indoctrinated with. Things as simple as whether there was one god or more than one. Back in the Middle Ages the average peasant got all he knew about his religion from local folk-magic and half-remembered passion plays. Even the educated classes picked and chose to taste, and even the most eminent theologians differed in their ideas thanks to their different wider reading and personal concerns. Some of Aquinas’s ideas were condemned and prohibited in Paris soon after his death, for instance, and heresy was so rife precisely because people naturally differed on how they approached their religion.

    Indeed, it is not going too far to say that the massive drives on the part of religious groups toward enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy throughout history stem precisely from the fact that personal preference and diversity in matters of religion and belief are such a ubiquitous human norm. It takes real effort working against the grain to get people all singing from the same hymn sheet, and it’s ultimately a losing battle. Mass media can make it easier (in the same way it has virtually killed off local memetic variations, for instance in minority regional dialects or local folkloric variations like the old magpie rhyme, of which there used to be dozens of versions but now everybody under seventy only knows the one), but it can also cause greater eclecticism and fragmentation.

    When approached from the correct historical-cultural studies perspective, religious education does indeed need reforming, and diversity on an individual level needs to be strongly emphasised. But it is important that significance is still attached to teaching about how religious bodies and institutions try to enforce conformity, because that too is part of the wider historical and cultural picture, and religious groups are still trying to do it. In the same way one is taught about both regional and subcultural linguistic diversity and centralised proscriptive attempts to standardise spelling and pronunciation in English Language, so too must both form a part of the RE curriculum.

  9. I also rather liked the “immorality of the soul” typo. Admittedly this is a Grauniad article, but I can’t help wondering whether even their sub-editor left that in on purpose because it was too funny to correct.

    Or had secret Zoroastrian sympathies.

  10. “Unfortunately for Dawkins, most non-religious students do not respond to the unit with wholly atheist or even secular points of view, but rather with a pick-a-mix of ideas from the various religions taught at key stage 3.”
    Why does Andrew Jones say ‘Unfortunately for Dawkins”, implying that Dawkins will not be satisfied unless students adopt a “wholly atheist or… secular point of view” ? It look as though he is setting up a strawman in an attempt to undermine Dawkins. I’m quite sure that Dawkins would be delighted to know that children’s views of religion are becoming less ‘set in stone’ – a process that is partly attributable to the ongoing criticism of religion by secular and humanistic writers such as himself. Dawkins’s point is that children should be allowed to choose what to believe in themselves, based on their best understanding of the evidence, and not to be automatically labelled with the religion of their parents. This may well be a “pick-a-mix of ideas” from religion and also from secularism and humanism, but the point is that children should not be indoctrinated with the views of their parents and teachers.

  11. The kind of education I want to see is one where everyone learns about everybody.  Letting them drink only their own bathwater just makes people even more narrow, stupid and intolerant. The duty of a school is to educate, not hide information.

  12. You said:  “But people have ALWAYS approached religion this way. It’s not a new phenomenon to see individuals interpreting and selecting from a variety of ideas they have been exposed to, it’s an absolute foundational norm. It’s how culture and the history of ideas WORKS. It’s how the human mind works.”
    How do you mean: always? Religion is manmade. Mankind exists for much much longer than religion. 

  13. you said:”
    Religion has existed for tens of thousands of years. There is evidence that Neandrathal Man had religions, cave drawings have been found that are over 30,000 years old and some can be interptreted as having religious significance, ruins of churches have been found that date back over 18,000 years.”
    And how long does mankind exist? Just a little bit longer?
    Religion only come into play to find answers for natural issues (thunder, drought, prey scarsety).

  14. I don’t think Cartomancer means that people have always had religion I think he just means that as long as they have had religion this is how they have approached it. The ALWAYS is applied to the approach not the region.  That would be how I would read it.

    Grammar aside you raise an interesting question.  Has mankind always had some kind of religious thought ?   I thought Neanderthals showed signs of burial ceremonies which you might guess had religious connotations.  Impossible to be sure of course and you would have to define religion. But I wouldn’t be surprised if as long as we have been aware of the future we he have indulged in superstitious rituals to try to to influence it.

    Michael

  15. It’s strange to think each generations top down power meme is to secure all markets in ghosts under the bed , so to speak, so children must pray for redemption from its vices, by adoption or revolution, rather than complete rejection. Fear, Obligation, Guilt! Bullied by previous generations and subverted due educational  malnutrition.   

  16.  I think it is fairly apparent that religion developed as our cognitive faculties developed. It is, like all our other cultural trappings, a product of our evolved psychology in specific circumstances. Indeed, if  you want to define “humanity” as some higher-level imaginative capacity that we alone of the animals possess, I find it difficult to see how we couldn’t have had religious thought from the beginning. It seems to me a terrible mistake to divide off “religious” thought and culture from other kinds of thought and culture. It’s the same stuff. The label “religious” is not taxonomy, it’s branding. And it obscures what’s really going on.

  17. Yes Michael, that s what I thought he meant. Still., I wanted to make sure.
    Neanderthals did have ochre and red with their burials.
    Of course mankind didnt always have that kind of thoughts. We were,and still are, animals. We had no abstract thinking (at all).
    That s also why god(s)/religion is man made and no original part of our making. 
    Anyway – I dont want to hijack this topic.

  18. Before sensible consideration can be given to education about religion, the law has to be amended to strike out the imposition on state schools in England and Wales to provide RE and collective worship for all pupils. Once the ground has been cleared, the subject can be looked at for its educational value. There should be no assumption that religions deserve any more respect than other cultural phenomena, historical or contemporary.

  19. Thank you for this post.
    It is 2:30am on the night shift and while I might optimistically hope that all the above would have sprung clearly to the front of my mind at a more sociable hour it really did save my brain a little work sparing me more time to drink coffee and enjoy your teasing apart of his specious arguments.

    Ben

  20. Though I appreciate the sentiment I would hold back on your probability argument. The fact that there are many individual ideas cannot reflect on whether one is true or not, otherwise we are quite screwed when forming scientific hypothesis.

    Much better to just point out that they are bollocks ;)

  21. Well, there’s no value in stating ‘bollocks’, even though I concur! I thought that science proceded by hypothesis (probability rather than possibility), then evidence gathering, testing and a (very likely) conclusion?

  22. ‘Their beliefs’ as inculcated by adults? So these beliefs are not theirs by definition. 

    “sometimes” wrong? how can anything be wrong only some of the time? Guess it’s right when it suits the circumstances, as in bogus theology.

  23. Opening gambit from ‘Religion – Do we have a choice?’ 

    “They will also consider whether the choice to belong to a religion is made by parents and handed down to their children.” 

    What the hell does he mean by ‘whether’? There’s no ‘if’ about it, he’s undermined his own premise in his first statement.

    Reading about Brit Milah (charming custom) my reaction is it should be legally challenged as child abuse; the need to draw blood stated in the Hebrew Bible and rejection of the medically ‘safe’ alternative being specially offensive. Also perilously close to the U.N. definition of torture, as inflicting pain and suffering.

  24. “Unfortunately for Dawkins, most non-religious students do not respond to the unit with wholly atheist or even secular points of view, but rather with a pick-a-mix of ideas from the various religions taught at key stage 3.”

    Offering religion as a buffet where nothing but junk food is available shows what’s wrong with having RE as a compulsory subject.

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