A colleague once expressed to me his philosophy of teaching RE in the following way; ‘I don’t just teach the head, I teach the heart.’ His words reflect a prevalent belief in the RE community that RE should not be primarily concerned with intellectual advancement, but rather personal, spiritual or moral development. At Key Stage 3, this view manifests itself in the widespread practice of thematic curriculums where pupils explore a theme, concept or value, usually reflecting political vogue. Moulded around these themes, religion is not only marginalised, but also distorted and misrepresented, preventing pupils from gaining a systematic, coherent or accurate understanding of it.
Rather than developing a deep, rich understanding of Hinduism, a lesson on the different Hindu gods may become an opportunity to consider the importance of appreciating diversity. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a chance to explore the different roles that make up pupils’ own identity. A lesson on Jesus’ life is diminished to a reflection on what it means to be a hero today; the Feeding of the 5000 an avenue for considering how to be charitable or solve world hunger, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan a route into discussing the value of multiculturalism and community cohesion. The thematic approach promotes crude, decontextualised extrapolations from religion, rather than systematic immersion in the study of it. This leaves pupils with no sense of the narrative or coherence of any religion and unable to distinguish a hijab from a halo. The weakness of such practices was noted in Ofsted’s 2013 report on RE:
Christian stories, particularly miracles, were often used to encourage pupils to reflect on their own experience without any opportunity to investigate the stories’ significance within the religion itself…increasingly, Key Stage 3 work lacked any significant development of pupils’ understanding of religion and belief – and frequently distorted it.
This thematic approach pervades locally agreed syllabuses which non-religious LEA schools are required to, and many academies choose to follow at Key Stage 3. For example Hampshire’s syllabus suggests a scheme of work titled ‘Inspirational People.’ The unit begins by exploring equality, justice, conviction and authority through studying Gandhi. He is followed by Bob Geldof in order to consider greed and revisit the concepts of justice and equality. After Geldof comes Che Guevara, who provides a convenient way to re-examine the values of justice, conviction and authority as well as liberation.
This ‘Inspirational People’ unit is followed by another thematic scheme. It begins with the Holocaust, before moving to concepts of ritual, symbol and environment for Indigenous people of Australia and North America and finally arriving at diversity, monasticism, activism and gender in Buddhist community. You might wonder, what is the unifying strand, the overarching idea drawing the Holocaust, indigenous tribes and Buddhist activism and gender roles together? What title could reflect the shared learning point, the message so integral to the people and events in this incongruent unit? The answer is ‘Religion and Community’.
Thematic approaches dominate the RE textbook market with popular titles including: ‘Themes to Inspire’, ‘Opening Up Belonging’, ‘Opening Up Community’, ‘Green Issues in Religion’, ‘Values and Commitments’ and ‘Identity and Diversity.’ Another widely used volume of books called the Essential RE Series offers the titles; ‘Happiness’, ‘Living’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Community and Expression.’ Yet, tenuously linking chunk size bites from different religions to these themes is far from the essence of good RE. It is inherently unacademic in its neglect of knowledge and regularly distasteful in its manipulation of religion in order to illustrate an often vapid theme or value. This can particularly be the case when religion is fashioned to peddle a political priority or notion.
The 2011 Arts and Humanities Research Council funded report titled ‘Does RE work?’ identified thirteen ‘competing imperatives’ that policymakers have ‘freighted it with.’ These include ‘multicultural awareness’, ‘understanding heritage’, ‘moral development’, ‘enhancing local demographic considerations’, ‘citizenship education’ and ‘sex and relationship education’. The study found that ‘Religious concepts often appear as an afterthought to some common social problem.’ Thematic RE taught through the narrow filter of relevance or political hot potato erodes the very essence or core of RE. RE is not PSHE, it is not SMSC. It is not sex education, it is not self-help. It is not citizenship, it is not primarily a cure for society’s problems.
Sacrificing religion at the altar of utility or relevance is symptomatic of a philistinism that does not appreciate the innate value of studying it. To misapply Nietzsche, it has ensured that in many classrooms ‘God is dead, God remains dead, and we have killed him.’ The status of RE as an academic subject depends on the RE community’s willingness to resist the reductionist urge to make RE a socio-political god of the gaps, and argue instead for its inherent worth as the rigorous study of a distinctive and innately valuable body of knowledge, aside from its relevance or utility.