Whenever there is a moral panic or societal problem, RE can be guaranteed a name check by a politician. Flattered by the attention, some in the RE community leave their default mode of status anxiety and go along with the illusion that RE can provide the solution to whatever moral or societal problem has hit the news. ‘Community cohesion? We’ve got it covered. Racism? Don’t you worry. Global warming? Leave it with us.’
Tony Blair’s recent call for schools to teach ‘the virtue of religious respect’ represents a growing feeling that the latest charge for RE teachers should be countering terrorism. Philosophical and political issues aside, there are educational reasons why attempting to teach ‘religious respect’ is deeply flawed.
Blair seems to suggest ‘respect’ is something that RE teachers can dish out to their pupils as easily as school dinners. The problem is that ‘respect’ is not a turkey twizzler; it cannot simply be dispensed to lines of pupils eagerly queuing up to receive and digest it. As any PSHE teacher knows, telling a pupil to be tolerant does not necessitate an accompanying change in their character. I have explored this issue of turning RE into a form of explicit values education further here. The problem is not that silly, careless RE teachers have been forgetting to teach religious respect, it is that directly teaching it neither works nor helps.
It goes without saying that schools should promote respect, but RE lessons should allow pupils to interrogate and ask challenging questions about religions and beliefs. Whilst sensitivity to others is important, pupils need to feel able to express genuine responses to material encountered, not hide or censor them out of a fear of trespassing a constricting notion of ‘religious respect.’ It is the knowledge and skills to think critically about often-difficult aspects of religion and belief that pupils need, not a blanket instruction to respect all things religious.
However, in the march to promote respect for religion, the uncomfortable, difficult and sometimes ugly aspects of religion are often concealed. Open dialogue is restricted and religions are sanitised and distorted by the instrumental use of them to pursue socio-political ends. Pupils need to engage with and question the wide range of religious ideas which have contributed to humanity’s story. Only then can they think in an informed and evaluative way about how they should view them.
Whilst mutterings about transferable skills and national identity are occasionally heard from History teachers, the many utilitarian justifications of RE are unrivalled. In discussing RE’s contribution to community cohesion, the chair of the RE Council recently wrote:
However much some might rail against the idea of education being an instrument of the state, it is the case that in publically funded schools, the state has the right to demand something for its money. Teachers and governors have to be accountable and there have to be broader social as well as educational benefits to society as a whole from the expensive provision of compulsory schooling.
On the contrary, the crude and narrow instrumentalist approach that RE suffers from makes it of little value to anyone. It allows RE to become a vacuous, reactionary vehicle for popular concerns, with no core knowledge. The result of this is a well-documented and dangerous religious illiteracy, which truly should concern the state.
An understanding of others’ beliefs may encourage ‘religious respect’ and contribute to a cohesive society. However RE is not societal self-help; it is an academic subject, with its own valuable intellectual space. It is no admission of defeat, or insult to RE, to acknowledge that it cannot transform the world. Neither will its atheist brother PSHE. Rather than burdening RE with utilitarian delusions of grandeur, we would do better to create a knowledge rich subject in which pupils are critically engaged in an academic study of religions.