With a crisis of confidence in RE’s core subject matter of religion, the RE community are often eager to defend RE by clutching at any political straw which could enhance the subject’s status. Alongside other popular justifications, such as RE’s contribution to British Values and Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development (SMSC), the ambitious claim that RE can foster community cohesion is often heard.
At a classroom level, the community cohesion agenda has a tendency to play out as a bizarre confusion of aim and subject matter, narrowing RE and preventing teachers from imparting valuable knowledge. This can be seen in the most widely taken GCSE RS exam, Edexcel’s Religion and Life.
The exam has four sections each worth 25%. In Section 4, the supposed aim of study, community cohesion, not only becomes the content to be studied, but also the section title. The specification for this ‘Community Cohesion’ section is below (excluding three bullet points about gender roles and the requirement to watch a film:)
Such unimaginative thought about the relationship between the content and proposed purpose of the subject carries through to the exam, where many questions are almost exact repeats of the specification’s wording. For example:
Explain why Christians should work to promote racial harmony? (8 marks)
Explain how religions work to promote community cohesion? (8 marks)
Furthermore, by putting the rich and lengthy narrative of religious thought and action through the narrow instrumentalist filter of promoting community cohesion, a sanitised, more palatable version of religion is presented. Rather than RE providing an open critical space to examine the reality of religions, only the positive, peaceful aspects serving the political aim of developing community cohesion receive attention. Regrettable historical events, challenging contemporary issues and difficult texts are either glossed over or ignored.
Whilst the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan features heavily in textbooks and mark schemes, historical racism, the Crusades and the Psalmist’s cry for God to ‘bless those who dash the Babylonian’s children against the rocks’ are seemingly deemed unfit for exploration. Equally for Islam, textbooks make, and mark schemes reward, broad, simple statements about Muhammad promoting racial harmony and all people being made equally. However an examination of the Qur’an’s call to “kill the idolators wherever you find them, take them prisoners and beleaguer them” is shied away from. A safe, generic representation of religion is offered rather than confronting the challenging, multifaceted realities of them.
Adopting the political initiative of developing community cohesion as a core purpose for RE, turns the subject into government PR, rather than academic study. What has government “legislation on equal rights for ethnic minorities” got to do with RE? Why should RE teachers have to defend the government’s record on community cohesion? In one widely used exam board endorsed textbook, a catalogue of Labour policies and reforms from 1976 to 2006 supposedly improving community cohesion are endorsed. The work of politicians is portrayed positively at all times, for example Tony Blair’s efforts as Prime minister to ‘champion equality and human rights for all.’ There is no mention of the political ideas of parties other than Labour.
It is crucial that exam boards do not rehash this course as they develop new GCSE specifications to be taught from 2016. RE need not be defended on the basis of its contribution to community cohesion, any more than Geography is justified in terms of its contribution to reducing global warming, coastal erosion and non-eco tourism. Using religion instrumentally, to clumsily illustrate some grander theme, or to bolster a political agenda, denigrates religion and undermines the subject’s value and status. If RE is to be a serious academic subject, the RE community must take its subject matter of religion seriously, and resist the lure of finding transient political capital in narrow instrumental justifications. Only then will repetitive discussions about RE’s purpose be replaced with the stifled, but more purposeful question of what a religiously literate young person should know.