In my view RE is the most important and the most interesting subject in the curriculum. Of course I am not in the least prejudiced in holding this view!
In my defence I will share an anecdote which supports this perspective.
This anecdote dates back to the early 2000s when I was teaching in London. That was years before I attended an RE workshop given by the great Lat Blaylock. Since that time I have always consciously included something he said in my planning. He said that good RE should have three strands; it should be rigorous, relevant and spiritual. Reflecting on this incident, I think it does include all three of these elements. The rigor came from my input into the discussion, the relevance came in the way I reacted to what was happening at the back of the class – and by the way that I led the discussion to touch on issues that I knew were important in the lives of my students – and the spiritual came from my exploration of the subject of soul and conscience – and by offering the class an opportunity to reflect in silence on the issues that the incident and subsequent discussion had raised.
But first a poem.*
Each moment is a journey
Inside a taxi
Towards a great destination.
The life-meter clicks
Whether we are moving forward
Or moving backward
Or not moving at all.
Sri Chinmoy, Ten Thousand Flower-Flames, part 29, Agni Press, 1982 *
I was teaching at a troubled school where many of the pupils were disaffected and had a poor attitude towards religious education. I had only been working there for a short time when this incident occurred.
Having set an exam-question task for one of the top-set year 11 classes, most people had settled well and were working quietly. I walked around the classroom, quietly answering individual questions when I discovered that one lad on the back row was absorbed in some maths revision. I asked him to put this away and start on his RE work. Our conversation progressed something like this -
‘But Miss, we’ve got our mock maths paper tomorrow. I need to revise.’
Sorry, this is your RE lesson. So put the maths away and get on with the work you need to be doing now.
But Miss. I will do the RE next lesson - I promise - but my exam is tomorrow. Please let me revise the maths. Maths is more important than RE.
What makes you think that maths is more important than RE?
Well, you know. We all get judged on maths. And so do schools. They are ranked on their maths English and science results – so obviously these are the most important subjects. Schools don’t get judged on how well you do in RE. RE doesn’t count for much. But maths does.
True, but religion is a real force in our world and in our lives. Good RE helps you to understand the forces of religion in your own life and in the world around us.
But I’m an atheist I don’t even believe in God. Why should I have to study RE?
Religion includes everyone. Religion is like a jigsaw with countless pieces. Each person is a piece in the picture of religion – and without you, the picture of religion would be incomplete. In RE everyone’s views ideas and beliefs are important. When you say you are atheist you are saying something about your own way of looking at the world. That is part of your religious identity. In RE we do not tell you what to think. We teach you how to think more deeply. There is no proof for or against the existence of God. It’s fine to say you are atheist but what do you mean by that?
Well I just don’t believe in God.
OK. What concept of God do you reject? Can you explain why you have chosen to be an atheist? I’m not saying you are right or wrong but RE will help you to understand and express your own views as well as to understand other people’s beliefs
OK – that’s very nice and I’m sure there is a time for it – but not now. Now I need to do my maths. I need a good maths result. When you want a job they always ask if you have maths GCSE. They don’t ask if you have a GCSE in RE.
OK, you want a good job and you think maths will help you get it. Why is it important to get a good job?
Well everyone needs to get a good job. You have to get a good job so you can buy things… to have a good standard of living… to support your family.
Why is it so important to buy lots of material things? Why do you want to have a family and support your family?
Well, society judges you by the things you buy – and having a family is part of being a human being.
Society judges us, true. If you meet its expectations then you may feel successful. But there are other kinds of judgement. What do you think makes someone a good or a bad human being? Is it enough to go to work and support your family? How would you explain what makes one person good and one person bad?
OH MISS. Now you are getting into religion again – I know - God’s judgement and Heaven and Hell. But I don’t believe in that either. When we die, that’s it.
Good argument. But I wasn’t thinking of life after death although it is an important subject to think about. For now, just think of two people one good and one bad. Whether or not they have good jobs and money to buy things – whether or not they have a family and support their family – what is it about them that makes you judge one to be a good man – and the other to be bad?
I suppose it’s what they do.
Yes. Choices and actions. If you explore any subject deeply enough you will always come back to religion. Religion is about life, the choices we make. The actions we take – and their consequences in this life as well as the hereafter. All the great religions give their followers guidance in how to live a good life. And if you look into all the religions you find a remarkable agreement on what is right and wrong. Injustice is wrong. Selfishness and greed are wrong. Jealousy is wrong. Getting things by force (and that includes bullying and a lot of the violence we see in the world) is wrong. Love, compassion, sharing and forgiving are right… Of course there is more to it than that but you will find all these good and bad qualities illustrated in the teachings of the great religions.
But you don’t have to follow a religion to lead a good life. Some of the worst people are religious. And you can be a good person without believing in God or following a religion.
Great! We are getting into serious RE discussion now – right away from maths and into what matters at the heart of our lives. Religion is about real people and how they choose to live. Of course there are good and bad people within any religion. Hypocrisy is also wrong – and it is hard to live a good life. Some people just want to look good. And the religions do not have a monopoly of truth. You can indeed be a good person without believing in God – but you are still shaped by the world you grow up in and religious teaching has a huge influence in that world. Nobody grows up in a vacuum. But set the religious teaching to one side for now. What forces influence you when you are deciding what to do? Where do you find guidance? What influences you when you make choices – is it friends or relatives, a character in a film perhaps? And when you make a choice, can you tell which choices are good or bad? Was it good or bad to be doing maths in my RE lesson?
I think it was right. I just do what I think is right. I don’t need other people or a book to tell me what’s right and wrong. My exam is tomorrow so for me that is the most urgent thing.
OK. Most people agree that we have a conscience, that we do indeed have our own inner wisdom. Many religious traditions speak of the divine part of us, the Real in us that does not die when the body dies - the Soul. Some Jewish teachers describe this as a ‘spark of God'. Islam speaks of God being closer to us than our jugular vein. The goal of Hinduism is ‘Self-Realisation‘ - which is also described as ‘God Realisation’ because Hindu philosophy teaches that our true nature is divine. When we get all our thoughts, choices and actions right then we will be absorbed in the divine all the time – but that cannot be done in one lifetime. Hindus believe in reincarnation – believing that this is not our first life or our last because God-Realisation takes thousands of years. Perhaps you are an advanced soul and have had many incarnations as a human being so you are able to find reliable guidance from your own conscience – to hear the voice of your soul directly, but you just interpret the experience as ‘Self’ rather than ‘God’ which makes your philosophy atheist.
By this time all the class was listening in on our conversation. There was some light banter and laughter; other people came into the conversation at this point. There were examples of sources of guidance, good and bad choices and their consequences – and the power of peer-pressure.
Whatever we do has consequences. The choices we make at each moment shape our future. Your choice to revise maths has had the consequence of redirecting this lesson for a start. But I am happy because it is serious RE. You can finish the question paper for homework.
Time was passing, so I drew the discussion to a close.
Discussion is important. But so is reflection. I will try to make some time for discussion and reflection in every lesson. But now I would like everyone to reflect on some of these questions in silence for a few minutes –
Are you always able to judge what is right and what is wrong?
If you are confused, where might you go to find guidance?
Even if we know what is right and what is wrong, do we always choose the right action?
If not, why not?
Think of examples in your own life – and what the consequences were.
This is a critical time in your life. You are building the foundations of your future. What kind of adult do you want to grow into?
Together we create the world.
I believe that with good RE the world you help to create might be better than the painful one we are living in today. Do you agree?
Finally, do you really think is it more important to score a few extra points in a maths exam - than to engage with a subject which may enable you to:
- think more seriously about life and so help shape your character,
- add to your own store of wisdom,
- develop greater empathy and understanding of others,
- increase your own awareness of who you are, what you believe and why,
- determine whether you hear the voice of your conscience - and have the courage to listen to it.
After the silence, which was deep and unbroken, we did not have time for any feedback – and I knew it was not needed. In RE we sow seeds which may not germinate for years to come. It is not a subject that can be neatly divided into Lesson Objectives and nuggets of knowledge that need to be memorised and regurgitated in an exam. I finished by drawing my students' attention to one of the quotes on my classroom wall -
The unexamined life is not worth living.
Socrates was one of the greatest thinkers of all time. He didn’t say that if you don’t do well in Maths your life will not be worth living. He said you need to examine life. That is what we do in RE.
This experience helped me to deepen my relationship with the class and they all worked more seriously in subsequent lessons. I tried to conclude the set work 15 minutes before the end of the lesson and sometimes invited written, anonymous questions to start the conversation. We had some great discussions and reflections in that concluding time. I was only in that school for one term but I have never forgotten our conversation that day.
Sometimes I am greeted by an ex-pupil in the street or a shop. They are always thrilled to see me and remember my teaching in a very positive way. What they seem to remember most fondly is the way I made subjects come alive – using drama and class discussions. I met a lad just a couple of weeks ago – now in his 20’s and an award-winning social worker. He ran up the street and called out to me as I was about to catch a bus. I was only at his school for a year and didn’t even remember him. We went to a café together and talked for a long time. He said that the way I was comfortable and confident in my own identity (I think of myself as white Asian and wear a Sari most of the time) and the way I shared my views in discussions – not because I was wanting them to agree with me but to encourage them to think about their own views, gave him the confidence to be true to and proud of his views and helped him discover his own identity. I had no idea that he had overcome so many difficulties in his childhood. I had no idea that I had helped him find his feet and become the great and good man that he is today.
Experiences like this make me feel humble as well as proud. It has been said many times – teachers really can make a difference to the lives of our pupils – and so, in a small way, to the world we live in.
I am inspired to begin each of my blogs here with a poem by Sri Chinmoy - a spiritual Teacher who I knew personally for many years. He died in 2007 but like all genuine spiritual masters his words are timeless and you may like to use them (along with other inspiring and illumining writings from other sources) as Class Starters – or to stimulate discussion.
Sri Chinmoy wrote thousands of poems on all aspects of life. Most of his writings are available free from his website library – http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com
Durga-Mata is an art and RE specialist.