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Belief and unbelief in the classroom

The rationale for religious and moral education, discussed in this column last week by Fred Forrester, is quite properly no longer Christian nurture.

It is, however, more than providing information about the assorted religious practices of diverse religious groups: more, even, than philosophical debate or scrutiny of various religious beliefs. Religious and moral education is about nurturing children, not in any specific creed, but in awareness of the huge questions about the meanings of life and death which are the human birthright. Who am I? Who is my neighbour? Does life have a purpose? Is virtue its own reward? Are we alone in the universe? What does a good life look like?

For most of the articulate history of the human race, these questions have been explored and answered in a number of ways by the great religious traditions. Even today, though Scotland on the whole belongs to the secularised culture of contemporary Western Europe, the life of the wider world continues to be deeply bound up with the dynamics of faith.

Against the expectations of 30 years ago, religion, even in the West, seems not to be giving up the ghost (though churches decline by the month). There seems to be some widespread hunger for what is now often called "spirituality" - something more than the scramble of the consumerist markets to feed our constructed demands.

People avidly watch documentaries about communities less fragmented than ours, where homelessness is inconceivable, where meals are sacramental, where people revere and listen to the earth. We are oddly aware of our social poverty, we who have no shared stories any longer, no common myths, no rituals of belonging.

It is in this context that religious and moral education has the responsibility to expose children to the resources of living faiths: not just as intellectual belief systems, but as modes of being, as ways of imagining, of sharing visions, of harnessing moral energy and of meeting the perennial questions which haunt the human heart. It also has the duty to equip young people to understand, and evaluate the downside of human religious history, the wars, the double-think, the psychological distortions.

The 5-14 curriculum guidelines have the potential to help teachers do this job, suggesting a rounded and widening progression of understanding and awareness of many facets of religious belief. Nowadays in the non-denominational sector it has to be assumed that most children have no connection with a faith community. It should also be evident that fewer and fewer teachers have; yet primary teachers are expected to spend about 10 per cent of the primary week on religious and moral education.

This is not, it seems to me, a matter for hand wringing. It invites no hypocrisy on the part of non-Christian teachers, and no privilege on the part of Christian ones. Although Christianity is given privileged time in the curriculum over other faiths, the job can be as well done by Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish, atheist, agnostic or humanist teachers. The subject should be equally challenging to children of any faith or none, inviting them all to a journey of understanding and mutual respect. This is a matter of professional competence, and of an agreed whole-school policy. Many primary teachers feel embarrassed or uneasy about how to tackle the subject; some are also handicapped by too little place for the subject in their initial training, and by gross deficiencies of budget and resources for in-service work.

Nevertheless, they should take heart. Slow as it is, the implementation of 5-14, as well as the growth in certificate work in religious, moral and philosophical studies, should rescue the subject from its uneasy past. The job is now about opening young people to a sensitive awareness of the religious dimension of human experience and culture, not about endorsing or rebutting any particular creed. There are resources around for good curriculum development and for confidence-building in-service work. This October the first national RE week will celebrate examples of good practice the length and breadth of the UK.

Professional self-esteem, not just among specialists, should be stronger, now that the subject is neither blatant indoctrination nor dissociated data. Teachers can embark, without embarrassment, on a journey of exploration which can be one of the most fascinating they share with their pupils.

Elizabeth Templeton is development officer for the Christian Education Movement in Scotland.

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