Should religious education teachers instruct children in British nationalism with a view to converting them into more loyal subjects? Is this what the recent School Curriculum and Assessment Authority conference on Curriculum, Culture and Society was asking all subject areas, not just RE, to consider with its major theme of national consciousness in education?
How should RE teachers respond? John Habgood, recently retired Archbishop of York, has argued that critical solidarity is a better approach than confessionalism or "essentialism - every religion the samism" for RE. The term "critical solidarity" suggests standing with but asking important questions of religion, RE, and other subject areas and human experiences. It is about openness, dialogue and the recognition of difference as well as common ground. Where does critical solidarity lead us in terms of developing national consciousness through RE?
RE is locally determined by LEA SACREs, not nationally controlled, and it is important to recognise that this gives it a certain freedom not enjoyed by other subjects. Indeed a fundamental question to be asked is should education be centrally controlled? The totalitarian states of Stalinist Russia and Hitler's Germany used education as a propaganda tool. The fruit in Nazi Germany was genocide; in this country in the middle of the century there was a clear, conservative consensus, including Churchill and Butler, against centralised control of education. Should not the Holocaust, particularly when xenophobia is reported to be the most widespread ideology of the late 20th century, make us cautious about developing national consciousness through centralised education even in liberal Britain?
Historically there are two Christian traditions in Britain in relationship to the State. One is the Anglican expression of subservience to the State, the other is the tradition of Christian non-conformity. Should RE teachers conform or not conform in developing national consciousness?
For many RE teachers, there is a tension between the study of world religions and promoting national consciousness. World religions are by definition greater than something national. It is also interesting to contrast the exclusive myths of most nationalisms with the inclusive biblical creation story in Genesis, where all humans as part of one family, male and female equally made in the image of God. Here it is interesting to note that the most repeated commandment in the Hebrew bible is "love the stranger".
Identity is formed in encountering the "other". How we respond to the "other", the stranger, the one who is different, is a critical issue at the dawn of the 21st century. In the "other" I can see an immigrant, a competitor, an enemy or I can see another vulnerable, fragile human and thus deepen my own humanity. RE can equip young people with skills and attitudes to encounter others with empathy and understanding. RE can foster ethical inquiry within a global rather than a nationalistic framework. By promoting questioning, debate, discussion and hard thinking, the skill and values that strengthen participatory democracy in a pluralistic context are also being taught.
There are stories and examples of golden ages, of just societies, in many of the great world religions. It is the Jewish idea of the Kingdom of God on earth that has influenced - and judged - our culture the most. Is it past and present parables of "just communities" rather than the myths of nationalism that should be taught in our schools?
Affirming every child's home tradition enables young people to ask critical questions; confronting them with ethical thinking from different traditions enables children to meet the "other" as a fellow vulnerable human. This is an RE which contributes to a kind of national consciousness that is open, inclusive and self-critical. In an increasingly inter-dependent world this should be an important contribution.
Andrew Bolton, former head of RE at Beauchamp College, Leicester is now lecturer in religious education at Westminster College, Oxford