'It's scandalous that we've allowed RE to wither – it's now just a "pub quiz" of world religions'

17th June 2017 at 10:02
Children are still crying out for meaning but the only thing schools are prepared to say is 'find your own path', while offering little signposting

In his new book, The Strange Death of Europe, Douglas Murray talks about a “gap” that he argues has existed since the theories of Charles Darwin were published in the 19th century; it is one that various political and social movements have tried to fill ever since – whether that be by communism or fascism.

Up until about 200 years ago, the “gap” was securely filled by the church, which offered a “divine truth”. Since then, various methodologies or belief systems have tried to fill the void left by the post-Enlightenment vacuum.

The most recent popular remedy is consumerism: buying something and getting satisfaction from it, sharing its purchase on social media and then buying something slightly bigger, better and newer to replace it a few months later when the gloss wears off. And reposting on social media.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the more we seem to embrace this social media-managed consumerism, the more unhappy our children become. This is evidenced by the fact that despite being in the top 10 most wealthy nations in the world, our children sit at the foot of the “happiness tables”, below Romania.

Former Labour government spokesman Alastair Campbell famously said “we don’t do God” when prime minister Tony Blair was asked a question about his faith in an interview in 2003. It seems to me that we’re currently attempting to echo that attitude in our education system, in which faith schools are under pressure to open their doors to those of other faiths or none, and RE is continually threatened in curriculum reshuffles for more “valuable” alternatives.

Even in those schools in which RE still maintains a place, too often it is “RE lite”. In other words, religion minus the God: a superficial presentation of what religion is, rather than a deeper engagement with what a relationship with God means.

This in turn can lead to the disaffection of students, who don’t see the mystery in a subject that should be full of it.

Across the curriculum, knowledge acquisition has seemingly become the Holy Grail (if you'll forgive the pun). Teaching students intricate facts has become of more value than discussing more abstract concept, such as the meaning of life.

This has been mirrored in our exam-factory schools whose measure of success has become clinically linked to snapshots of students’ academic ability.

Yet, children still cry out for meaning that can’t be found by heightening British values to the status of a pseudo belief system.

More and more students struggle with mental health issues, asking “what’s the point?” But we don’t even attempt to present a variety of answers anymore. The only thing we seem prepared to say is “find your own path”, while offering little signposting.

I’m not saying faith is some magic pill, or even something that can be chosen, but surely allowing its main discovery channel in schools to wither away to insignificance seems not only to run parallel to curriculum diversity, but also the needs of the students.

As a country, we’ve become intrinsically anti-faith.

The RE curriculum has strayed more into “religion” as a thing that is done rather than an internal process involving an act of prayer or connection with a higher being.

Also, our unwillingness to distinguish between complex and utterly different gods and religions has led to a dumbing down of what it is to select a path. The “all religions are full of ****” brigade have managed to pigeonhole them all into the same box in some cases.

Above all, this anti-faith agenda has implied that people who chose faith aren’t as intellectually competent as their peers who reject it, a relegation of God, if you like, as a subject that shouldn’t take up our time, educationally or otherwise.

A head of English provided a case in point when he responded to this tweet on my account with: “RE has no answers. Belongs in history books/cultural studies.”

It's true that people's belief in God has inspired some of Europe's most impressive accomplishments – for example, the Basilica in Rome or the cathedral in Santiago De Compostela. One modern-day replacement, the millennium dome, reeks of a generation plugging a “message” only as enduring as the plastic it was built with.

It's one thing to say religion is simply a vehicle for cultural progression but another to dismiss the idea that God's influence in a person’s life can’t be behind a particularly outustanding act.

We can’t sell our children short by only offering them an Instagram answer to questions that have troubled mankind since the dawn of time.

I’ve seen so many assemblies over the years that have equated success to the acquisition of capital or the positive views of others. Rarer is a narrative that paints the man or woman who strives for something more worthwhile than the average, but lives a life of relative obscurity, as "success".

I’ve seen obvious rags-to-riches stories become urban legends but heard little of the person who has dedicated their life to a cause much bigger themselves with no thought of personal reward and no eventual recognition.

Materialism and cultural recognition have become the yardsticks of our millennial goals. Yet, schools continue to tick the “act of worship” box by occasionally turning the assembly hall lights off or by placing generic quotes about love on a PowerPoint.

An RE teacher based in Oxfordhsire had this to say about the subject: “It’s the sort of "pub quiz" of world religions rather than an actual exploration of meaning and the effect it can have on people.

“From an examination point of view, I can see why it is easier to do this. AQA even has some multiple-choice questions to kick it off, but the way in which it is examined doesn't reflect the unique nature of the subject. It's too much about what we do know rather than trying to explain and articulate what we don't know.

“I think that leads to pupils being passive and 'accepting' rather than trying to find meaning for themselves.”

Pressure from the National Secular Society and the Atheism Society continue to press for reforms to the RE curriculum and to further reduce its already waning influence.

This push to kill off RE worries me. Many kids are searching for meaning. RE can help with the search. 

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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