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A subject for young people to believe in

Navigating the moral maze of life should be as important as English and maths, says Ewan Aitken

Walking home late one evening, I was aware of a group of six drunken young men, none of whom I recognised, on the other side of the road, full of noise and aggression. Suddenly, they veered over the road and stopped right in front of me. My way was blocked, so I stopped in some trepidation.

One of them stepped forward and bellowed into my face the somewhat surreal inquiry: "Are you still a priest?"

I felt it would have been unhelpful at that point to inform him that I had never been a priest, only a Presbyterian minister. Instead, I grunted "yes" to confirm that I was still a clergyman.

There was a tense silence and then he said "guid" and walked off, his wee gang of disciples following and resuming their previous banter at full volume.

I haven't yet worked out whether my continued ordained status saved me from a kicking or, having recognised me from somewhere, he just couldn't think of anything else to say. Whatever the case, something about the fact I believed and had acted in that belief had stuck with him. Whether he had any idea what it was I believed was immaterial; he just knew I believed in something enough to become a clergyman of some sort.

Everyone, all of us, has beliefs about how the world is as it is. The choices we make about how we live our lives are a consequence of those beliefs. I mean belief in the widest sense, not simply religious belief.

Even if someone believes that life is meaningless and today is all there is, it will have a profound consequence for his or her decisions about living.

Our beliefs are the bedrock of our life choices, the big ones and the insignificant ones. But our level of fulfilment in life depends on how much we are aware of what it is we believe to be true. Beliefs can take people to very negative choices. The London bombers believed that their actions would bring them a special place in heaven.

It's hard to make sense of such beliefs. So much so that many religious leaders have condemned their actions absolutely. Muslim leaders have gone to great pains to say that these men were not true Muslims. And yet, if we want to begin to understand why they did what they did, we need to know that they believed that they were the only true Muslims.

Far from being non-believers, they were total believers in something outside our frame of reference. If we are going to make sense of these terrible atrocities, we need to get inside that frame of reference, painful as that might be. If I am to "love my enemy", as I am called to do as a Christian, I can only do so by getting close to where they were as they packed those rucksacks, bought those tickets, stepped on those tube trains and the bus.

We live in a world where conflict between nations and neighbours is increasing. If we are to make sense of the belief systems that take people to those destructive conclusions, then we need to take time to understand what is behind their motivation, to think more often and more deeply, asking at the same time: how does that affect what we believe?

I was sickened by the London bombings but, if ever there was a moment that justified putting the study of belief in its broadest sense at the heart of the curriculum, it was those tragic events. If we are going to help young people make sense of this world, they need to have the space and support to do real and significant explorations of what it is they believe and what that means for them, their neighbours and wider communities.

Some time ago, I called for the translation of religious and moral education into much more of a core subject which I called beliefs and moral decision-making. I stand by that call. Many, many RME teachers already provide the opportunities I seek for young people, and they do so with insight and inspiration.

But we need to do more. Building a more peaceful world begins by understanding other people's beliefs, whether or not they have anything to do with a deity. That is why the title should change. Religious and moral education is at present compulsory. We should build on that to do whatever it takes to rank it up there with English and maths as core to any education experience.

These ideas may not change the world. But if they begin to help young people understand the world better and, more importantly, themselves, then that process of change will have taken root and will have a chance to survive and grow.

Ewan Aitken is education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council.

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