Beyond the limits of reason
You've done jolly well." That was virtually all the mayoress had to say at the launch of a new Agreed Syllabus I attended recently. Two years' work involving teachers, ministers of religion and others were shrugged off in a perfunctory, five-minute speech. In fact, she had only looked at the document that very afternoon. The message? RE has little real value.
Sadly, this attitude is not uncommon and most RE teachers will have encountered it in some form or another. Indeed, not a few will know those moments of frustration when they find themselves asking whether RE should be left to the denominational schools, where the committed can teach the committed and everyone understands why.
However, the contribution which RE can make goes way beyond the confessional setting, as a little probing will show. Religious beliefs and attitudes are, admittedly, all but irrelevant in our secularised society. But all around us are other cultures - Jewish, Muslim, Sikh - where it is impossible to make any sense of people's lifestyles and values without understanding the role played by their religion. At its simplest level, RE is about understanding people. If it accomplishes that alone, its place in the curriculum would be justified.
But RE goes much further. Teachers are not sociologists and anthropologists, content to examine beliefs and practices in their cultural and historical settings. RE teachers are working at a fundamentally different level; they want their pupils to confront the world of the spirit: taste it, question it. They want them to engage - in a non-confessional way - with some of the most profound teachings of the human heritage. It is the RE teacher who opens cognitive and emotive windows to new horizons, so that even pupils who decide that religion is not for them can gain from the experience and grow in self-understanding.
And there's the rub. For what lies at the root of all this wealth of spiritual experience? Not the repeatable experiments of the physics laboratory but revelations and miraculous happenings; not the primary documents and artefacts of the history class but traditions.
How can we justify RE's place in a curriculum alongside subjects founded on the rigorous collection and analysis of data? It is, of course, true that religious belief does not rest on controlled experiment or objective observation.
The revelation at Mount Sinai was witnessed by thousands of people, but no one would describe it as an exercise in data collection by detached observers.
But if the root experiences of religion are not open to observation, its present day effects certainly are - and in two fundamental areas, meaning and morality.
Whether anyone cares to acknowledge it or not, most people's moral values originated in religion. True, there have been attempts to construct secular moralities and some of these are impressive edifices. But, without exception, they fail to answer the most basic of moral questions - "why be moral at all?". Secular moralities characteristically sidestep that uncomfortable question, either by subsuming it under some ill-defined "sense of moral compulsion" or resorting to social expedience - the "I help you, you help me, we both gain" mentality. It is exclusively in the RE lesson that pupils are introduced to what must be the ultimate foundation for moral behaviour - that human life has value beyond itself.
People also need meaning in their lives. Feelings of meaninglessness lie at the core of much of today's disaffection, depression - even suicides. Some people try to create their own meaning; others escape by turning to the quasi-supernatural - witness the mandatory horoscope in virtually every popular magazine. Such "meanings" work only as long as no one questions them. The moment they are queried, they vanish. They have no substance beyond themselves. The RE lesson is the one place where young people brought up with secular values, are introduced to the notion that life can have real meaning and that it might lie in areas of experience they have never yet explored.
There is yet a further dimension to RE. The question "how does RE sit together with subjects based on data acquired and analysed by reason?" rests on the assumption that reason occupies a supreme place in our lives.
Although many of our commonplace experiences involve little reasoning power - gazing at a sunset, enjoying a piece of music, falling in love - we are seldom called upon to question the pre-eminence of reason. RE does question this supreme value. And that is one of its most valuable contributions.
I was recently teaching a GCSE class about monotheism and the Jewish understanding of God. Suddenly, one boy, who had spent several minutes with his eyes screwed up in intense, almost agonised, contemplation blurted out, "But how did God get there in the first place?" Here was a totally secularised human being grappling with a profound theological problem, and finding it worth the effort. We digressed to explore what it meant for a human mind to be asking questions like this. By the time the bell went, everyone had come to realise that reason has its limits - and that they had just been brought to the very edge.
RE might lack the factual underpinning of other subjects. But whether in understanding people's lifestyles, or in exploring the foundations of morality and meaning or through pushing reason to its limit and beyond, it can offer some of the most valuable lessons pupils might ever learn about themselves.