Grey areas

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Religious practices can be hard for secular pupils to grasp, writes Arye Forta

Maths teachers have it easy. And so do others who teach subjects that do not require students to imagine themselves into a different persona. Of course, history teachers might want pupils to adopt the mindsets of people who lived long ago - but that is a doddle next to the RE teacher faced with youngsters who have never been inside a place of worship. So how do we bridge the chasm that separates the perceptions of secular and religious people?

In RE we describe practices that have profound meaning for those living within faith structures, but not for our secular students. For them, RE is just another subject on the timetable. Many of these practices are irrelevant to them, and may even seem a little bizarre - for example, Jewish men tying leather boxes to their arms and heads, or a priest placing a wafer on someone's tongue. How do we get secular students to relate to such practices which for religious people are not just the object of study, but life skills?

For one thing, we should beware of the "equivalence fallacy". I once watched a mentor quizzing a group of 12-year-olds. "Christians have priests," he began, "Jews have?" "Rabbis," answered 30 enthusiastic pupils.

"Wrong!" said the mentor. "The rabbi is not the Jewish equivalent of the priest."

He continued. "Muslims pray in mosques, Jews pray in?" Again, there was a thunderous response: "Synagogues." "Wrong!" called the mentor again. "A synagogue is not the Jewish equivalent of a mosque."

Then, smiling broadly, he told his students: "You're right, butI" What followed was an outline of the uniqueness of each faith. He explained how each has its own perception of reality and its role in the larger scheme of things. Yet secular pupils are certain to think in terms of equivalents: church = gurdwara = synagogue, and so on. Students must see that different faiths are not merely one entity duplicated in different trappings.

Another potential pitfall involves the gap between phenomenology and theology. Phenomenology is the easy side of teaching RE. With a few artefacts it is not hard to show how Jews prepare a Shabbat table or how Christians celebrate the Eucharist. But such demonstrations mean little to secular students unless we explain the underlying beliefs. This is why we must teach students theology, too.

This involves more than simply describing practices for obvious reasons; for example, you can explain incarnation but you can hardly demonstrate it in the classroom. The difficult part is translating theology into practice.

How does monotheism work itself out in everyday life? Or original sin? Or eschatology? What are secular students to make of beliefs that seem to imbue the lives of their adherents with profound meaning, yet have little connection with their own lifestyles?

Such questions present real problems for the RE teacher - but they are not insurmountable. In this case, forging links with members of other faith communities can really help. You can either bring them into your classroom or take your students to them.

Your contacts need not be ministers, but they do need to be well versed in the tenets of their faith and be good communicators. And they should not proselytise. With the right people, you can avoid the pitfalls described above. They can explain beliefs and practices using themselves as the focus, and bring the words in the textbook to life. Often they will bring out the nuances that might escape the outsider.

Certainly, perceptions can be changed in this way. I will never forget the 11-year-old boy who, having done his homework the night before (prepare a question for the rabbi), unfolded a sheet of foolscap and read solemnly:

"Rabbi, what football team do you support?"

Muffled laughter ensued. But this was a serious question. What the boy was really asking was whether I had any leisure activities, or was my life a boring round of prayer and bible study? I was glad to have been there.

Rabbi Arye Forta is founder of J-Link, an outreach programme for Jewish children in non-Jewish schools

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