Opening minds not just the Bible

1st January 1999 at 00:00
SEVERAL years ago - actually, it's over 20 - I realised that acknowledging I taught religious studies elicited a response midway between pity and mystification. Admittedly, it wasn't in the same league as confessing to a predilection for taxidermy or rat catching but it was pretty close. Now, when I look back, I think I understand the problem.

Don't think that I am showing signs of bitterness when I say that religious education has tended to be a Cinderella service. Any old reverend could be trotted into assembly halls to impart wisdom into silent rows of young victims who would apparently absorb everything from the parable of the sower to human rights issues. A curtain was drawn over the inner thoughts of the pupils because they did not participate.

There was a hidden agenda, the desire of the religious education teacher or clergy to save from sin rather than to educate. And verily, verily, this indoctrination was often very effective, as I can testify.

Imagine for a moment a young pupil - me - throwing a rubber in the classroom which winged its way into the billowing petticoats of my religious education teacher. Her response was to ascertain who had incited me to such reckless behaviour. Naturally, when she asked "Who told you to do this?" she expected me, at least, to drop John Angus Campbell in it. With the jaunty triumph of a pupil, who knows she has the question right, I replied, "Satan". It was years before I fully comprehended why my formulaic reply caused such obvious frustration in the teacher.

But things have changed a great deal. Most religious education teachers no longer feel the need to impart handwringing unchangeable truths to their pupils. Even better, it now matters that religious education is taught by well-qualified teachers and not just any old ecclesiastical presence from the parish.

Most importantly, we now encourage our pupils to open their minds to a range of beliefs and possibilities. It is, of course, taking a long time for all of this to filter through to the parents of our children. At a recent parents' evening one mother, in all sincerity, greeted me with, "I've decided to visit one of the odd subjects tonight." Ten minutes later we both laughed as she realised the extent of her stereotyping.

An element of religious education which lends itself to the modern demand for problem solving skills and an ability to think strategically is the exploration of philosophy.

At a young age, pupils are fascinated with questions such as "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" More difficult philosophical, questions can then follow, for instance, "How do I know that I did not come into existence just a few minutes ago?" Teenagers quickly grasp the concept of examining beliefs and memories in order to prove a longer-term existence. The difference between philosophy, and religion, then, is somewhere between a nod and a wink.

All of this can be made quite basic: how do you know, when your friend is eating an Easter egg, if it tastes the same to him as it does to you? If a scientist were to slice your head open to study your brain, when you are eating the Easter egg, would he be able to measure your sensations of pleasure?

How, then, can religious belief be rigidly catalogued when we are all unique individuals? Take death, for example. Everybody dies but not everyone agrees about what happens after death. Whatever they may end up believing regarding the afterlife, pupils love to participate in a wide-ranging discussion: they are fascinated to consider that thinking of yourself dead when still alive is no different to being conscious while imagining yourself unconscious.

Perhaps there is less humorous mileage in this kind of religious education. I don't deny the laughs which came out of the old style imparting of facts. Most will be familiar with the reference to the first car in the Bible - Moses coming down the mountain in his Triumph. I also enjoyed the confusion when a young man told me that Jacob founded the Jacobites.

But I want my pupils to learn to think and analyse: there's no prizes any more for mere accumulation of knowledge. And, as for indoctrination, it leads to absurdity and we are looking for meaning.

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