Teachers offer pupils a "naive and cartoonish" image of Christians as worthy do-gooders while failing to tackle the faith's deeper theological roots and other issues, such as women bishops and gay marriage, RE experts have warned.
Dr Nigel Fancourt, from the University of Oxford, said that teachers presented Christianity with a "rosy glow" - for example, reducing the story of the feeding of the 5,000 to "a nice picnic". By learning a "stereotypical" image of Christianity, pupils miss out on the "full depth and breadth of Christian tradition", he said.
The comments follow a report published this week by Dr Fancourt and a fellow Oxford academic on the teaching of Christianity in RE lessons. Research for the project showed that teachers - especially Christians - can be afraid of examining the big questions because of fears that they will be seen as evangelising. This discomfort means they are more likely to go into depth when talking about other religions, such as Islam or Judaism, Dr Fancourt said.
A YouGov survey to accompany the research revealed that 44 per cent of English adults think more attention should be given to the teaching of Christianity in schools (see panel, right).
"There is this naive and cartoonish vision of how Christians are, as worthy people who hold church fetes, give money to charity, have nice festivals, have compassion for the world around them and help the elderly," Dr Fancourt told TES. "I'm not saying this is not happening, but if students come away with that as their only view it's a bit stereotypical and it means students are not being pushed intellectually.
"Teachers need to look at the depth and breadth of the Christian tradition, with all its subtlety and diversity. There needs to be more analysis of the key theological issues, such as the relationship between God and humans or the Bible and the church.
"Pupils need to look at world Christianity, too, such as Pentecostalism in Korea or Anglicanism in Africa. It's not just about the Vicar of Dibley image."
The research comes two years after Ofsted issued a critical report on RE, which found that schools often failed to deliver high-quality lessons. Inspectors said that many schools did not pay enough attention to teaching the core beliefs of Christianity.
Since then, the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, which excludes RE, has prompted concerns that the subject is being marginalised in schools. The research also follows the news that schools no longer have to adhere to guidance that gives a "special status to Jesus Christ" when carrying out the requirement to hold daily acts of collective worship.
Dr Fancourt, who lectures on Oxford's PGCE course in RE, said some schools used stories from Christianity to promote good behaviour but did not examine issues with enough depth.
"You might take the story of the Good Samaritan and take it to mean it is about being nice to people, but it is actually more subtle than that," he said. "It is about an outcast, somebody you don't like, being morally better than you."
Publication of the research will be followed by a University of Oxford project to find ways to improve RE teaching, particularly in primaries. Plans to better support secondaries have been put on hold until the government's reform of GCSEs is complete.
John Keast, chair of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, welcomed Oxford's efforts to support teachers. "For several years inspection reports have shown that the teaching of Christianity ... is too weak," he said. "Research and training are key to improving the teaching of all aspects of RE, but with opportunities for teachers of RE to access good quality training now being so cut back, this initiative is a welcome step forward."
64% of adults agreed that children need to learn about Christianity in order to understand English history.
57% agreed that knowledge about Christianity is needed to understand the English culture and way of life.
26% of 'non-religious' respondents said more attention should be given to the teaching of Christianity in RE.
Source: YouGov online poll of 1,832 adults in England, for the University of Oxford's Department of Education.