Religion is more than the stuff of headlines

13th July 2007 at 01:00
Yojana Sharma is a freelance journalist and international affairs specialist

Salman Rushdie should not have been given a knighthood. Discuss. It sounds like a question for world literature or citizenship but could soon be a topic for RE if proposals to make the subject more "relevant" to pupils are taken up by schools.

A recent Ofsted report said RE teachers should include the impact of religion on society and use examples where religion is not always a force for good. "Pupils should be taught that religion is complex," it said, and "given the opportunity to explore that ambiguity", while RE lessons should "contribute to community cohesion".

It is hoped that children will engage in lively debate about other people's beliefs and challenge them using topical examples from news reports. That may well be healthy too many religious people are blind to the dark side of their faiths and many non-believers refuse to see anything good in religion. But it could promote the impression that religion is only interesting when it hits the headlines: that is, when it is controversial, confrontational and threatening. It is easy to see which religions would bear the brunt of this approach. A negative focus on Islam would be inevitable. Meanwhile, talking about other religions without understanding the belief systems will not help young people to love their neighbour.

Terrorism is no more a central tenet of Islam than burning witches or persecuting redheads was a central tenet of Christianity, but you would hardly realise that from news reports. The truth is that religion is a pretty mundane part of everyday life and, aside from the festivals, unspectacular. News headlines don't reflect that. RE taught as media studies or sociology may make it more interesting to those on the outside looking in, but an understanding of the central values of faith systems could end up sacrificed on the high altar of "relevance".

Still, Ofsted is not the Pope. Many schools will continue to teach about faiths. They already take issues such as abortion or charity and discuss the way different religions approach them. And yes, Danish cartoons and Salman Rushdie will have a role in illustrating that approach.

As for community cohesion, developing a sense of common belonging, respect for others and a caring ethos in schools rather than a once-a-week sermon during RE is the way forward. Community cohesion requires more than lessons in which pupils challenge each other's beliefs in the name of exploring "ambiguity". If religion is no longer a private matter but open to classroom scrutiny, perhaps inculcating a deep respect for other people's beliefs from an early age is the place to start.

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