Seas of faith flow together

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Robert Jackson says arguments over whether RE should be multi-faith or based on Christianity miss the point. There is a better approach based on ethnography.

When Norman Tebbit told the Conservative Party conference that we had no right to force multiculturalism on Muslim countries, "nor they upon us", there were gasps. But it was one side of a debate that has been fizzing in religious education for years.

The arguments hinge on whether the subject should be open and "multi-faith" or concentrate on Christianity as a "heritage" religion, a badge of national identity, culture and spirituality.

But like Norman Tebbit, both sides seem to be missing a crucial point. Religions should not be represented uncritically as monoliths. As any ethnographic study of them will show, they are intellectually, culturally and spiritually diverse; their boundaries are drawn differently by both insiders and outsiders.

RE needs more flexible ap-proaches that treat religious traditions as organic, diverse and more personal and complex than "belief systems". In the Warwick RE Project materials - of which I am director - for example, we have created an interplay between a study of individual people in the context of the religious and cultural groups to which they belong and an emerging picture of the wider religious tradition. Such an approach is personal, allows for difference and shows that "religions" can be conceived in different ways.

But teachers also need to question RE's tacit assumptions about cultures. British RE literature contains little discussion about the concepts of "culture" and "cultures". Much of it portrays religion as a subset of culture and regards individual cultures as discrete.

With this simplistic view of cultures, it has been relatively easy for opponents of multi-faith RE to construct a Tebbit-style argument identifying an organic, but relatively stable, national culture which is threatened by imported foreign cultures, or which allows alien cultures to exist by its good grace.

In recent social anthropology, we find some very different approaches to the representation of cultures. Positions in the debate range from acknowledging the idea of cultural continuity, while emphasising the organic, fuzzy-edged and internally contested nature of cultures, to challenging the very idea of a culture on the grounds that it tends to make difference "solid and timeless".

Some would wish to switch the emphasis from a generic idea of the "culture" of a people to "sociality", shifting anthropology's main focus to the study of individuals in relationships and the interactive nature of social life - a move from static descriptions of people's cultural characteristics to dynamic accounts of the societies in which they live.

So far, most of those who produce RE materials for children have shown little awareness of this debate which is crucial to the conceptualisation of a multicultural society and the place of religious education within it.

The notion of cultural continuity can be consistent with the view that cultural change is complex and contested, and with disagreements over the ways in which cultural pasts are constructed and used in the present. The debate should be less over whether or not there is cultural continuity, than over the ways in which it is conceived and represented.

As well as seeing a person as part of a continuing cultural tradition, it is also possible to observe that person's engagement with a variety of cultures. We need to give attention to both of these if we are to give an account which coheres with the complexities of what actually happens, for example, to the cultural identities of second and third generation British Hindu, Muslim and Sikh young people. Ethnographic evidence shows them not to be locked into "alien" cultures or caught between two cultures, but often to have the skill to combine a sense of cultural continuitywith an ability to draw on a range of different cultural backgrounds.

And how should pupils draw on these resources? There is considerable mileage in adapting methods from ethnography, something my colleagues and I have attempted to do in the Warwick RE Project's books.

Instead of unrealistically asking pupils to lay aside their own presuppositions, the method requires pupils to use their own concepts and feelings as a starting point for moving between their own experience and that of others, learning to identify similarities and differences while cautiously building up a picture of the "grammar" of others' religious symbols and values.

The method also assumes a critical element. For example, engaging with the lives of "real" people immediately questions received ideas about religions and cultures.

Finally, there is a reflexive element. Just as anthropologists sometimes write of the impact of studying other ways of life on their own self-understanding, so pupils can be prompted by their studies to reflect on their understanding of their own ways of life. Perhaps Norman Tebbit would be better able to cope with the cultural sophistication of our country if he tried this himself.

These ideas are developed in Robert Jackson's Religious Education: An Interpretive Approach (Hodder and Stoughton Pounds 12.99) and in the Warwick RE Project series Bridges to Religions (key stage 1 and 2) and Interpreting Religions (ks 3) published by Heinemann.

Professor Robert Jackson is director of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit and director of graduate studies in the Institute of Education at the University of Warwick.

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