Secular revelations

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Are godless world views undermining religious education? Alan Brown looks at the debate.

Indoctrination, Education and God: the Struggle for the Mind. By Terence Copley. SPCK pound;14.99

The central aim of Terence Copley's excellent book is to explore whether an implicitly secular indoctrination is occurring in society and, if so, how far education is helping or hindering the process.

He points out that western society is generally wary about the dangers of religious indoctrination but is less ready to receive and examine evidence for indoctrination by secular world views.

Copley has written widely on RE and taken a leading role in the training of teachers and the development of thinking in RE. This book is by far his best work, as he plots not only the areas identified in the title, but the state of play in society and in RE at the present time. He raises many thought-provoking and challenging issues, two of which are of current significance.

In his chapter on "Education or Catastrophe", he draws attention to the promiscuity of RE. It seeks bedfellows that reflect current educational fashions. There was multi-culturalism, then PSE and PSHE; today it is citizenship. The development of RE appears to lack confidence in itself as a subject and readily attaches itself to "new" secular educational fashions. Students then assume that as they grow they move out of "religion" into "morality".

Copley makes the point forcefully that RE is different from these other areas of the curriculum that some regard as closely linked. It is, he says, the child's entitlement to know about religions and a religious way of life as an option. Copley doesn't say it as clearly as he might, but this weak view of RE has been too easily accepted by the politicians and some in the RE establishment.

He also argues for a single attainment target in RE:"engaging with religions and other life stances." This is a view shared by many and a direct and justified criticism of the new national framework for RE that it has not moved RE forward at all.

A theme running through the book is that RE teachers and planners should take proper account of the world in which we live. Arguably, for example, the most world-changing event of the past five years happened on September 11, 2001. Has this been reflected in the national framework? Has it been reflected in agreed syllabuses? Has the content and pedagogy of RE taken contemporary events and their momentous consequences on board? Copley appears to think not, and many would agree with him.

This book will, I hope, become a seminal book for all those interested in religion and those who teach RE. Copley does not expect agreement, and I certainly would not agree with some of his arguments and conclusions. What the book does do, is to look closely at society and the way in which religion and RE have failed to meet head on the religious and spiritual situation of contemporary Britain. It is readable, entertaining and challenging.

Alan Brown is senior lecturer in education studies at University College Worcester.

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