Sparring partners?

29th November 2002 at 00:00
The link between citizenship and religion appears at first glance to be a natural one. Religious people, in the main, conform to a set of values that would surely create a firm foundation for good citizens. Religions teach about peace, morality, honesty, trust and a range of other virtues; they seek peace. It may, therefore, appear bizarre that when studying religion one does not have to look very far before discovering examples of leaders and teachers who have trampled on the fundamental values of their times. The history of religion is rich with characters who have been regarded as anything but good citizens. Jesus was crucified by the Roman government authorities; Muhammad had to flee from Mecca; Guru Nanak rejected the iniquities of the Hindu caste system; and Gautama left his wife and young son to seek enlightenment. Then there are those such as Desmond Tutu, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, all of whom rejected some of the core values of the society in which they lived. They challenged the social norms of their countries often at great pain to themselves.

Exciting possibilities

Religions may appear to settle all too easily into conformist mode, but most of them have origins in iconoclasm. The contemporary icons of society had to be challenged and destroyed if the new message was to take hold. The prophets of the Bible, such as Amos and Jeremiah, spoke out against the behaviour and broken promises of the people of Israel who fell short of obeying God's will. Close to our times was the spat between Church and State over the Falklands memorial service and today the lack of support among Church leaders for action against Iraq that does not come with the authority of the United Nations. It will be interesting to see if the growing number of schools with a religious character are willing to take up this prophetic role in the teaching of citizenship.

Citizenship seeks to engage pupils in the process of participatory democracy, but not all religions, and sub-groups within religions, are democratic in any normal usage of the word. Religion can create a tension between the will of the State and the demands of religious conviction when it seeks to enhance the pupils' awareness of rights and duties.

What is required is a far more rigorous engagement between religious education and citizenship. At the moment RE is flirting with citizenship and nodding gently in its direction. We need a bare-knuckle fight to capture the real excitement RE can make to the teaching of citizenship at all levels. Both subjects must be allowed to challenge each other's integrity and fundamental assertions rather than be regarded as two broadly related theories of moral education and social control.

What is truly difficult for teachers and parents is to accept that controversy and disagreement are far more interesting than pallid morality. Citizenship and RE do have the word "controversy" running through them like letters in a stick of rock. Surely nothing inflames people like a religious or political debate? The stories of religion are full of the dead destroyed by a god or gods. How can teachers avoid discussing the "unfairness" of it all? Why aren't all the sick healed? Pupils will recognise that the world is not fair; the poor and the disadvantaged do not win in the end. Justice and fairness are interesting concepts in religion and citizenship, but they are rarely explored in sufficient depth.

What about a new syllabus?

It is the blandness of many RE syllabuses that inhibits a real relationship with citizenship. RE syllabuses are agreed and that is the trouble. Far more interesting are the disagreements. Syllabuses are full of piety. They do not advocate the teaching and compromises that most religious people have to face within their own religion.

Surprisingly, not all Christians love one another; there are Muslims who drink alcohol; there are Jews who eat pork; there are Sikhs who also drink alcohol and Hindus who are intolerant of those with whom they do not agree. In other words, they are human. Religious people are ordinary citizens; they may align themselves with a religious opinion, but they often fail to live up to its implications.

To teach RE from a position of human frailty would make a far more effective contribution to citizenship. It would be far more exciting if the ageing and out-dated Model Syllabuses (1994) were revised to cut out mealy-mouthed religion and engage in the study of religion as lived by ordinary citizens. If such an approach were adopted the two widely accepted but banal Attainment Targets, "learning about" and "learning from", could be redrafted.

The events of September 11 have cast a shadow over what it means to be religious and to be a citizen for where does one's loyalty lie? That moment changed the way citizenship and religion relate to each other. The content of those subjects must change too. Pupils might then be able to study religion in such a manner that would be closely related to what it means to be a responsible citizen in contemporary society and uniquely human into the bargain.

The most powerful images pupils have relayed to them arrive in their homes through the media. In the glare of the TV screen is the harshness, threat and violence of the world in which pupils live. There is little of the peace, tolerance, trust and harmony one discovers in RE syllabuses and there is little participatory democracy in being a world citizen when so many innocent victims are facing the gun.

Alan Brown is a lecturer at University College, Worcester and co-editor of World Religions in Education

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