Ye of little faith
Once in a while, someone leaves my room crying. I don't say that with shame or pride - it's part of the job. You see, I teach RE. Know-nothings tell me how irrelevant it is to them ("I'm not going to be a priest, so why should I learn this, lol?") while every day 90 per cent of the world is chucking itself off a cliff for faith, or bandaging the wounded. And all the while, bombs are going off on the televisions in their living rooms, getting closer and closer.
But that's not the only reason that RE is important. And it's not why students leave my room crying. Too many people, alienated from religion either because of their disbelief of it in the abstract, or their fractured experience of it in the practical, rebel against even considering why it is so important to so many people.
What makes it powerful? If you study religion for more than a moment, it becomes obvious. Religion isn't about salat, or wudu, or the Stations of the Cross, or the divine liturgy. It isn't about bending and bowing in Mass, the lowest impact aerobics known to man. Religion is about everything that we value; it's about everything we do. Whatever your take on its veracity (and brothers and sisters, I say "amen" to your doubts if you have them, just as I say "hallelujah" to your faithful yawps), what religion does is attempt to process the sum total of human experience and make sense of everything in life with value, everything that matters to us.
That's why, in RE, we talk about ethics, cloning, abortion, death, marriage, divorce, the value of life, philosophy, euthanasia, humanism, food laws, just wars, unjust wars, oppression, marginalisation, loneliness, the meaning and purpose of life, kindness and cruelty. In short, it touches on the things that touch every single one of us.
That's why, whenever some scamp solemnly tells me that religion has nothing to do with him, I nod sadly and prove him wrong over the next five years because he's a child and he just doesn't know. Oddly, the most committed A-level students I get are frequently from the most atheist segments of the class, as if the passion of their rebuke to the divine extends to chasing him to the gates of Heaven. Good RE welcomes students from every point of the faith spectrum, from Damascus to Dawkins. If an evangelical child can leave my room as intellectually satisfied as the boy with Derren Brown posters at home, I have done my job.
And that's why people sometimes leave my room crying. Because good RE, when it is done properly, talks about the things that matter to people. We can't avoid it, so we walk towards it: the controversy, the debate, the difficulty of the matter.
Whether it be fundamentalism (I taught a lesson on the day the bombs went off in London) or terminal illness (tread softly, every room contains children touched by tragedy), these subjects don't go away if you ignore them. And where else can children talk about these things? You're not a therapist, God forbid, but a human being. And we're in the business of teaching humans to be human.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London and director of the ResearchED conference