There is much to celebrate about religious education these days, and its contribution to a pupil's educational experience in school should not be underestimated. As children disappear into their virtual pets, which they play with as they are driven to school in their parents' hermetically sealed four-wheel drive, it is perhaps timely to remind them that the world is a wonderful place, rich in diversity of belief and religious practice. RE is one of the major ways in which we help children come to terms with this often staggering variety. Without a mind-broadening element to education we risk a society that turns in on itself and refuses to challenge, analyse and criticise. History painfully reminds us what that kind of society's usual end is.
In an age of information overload, children are also regular targets for a plethora of moral, spiritual and religious propaganda. An increasingly technological age simultaneously fosters greater attention for ultimate questions, begetting a bewildering variety of response, from studied apathy to those who commit suicide to join spaceships tagging behind comets. RE equips children with the tools necessary to evaluate truth-claims, wherever they arise.
What would happen if there were no such thing as RE? First, pupils would be unaware of the contributions of one of the most powerful influences in the history of our world and in the life of millions today, for good and ill. Religion is there whether we like it or not. Is it good education to ignore it? Second, pupils might never otherwise be exposed to issues of belief and examples of those who live by faith. If a pupil comes from a religious background, they still should learn about other faiths and those who choose none. If the home environment is apathetic about or antagonistic towards religion, the pupil should systematically study the reasons for those views, and work out their own responses to them. . Third, and possibly most vitally, embryonic beliefs pupils have about questions of meaning, value and purpose in life should not be left wallowing in uncertainty. "Personal search" is, to RE teachers, the cornerstone of the subject. Some pupils rarely if ever think about their own beliefs, let alone attempt to categorise them or question them. RE gives that a jump-start.
Great attention is paid in schools to building up reserves of knowledge, skills of information gathering, ability to synthesise sources and the like, not least in RE. But what of helping pupils develop a sense of wonder, mystery, vision and purpose? These are explicit aims of the subject.
Primary teachers know only too well that natural inquisitiveness, inventiveness, creativity and a sense of the bigger things in life often seem to wane as the pupil moves into the secondary system. Secondary teachers of many subject areas rue the fact that they don't always have the time to extend discussion of their subject into areas where they can touch upon what really matters to pupils.
For example, many computer specialists would love to discuss artificial intelligence more frequently - when can a computer be classified as living and hence what does it mean to be alive? - but time forbids. RE nurtures inquisitiveness about ultimate questions, because its time is devoted to such issues.
No one claims that RE has a monopoly on these big questions, but whereas in many other subject areas they are the icing on the cake, in RE they can be the cake itself. This is a subject whose whole point is to explore the really big questions, drawing upon the expertise of other subject areas as it goes. It may be one of the few curricular areas left that challenges the system as a matter of priority, extending the notion of education as being in the business of challenge not just transmission.
When I find pupils in our school library in hot debate about whether or not there is a God, or musing in their jotters over what happens after death, I know that they are thinking about things which matter. That surely is worth celebrating.
Joe Walker is principal teacher of religious studies at Liberton High School, Edinburgh. Information about the RE festival can be obtained from John Stevenson, Education Department, Church of Scotland, 121 George Street, Edinburgh.