Religious Education for a time of Existential Threat

A shortened audio recording with slides of inaugural professorial lecture ‘Religious Education for a time of Existential Threat’, given on May 11th 2022 at Canterbury Christ Church University. To find out more visit nicer.org.uk and bobbowie.com. You can book our conference for £25 this July 4th 2022 at this link where some of these themes are being explored further here https://tinyurl.com/NICERconference

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A school subject about truth-seeking and way-seeking

I am linked to the AfterRE project, a research project funded by Culham St Gabriel’s which is asking questions and exploring possibilities about the next stage in development of the subject, Religious Education. This is a think piece that is linked to that project.

How the world thinks

In his conclusion to the first section of his book How the World Thinks, Julian Baggini suggests that philosophy is differently conceived across the world. One objective that seeks to pin down reality (he says the world) as a truth-seeker, fixed on getting an understanding of things right, with conceptual clarity. Another objective is the concern of a way-seeker, attempting to navigate life, how to live and act while engaged in the world.


“Philosophy in the West has always aspired to be more of a science: rigorous, precise, describing reality as it is. In the East it is more of an art of living.”

Baggini, Julian. How the World Thinks (p. 143). Granta Publications. Kindle Edition.


Baggini contends that philosophy needs both.

“These two projects are related, of course. You understand the world at least in part to get around it, and you can’t have an interest in getting around it without also knowing something about the way it is.”

Baggini, Julian. How the World Thinks (pp. 143-144). Granta Publications. Kindle Edition.

What might RE learn from Baginni’s reflection on Philosophy?

Baggini’s thinking about philosophy could be applied to current discussions about the future of the subject of Religious Education (RE) (See here, here and here for example) which has been framed under a new phrase Religion and Worldviews. Historically the subject of RE has probably often contained a balance between these two strands. On the one hand a focus on asking ultimate questions of existential importance about the fundamental nature of truth – truth-seeking as found in the scholarship of Divinity, theologies, and philosophies, seeking to answer questions of the meaning of life. On the other, the study of ‘way-seeking’ – the more embodied search for meaning in life as enacted and practiced through traditions and communities of way seeking.

The current debate in RE can seem quite focussed on definitions of Worldviews. However the focus could on both Religion and Worldviews, treating it as a compound concept, a constructed concept of multiple parts. Religious Education is a compound concept with a particular sense of religious and education brought into a particular relationship. Failure in understanding those sense and that relationship is one reason for the subject being conflated with faith development.

Treating Religion and Worldviews as a particular compound concept in the context of school education in England, could allow a subject that combines both truth-seeking and way-seeking; the meaning of life and meaning in life.

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Podcasts that seek to go deeper on matters science, religion and faith

Here are some comments about two recent podcasts well worth listening to if you are working in the field of science and religion

Nick Spencer and Bethany Sollereder

The first, the shorter of the two, is Diving Deep Into Science and Religion | Live from the UK trailed as ‘Nick Spencer and Bethany Sollereder help us to move into the deep end of the science and religion conversation.’ They talk about the large-scale research project by Faraday Institute and Theos to find out how people in the UK understand and think about science and religion.

According to Nick, one of the co-authors of the report, they found that the conversation is much deeper and much more interesting than is often portrayed.

Bethany Sollereder recently edited with Alister McGrath Emerging Voices in Science and Theology: Contributions by Young Women published by Routledge in 2022 which says of the book “This volume engages with the relative absence and underrepresentation of female voices in the field of science and religion, which tends to be dominated by male academics who are in the later stages of their careers.”

Click here for the podcast, download the transcript and the report here: https://biologos.org/podcast-episodes/diving-deep-into-science-and-religion-live-from-the-uk

Jonathan Pageau, Douglas Murray, and Dr Jordan B Peterson

For a longer listen / watch (depending on whether you prefer Youtube or the podcast version, there is a recorded conversation between Jonathan Pageau, Douglas Murray, and Dr Jordan B Peterson. Here the discussion is around hierarchies of perception, existence, faith, and whether meaning is a self evident truth or something intangible. It is an account of how deep meaning and a truthful spiritual reality can exist. It goes beyond a superficial understanding of symbolic meaning to one that permeates that which is truly real.

Jonathan Pageau is a French-Canadian liturgical artist and icon carver. His work has featured in museums across the world. He carves Eastern Orthodox and other traditional images, and runs a YouTube channel dedicated to the exploration of symbolism and is a Christian, heavily influenced by Orthodox traditions.

Douglas Murray is a British political commentator and author associate editor for the magazine the Spectator. His most recent book is “The War on the West.” He has hosted numerous debates between Peterson and Sam Harris positioning himself somewhat between the two. It might not be entirely inaccurate to say that he sees religion, and Christianity specifically, as offering great cultural and political gifts to civilisation that might be necessary for human flourishing albeit he finds himself unable to take the last step of faith.

Peterson is well known for his outspoken political views against forced speech, his views on Marxism, totalitarianism of left and right forms, and his two recent popular books and extensive YouTube channel with the very popular series of videos on Biblical passages. Peterson is notoriously difficult to position interim of his religious views but he finds considerable psychological meaning in the Bible and remains open to the possibility of a spiritually real dimension.

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What is a Worldview? Trevor Cooling shares his thinking

Trevor Cooling, Professor of Christian Education, and Bob Bowie, Professor of Religion and Worldviews Education, talk about Worldview. You can find information about articles of Trevor’s here https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full…​ and here https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/…​. More about the final report of the Commission of RE report here: https://www.commissiononre.org.uk

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A message wrapped in words: teaching the Bible in schools

Here I interview Dr Margaret Carswell, a leading specialist in teaching texts in religious education. In this interview, I ask her about key ideas in her work and discuss techniques teachers can use to teach texts more hermeneutical. For more about hermeneutical RE see https://blogs.canterbury.ac.uk/nicer/…​. Dr Margaret Carswell (PhD) is a Senior Lecturer at Australian Catholic University. She was an advisor to the Texts and Teachers project, a research project led by Canterbury Christ Church University. Carswell takes an academic and disciplinary approach to the study of sacred texts and her pedagogical approach is based on this. In her work, she has critiqued a number of RE programs which fall short of the hermeneutical expectations of scholarly study which the Catholic Church has committed to in its statement on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. These studies can be found in her thesis which is available online: – Carswell, M. F. (2006). Biblical metaphors for God in the primary level of the education series To Know Worship and Love (Thesis, Australian Catholic University). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.4226/66/5a94b5f25e4c4​) There are two articles which contain her further research on this theme. The abstracts are free online to read and give some idea of her conclusions: – Margaret Carswell (2018) Promoting fundamentalist belief? How scripture is presented in three religious education programmes in Catholic primary schools in Australia and England and Wales, British Journal of Religious Education, 40:3, 288-297, DOI: 10.1080/01416200.2018.1493271 (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/…​ ) – Carswell, M. (2018).

Teaching scripture: Moving towards a hermeneutical model for religious education in Australian Catholic Schools. Journal of Religious Education, 66(3), 213–223 (https://ixtheo.de/Record/1666503827​ )

Teach Scripture is a website designed specifically for teachers in Catholic Primary Schools to enable teachers to teach Scripture – not just use it – using the composite Model. (http://www.teachscripture.com/​ )

Her section of the 2020 Texts and Teachers Practice Guide (http://canterbury.ac.uk/nicer/hermeutics​ ) contains an outline of the LAaSMO method, which is one way of taking the scripture scholarship into classroom practice.

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After world religions: a conversation with Dr David Lewin

(cross posted with the NICER blog)

I am really pleased to be able to publish this special Advent conversation with Dr David Lewin of Strathclyde university. I had been wanting to talk to David for a while, ever since hearing a paper he gave at a symposium on reduction and the curriculum. More recently he got in touch about a project he is working on looking at religious education in schools might learn from the movement away from the world religions paradigm of teaching in higher education. That might come as a bit of a shock for RE teachers where World Religions has tended to be seen as a more progressive approach than other approaches but perhaps Lewin is revealing that the school subject has more to learn from academic developments and Lewin’s own insights are interesting. In this video we touch on this issue and also a number of other related topics.

David’s related publications:

Lewin, D. (2020) “Religion, Reductionism and Pedagogical Reduction”. In Biesta and Hannam (eds.) Religion and Education. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill | Sense. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004446397…

Lewin, D. (2020) Reimagining the RE/RS Curriculum, in The BASR Bulletin, the British Association for the Study of Religions. Available at: https://basr.ac.uk/2020/11/18/basr-bu…

Lewin, D. (2020) Between horror and boredom: fairy tales and moral education, Ethics and Education, 15:2, 213-231, DOI: 10.1080/17449642.2020.1731107

Lewin, D. (2018) Toward a Theory of Pedagogical Reduction: Selection, Simplification, and Generalization in an Age of Critical Education. Educational Theory, 68: 495-512. https://doi.org/10.1111/edth.12326

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Research ethics, rule-following and schools

I recently reviewed an article reporting some research conducted in a school by teachers. One of the issues I feed back on was the school’s rules round research and how the author wrote about research ethics. The approach was to state that the researcher had followed the guidelines of the school it’s requirements in terms of research. The school policy was that they could conduct any research the school needed for its work without consulting parents. So no consent was sought from parents , or for that matter from pupils.

A number of issues arose from this. Research ethics seemed to be interpreted as following the legislation and policy of the school institution. If the organisation permitted it, it was fine. One of the dimensions of research ethics at my university is the involvement on the committee of members of the public external to the institution. Another was that the research we do is in accordance to established practices in education research, guided heavily by the BERA research ethics code. BERA is a very large research association that has a highly regarded ethics code. Now failure to follow ethics codes has significant consequences for researchers. In extreme cases they may be excluded from applying for some research grants. There is a professional consequence.

In English schools there has been an explosion of interest in research-led or evidence led teaching and a welcome encouraging of teachers to undertake research. This has always been encouraged although the shape of it has changed. When I started work in higher education in 2003, large numbers of teachers undertook Education Masters degrees with a strong research component that was usually based on their own school. The numbers doing masters programmes declined as fees went up and bursaries disappeared though many teachers still undertake research with a university providing ethics approval as part of structured postgraduate teaching programmes including many at doctoral level.

What is clear is that research ethics is not an internal matter, because ethics is not an internal matter. Codes of conduct needs to be observed in research processes and as we encourage more professionals to undertake research, we need to be sure that there are appropriate ethical frameworks in place to protect the participants, the researchers and everyone affected.

Of course, schools can undertake their own reports and look at data and must develop their practice, in ways that might include experimentation of non-medical kinds. However, in stating that something is research, it should have gone through a robust ethics process and been carried out in ethically appropriate ways. Research ethics is not the same as organisational rule-following.

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Cox questions Bowie (reposted)

Dawn Cox, Subject leader for RS in a secondary school in Essex and familiar contributor online with her highly regarded blog, has interviewed me on a Teams chat. She asks me great questions about hermeneutics, disciplinarity and texts in the classroom and I share some of my thinking and we exchange ideas. It was a great chance to explore some issues which seem to be at the forefront of our subject conversation.

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COVID 19 has reversed our values and vices: Was Aristotle right and Plato wrong? Does morality need wealth?

In my professional communities, certain words tend to be viewed as out and out goods (intrinsically good – good in and of themselves we would say in the ethics business).

The pre Covid 19 virtues. These words include autonomy, diversity, individual expression, inclusion and cohesion.

  • Autonomy tends to mean doing what we want to do and that tends to lead to diversity, doing things differently from one another.
  • Inclusion is about a virtue of hospitality or welcome, recognition, enabling all to feel they have a part. Cohesion is about people getting on.
  • Individual expression is about creativity, revealing yourself in the way you see fit.

Of course in truth, these rub up against one another. Hermits who choose to do their own thing don’t want to be included. Diversity can lead to disharmony, not cohesion. But achieving a consistent set of values is easier said than done.

Then we have the pre Covid19 vices.

  • Segregation and exclusion (separating people, keeping them apart in groups)
  • Uniformity (all doing the same thing, conservatism)
  • Communal priority of individuality (where the group tell the individual what to do)
  • Restriction of freedom and modesty (in terms of movement, expression, dress codes etc).

At least these were the designations before Covid 19. Now the vices are virtues and vice versa

Covid 19 Virtues

  • Segregation and exclusion (keeps people safe from each other especially the vulnerable)
  • Uniformity (we must prevent deviation from the safe behaviour which is for the good of all)
  • Communal priority of individuality (individual freedom is sacrificed for protecting the lives of the many)
  • Restriction of freedom and modesty (your own identity expression is less important that keeping others safe).

Covid 19 Vices

  • Autonomy is irresponsible and blatantly harmful to others.
  • Inclusion threatens the most vulnerable.
  • Individual expression undermines the survival of the community.

Context is all?

So much for universal virtues! What is striking is that the virtues or values must be placed in context to be understood. The change in context seems to be behind the changing moral status of these ideas. So does this mean that values or virtues and vices are always contextual because the good life is always subject to the conditions? Maybe Aristotle was right about the good existing in context in this world and not above the world as his tutor (Plato) thought.

And does this mean our old virtues were the produce of privilege (the peacetime, stable and friendly wealthy existence we used to have?). Now we face threats to our safety and security, are the true virtues emerging? Are our old virtues conditional to wealth, which would mean our condemnation of the vices we see in others might just be the produce of ignorance of what it means to live in uncertainty and danger?

Do we now have something to learn from traditions that previously disagreed with the virtues I listed, traditions that praised some of the vices? Conservative religious traditions would not have agreed with my list. Is there something in what we can learn from how Covid 19 changes our perspective that might challenge our preconceived sorting of virtues and vices. As I look at a country which until recently was deeply suspicious of face-covering in cultures and religions, and now see face covering as standard, I wonder: Was there a hidden value to the things commonly judged as vices which we did not see before?

One unpalatable observation from an old Bible story is that the Good Samaritan in the story had money to pay the in keeper to look after the beaten up strange by the side of the road. He was wealthy! Today our Good Samaritans need face masks and PPE or they become threats to others.

Are you feeling uncomfortably ethical yet?

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Videos on Liberation Theology for teachers

Videos on Liberation Theology for Schools teaching A Level Religious Studies

These videos introduce some of the key ideas around Liberation Theology. They have been made to help schools that teach Liberation Theology, a topic on some A Level Religious Studies programmes. They are quite short and provide a general scholarly introduction with some extracts from the primary sources of Liberation Theology Scholars.  I am indebted to my Catholic Theology Professor, Patrick Sherry who taught me Liberation Theology when I was studying my Masters Degree. Occasionally you can see the handwritten notes from those classes 25 years ago! He published a short guide called “What is Liberation Theology?” in 1985 which can be purchased for a few pounds. 

Video 1 puts Liberation Theology in the context of Vatican II and the political and social context of Latin America
Video 2 outlines the ‘method’ of Liberation Theology
Video 2b is an extract on ‘theological method’ by Gutierrez
Video 3 introduces the key ideas in Liberation Theology
Video 4 focusses on Gustavo Gutierrez
Video 5 is a short reading from Gutierrez’s conclusion in A Theology of Liberation
Video 6 is a Short reading from Boff which criticises religious authorities
Video 7 explores criticism of Liberation Theology
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