Religious Education and the subject’s title

One of the questions raised by the Commission for RE is about the possible change in subject title. Maybe RE is old fashioned and we need something like Philosophy, Ethics and Belief. I am agnostic to the value of subject name change discussions because I suspect they are simply mask debates about what should be studied and what shouldn’t. In other words the essential debate gets funnelled to the title. I don’t think that’s helpful. But there are other problems with change. Brand changes require focus, resource and clarify about the new brand. Is RE in a good position to do that right now? Currently the subject already has many names. Schools call it different things, exam board companies call it Religious Studies. Government calls it RE. Publishers tend to follow a wide range of names. Many different people call it many different things so – What’s the problem? Are we proposing a centralised dictated solution for all contexts? I am doubtful it would work. People tend to do their own thing religion-wise. Think …  herding cats.

There are arguments that really it’s time to drop religion and feisty as terms – nasty or irrelevant words or boring things, goes the argument. However, the subject stakeholders that make it viable at exam level are religious and mainly Christian. They pour resource that means all the other stuff is possible. They employ many RE teachers and buy many exam entries and the scale of their commitment makes the market viability of the subject possible in terms of secondary staffing and curriculum presence. Look at how weak PSHE or Citizenship Education is for comparison with subjects without such backing – both of which have great merit and deserve status. Would these backers appreciate the flight from the terms that they find positive(religion) that characterises this debate? Might they simply drop any pretence or connection with the subject and name it their own thing, as a few schools of a religious character do already. Before long GCSEs in Islamic Studies and Theology might pop up to meet the demand ….

Is the subject title change debate really just another manifestation of a secularising bias mirroring the religious intolerance in wider society which is increasingly prominent. What response would be given to the challenge that even the educators won’t name religion as religion because they fear intolerance? Have we tended to ignore religious intolerance as a cause for subject problems in schools? Would rebranding simply pander to that intolerance?

Lastly the money question. How many charities, organisations, magazines, associations, contracts and job descriptions would need to change to make any change real. Do we really want to oblige so many organisations to make that change? I have a qualification in teaching RE. What would that mean if the subject was rebranded metaphysics? Might RE get a name for being REally irritating!

I think there might be some unintended consequences – where is the risk analysis around change? I read lots of suggestions for new titles on RE social media but never in those accounts is there a consideration of unintended consequences, like visibility, recognition, professional identity issues etc. Is there a little bit of a whiff of one of those theoretical discussions by people who do not have to implement the change they are happily speculating about?

The arguments being had here are very important but we need to navigate these practical problems and if we can’t we should focus on other things we can change.

But I do have a suggestion (academics do so love problematics so constructive propositions are needed) . I propose we change from Religious Education, and become religious education. re would be sure to be broad enough to include the small r religions, religiosities, wisdom systems, beliefs, and praxis traditions not simply the big R organised systems with their buildings, special clothes, doctrines and bearded men 😉 . Small re would be interested in nones as well as big R Religious. It would see the little religions that live in the corners of personal life, practice and existential query, as well as the big R traditions.

This is not just a silly suggestion. A part of me worries that the extremists and Dawkinsians (here I distinguish between intelligent and popularistic critiques of religion) have taken religion and recast it in their own straw terms and now, the popular public are beginning to believe those terms are the only terms for religion. But I think ‘religion’ should be owned by human beings of all ‘kinds’ whether they lean towards practice, doctrine, existential thought, spirituality, whether they believe in just the right here right now or the hereafter too. I think the popular casting of Religion is inadequate and we have an educational job to respond to that casting with intelligent educative re.

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