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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79 year old retired PE teacher rescues 87 year old from deep ditch

So we spent the weekend with my Mum and Dad by the sea. Said our goodbyes and drove home. Once home did the traditional ‘ring to say you got home safely’. No UFO abductions on the way back on this occasion

Mum is quite excited on the phone. I must tell you what happened, she says. It’s been quite exciting here. She continues, she was walking the dog on the common and saw an elderly lady (87) on an out of control moped,  hurtle past right into a 6-foot deep brook. Mum runs .. I interrupt – Runs? Yes, of course runs, she says, she runs to the ditch to see the women pinned under the moped in the water. A young (age unknown) women who has been chasing the lady jumps down on one side whilst Mum jumps down on the other. I say, you jump down? Yes, of course, she says, she thought the lady might be dead, she says. She says she left the dog with another person of course. Very sensible, I say. A man manages to lift the scooter up a bit and, mum hauls her out. I say – you hauled her out? Mum at your age? Well, she says, the other people didn’t seem to know what to do. They were on their mobile phones calling 999 I think. The paramedics didn’t seem to want to come out but once the lady was on the bank she thought she could stop leading the rescue. The lady thanked her.

Mum – 79 years old – Recovering from a brain tumour – Retired Secondary PE and Dance teacher.

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The visit to the hospital for injections in my shoulder

So I have this sore shoulder that has some swelling in and pain. I go for injections to give symptomatic relief. I can’t drive afterwards for insurance reasons and as the hospital is miles from public transport that means a taxi. I book a taxi.  The driver picks me up and I sit in front, as usual, and we chat. He’s from Afghanistan. When did he leave, I ask. When he was very small. Did he come with family? No, although relatives helped him out in his journey through India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and into Greece. He gets to England in 2004 and is in primary schooling before the British Government send him back to Greece where he is not put in school. He moves to the Netherlands and meets a nice Afghan girl and they marry and they both come to the UK  (now on proper papers) and settle in Kent nearby. They have two children and the elder (age 4) is just about to start primary school. But my taxi driver is worried. His education finished when we kicked him out to Greece. He works hard driving his taxi (and his first job each day is taking a group of children every day to a local independent day school). He is worried he won’t be able to help his children with their work. That act of disrupting his education strikes me as a deeply unwise one. I wondered what opportunities he now had to improve his education, given the hours of work he has to do driving his taxi. We reach the hospital and shake hands. I wish him luck.

Inside the hospital, I meet the consultant who is going to inject my arm. What do you do, he asks. I lead a research centre on Christianity and education, I reply. He tells me his from India and is a Hindu, but nowadays things have gotten crazy with these fanatics. He says, he remembers all this stuff happening back in India between India and Pikistahan but never thought it would come here to the UK (and all over).  Last week he was giving the same treatment to a guy sitting on the same treatment couch I was sitting on, an armed response officer who was at the London Bridge incident last week. That patient told him, about three years ago everything changed. Now they are on constant high alert to respond at any moment.

I get driven home by a white British taxi driver who chats about other things. I decide that I won’t mention the two other conversations I have had during the day.

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Daughter asks mommy: ‘Are we fundamentalist Christians or liberal Christians’?

It’s not exactly the kind of question my wife expected but when a 9-year-old comes up with that, you just know she has been doing RE at school.

  • Mum -, ‘that’s an interesting question – what makes you ask it?’
  • Daughter – ‘we were doing it in RE’
  • Mum – ‘so what do you think?’
  • Daughter – ‘Well Miss says that fundamentalists believe that all of the Bible is true but liberal Christians think only some of the Bible is true’
  • Mum – ‘So what do you think about us?’
  • Daughter – ‘ Well I thought maybe we were liberal Christians but as you think the Bible is really important I suppose we are fundamental Christians?’ (asked questioningly)

[Contextual information: Mum is a lay minister who leads worship and coordinator of the Sunday School team. Dad is a sometime RE teacher, RE teacher educator and RE researcher.]

We talked about this incident quite a lot, wondering how religious children make sense of the categories they hear in class and the language they see in the media.

I wonder if we need to take greater care of the categories we use in RE. I remember a conservative evangelical telling me that her daughter had come home with questions about Genesis and that the teacher had presented binary alternatives – either you believe Genesis is literally true or you believe it is a symbol for something or some sort of myth.

I wonder if we place too much importance on these categories and too little time focussing on the lives of Christians and the ways they discern things, which may not fit our categories. Most conservative evangelicals (I suggest) do not believe every word and book in the Bible is ‘True’ in precisely the same way as every other word and Book in the Bible. In other words, some texts have a kind of reach into Christian life that is different from other words (think the difference between poetry, history and moral command).

I suspect my daughter thinks we place a lot of importance on the Bible because we have about 20 different bibles on my bookshelves and I write about this sort of stuff ( But maybe I would prefer her teacher to focus on the different ways religious people discern meaning from religious sources, rather than obsess about which category bucket people can be put inside. Sometimes I am pretty literal about bits of the Bible. Sometimes I think its meanings are (also or alternatively) much, much more important that that. I mean if you say ‘God saves’ the literalness can’t be fully accounted for in terms of a linguistic literal notion of saving. I may be saved from drowning today, but no inner transformation is necessary with that sort of saving, and I may still drown tomorrow. To say a Christian literally believes she is saved by God is not enough. We need to know much more to understanding what is meant by saving. To believe Jesus literally rose from the dead in the past, need not imply anything about what will happen to me after my death. Belief in the risen Christ is not the same as the belief that Jesus rose from the dead (one time). There is a link of course (for many/most Christians) but, again, we need to get beyond categorising terms which actually are more about labels and less about understanding.

I think meaning can have a more powerful and universal significance than a literal reading so I am not sure that the liberal – fundamental, symbolic – literal binaries really help do much, apart from creating essentialized notions of Christians that limit, reduce and simplify religious life.

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The READY conference at the IOE

I spent the day at the IOE in London hearing about the READY project. It’s an Erasmus plus project bringing together countries working on RE teaching and the training of teachers. I was really struck by the first session, by Farid Panjwani a colleague I have known for many years and it was fascinating to hear how his thinking is developing. He spoke about the problem of a kind of binary (my term) that emerges when you see postings on social media that Islam is a religion of war alongside pamphlets suggesting Islam is a religion of peace. He thinks we need to get beyond these kind of binaries. It’s quite possible to pull up quotes from the Qur’an to try to back up each of these possible arguments, but maybe our study of Islam needs to get beyond all this. He wove together two themes that he has long been interested – that of the reification and essentialization of religion. You can see this in questions like ‘is Islam compatible with democracy’ or Is Islam compatible with human rights’. These sorts of question lead to an argument about what the essential Islam is. Farid wonders if this is going about things the wrong way, if we need to focus more closely on a hermeneutical approach to the study of religion that brings into focus the question of how Muslims make sense of their religion in different situations, times and places. Reification and essentialization turns religions into museum pieces and does not recognises the lived dimension of religion, where an engagement happens between the believer and the sources of faith. Here he is drawing on Gadamer. He thinks we need to move away from talking about ‘Islam’s view’ of thing and focus instead on how Muslims view thins in certain times and places. Farid thinks we need to stop focussing our question on ‘Islam’s view of things’.

I was struck with the thought that behind this concern is a similar sort of concern about religion and science, where there is a tendency to suggest there is a religious perspective and a scientist perspective, one versus the other, something that LASAR  which has moved from the University of Reading to Canterbury Christ Church University (my university). Believing in creation gets compounded with creationism. Taking science seriously is compounded with scientism. My colleague Professor Billingsley is really worried that her research suggests children think RE and science education are competing answers to the same question. There seems to be a problem in how pupils understand the role of their subjects as offering different ways of interpreting meaning.

It’s striking how the place of interpretation, or discernment is becoming much more important.  I have a blog where I post things that might be interesting to those involved in hermeneutics and RE. I am left wondering and worrying that the tendency for GCSE RS exams to encourage oppositional debate might not encourage the kind of analysis that an interpretative or hermeneutical approach recommends.

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