The quality of public debate in Religious Education – 8 questions


  1. Should Religious Education (RE) debates begin with a generosity of spirit toward the contributors who may argue for quite opposing and diverse visions and conceptions of the subject?
  2. What makes someone who feels so strongly about a particular conception of a subject make the case in public and what are the terms of engagement in the blogosphere and social media space to respond to that case?
  3. Can we inquire into the positions RE professionals and academics take to try and deeply understand their cases, their concerns, and their motivations?
  4. Do we take those expressed concerns seriously or harbor suspicion of malicious intentions?
  5. Can we show charity to the other and (irrespective of our own point of view) help them refine their argument, improve it, even if it is not our own?
  6. Should we show sensitivity when we explain how and why we stand apart from their conclusions and think they need to revise?
  7. Should exchanges by professional and academic contributors to RE show to each other, reflect the kind of tolerance or even respect and empathy we hope children might learn in RE towards each other?
  8. When was the last time we saw that kind of exchange in online RE debates?

I wonder what my own answers would be to these questions and the light they cast on my online writing approach.

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Is it time for religious education to recognise religion is a bit quantum? An irreverent bit of Friday morning writing

These days, if you are a secondary RE teacher doing GCSE, your language of learning will be filled with notions like ‘logical chains of reason” and a lot of stuff about what good evaluation looks like. This is a product of nudges from specifications and exam boards that contain this kind of language in relation to scoring higher marks in the long answer questions, which have become more important, attracting higher point scores and therefore key to high grade success.

However, logical chains of reasoning is a phrase that seems quite, well reasonable at first glance but starts to come unstuck when you put it under a microscope and apply it to bits of religion which are, well a touch unreasonable. I’m not making a critical judgement when I say unreasonable so I had better explain.

I am trying to recognise that there is something about religion which is a bit like physics. At one end of physics, we have this Newtonian stuff which seems all quite reasonable. It helps us explain things we encounter, like dropping a brick on our toe, or seeing two balls hitting each other and bouncing back. Physics is really useful. Why do some orders stay in enclosed places whilst others go out on the road? What do Catholics do when they go to Mass? Can you name that religion by the garb of its devotees?

But at the other end of physics there is Quantum. Quantum is exploring stuff which we can’t quite deal with in Newtonium terms. In Physics Quantum talks about things appearing simultaneously in two places at the same today and recently I have head about trials involving Quantum computers. So Quantum is not fanciful make-believe. But connecting Quantum to that Newtonium stuff is really hard.

I want to suggest the language around ‘logical chains of reasoning’ is a bit Newtonian (a bit like it). I think there is a case for that sort of language to try to unpick different approaches to moral questions, for example, or different approaches to styles of liturgy/worship. It It might do well at some things but struggles elsewhere.

I think RE has some quantum elements which really don’t get well served by this language. This operates at the end that deals with more mysterious stuff than the number of pillars, Ks, Beatitudes or Commandments. We could call this Quantum end ‘theoretical’ but like Quantum, it does make imprints on the world.  Incarnation, Trinity, Karma, etc are all examples of things from the Quantum end of religion. This is the stuff that engages with paradoxes and mystery. Just as Physicists have concluded that at present most of the stuff in the universe is something they can’t yet understand, see, be sure about – Dark Energy (We know less about dark energy than dark matter BTW), this mysterious stuff is significant.

(I hear that referee flag going up right away from our friends in the “theology allergy” corner. That’s ok folks it’s nice to know you’ve read this far in my blog and I just appreciate you being here. I’m afraid you guys are really not going to be happy with all this so sharpen your pitch forks and wheel out your usual refrains and polish them off. We love your chorus thing, … though maybe you could have a look at changing that tune? It’s starting to sound a bit …. old.) 

Aspects of theology are pretty Quantum because they operate at a theoretical level and seek to provide macro answers to ‘ultimate meaning’ questions and in ultimate meaning explanations. They are not answers that work in the same kind of way as some answers operate in RE. They explicitly operate in ‘inexplicable space’ where our ability to use reason struggles or breaks down or has no place. These spaces touch on our lives. What ‘use’ is a calm account of the free will defence when chatting with a recently bereaved friend. A good RE student, I would hope, would instead be concerned to show compassion and be with that person in their bereavement, rather than try foolishly to give a macro explanation that tidies everything up. I wouldn’t use any GCSE revision guides or exemplar long answer questions to help here. Human life is commonly inexplicable (in my experience) and really challenges our ability to hold on to senses of identity, purpose, or meaning. The things we love, often cause the greatest pain, etc etc.

(A quick wave to the ‘life is meaningless corner’. Yep I appreciate you guys being here too but remember, meaninglessness isn’t necessarily going to help with  those mental wellbeing issues, our hope for moral ideas that transcend self-interest or pragmatism, or help with persuading this generation of kids parents to raise money for the next generation’s school playing field –  you know peace, love, justice, hope, etc. Meaninglessness can have a bit of the curriculum and it does matter, and for some represents a reasonable response,  but this is the classroom where we look at those who do try to find meaning or conciliation with things without recourse to abandoning reason altogether.)[Thanks to Dave Aldridge for his Twitter critique of my first attempt at this aside. He rightfully suggested an approach to life as something that has no meaning need not be a catalyst for mental wellbeing deterioration]

Back to Quantum and theology. The question I am leading to is whether we are frame questions about Quantum – theology in the right kind of way? Can we evaluate Trinity in the way we might evaluate a particular moral response? I mean can we use the same sort of long answer question structure? I worry that perhaps we have gone down a quite narrow line when it comes to logical chains of reason that is simply not well adapted to engage with mystery and paradox, let alone the embodied responses and attempts to express understanding that happens in the art and music side of religion, rather than the ‘who’s right? there’s only one way to decide’ games we love to play.

Maybe we need to add another question structure to our approach to deal with these sorts of questions?



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Doing RE Hermeneutically – Learning to become interpreters of religion

Doing RE Hermeneutically – Learning to become interpreters of religion

 Dr Robert A. Bowie

(Published in REToday, Autumn 2016, Vol. 34. No 1,Birmingham: RE Today, pp.60-62)

This is an old piece I wrote a couple of years ago but I never posted it here so have made a link possible.

 All we read and see around us is interpreted through a lens made up of many filters: previous experiences of similar situations, traditions, ways of thinking we have adopted, loves and hates. To be bitten by a dog one days leaves one wary of them the next. It is difficult and maybe impossible to access the outside world, except from behind our interpretative lenses.  How we make sense of things does not stand neutrally apart from a particular story and this is particularly true for religion as. Maajid Nawaz in a dialogue with Sam Harries discussing difficult texts says:

“Religious doesn’t inherently speak for itself; no scripture, no book, no piece of writing has its own voice. I subscribe to this view whether I’m interpreting Shakespeare or interpretation religious scripture.” ((Islam and the future of Tolerance: A dialogue, 2015, USA, p.5)

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 In GCSE Religious Studies exams, students are often asked to debate questions. The kind of question follows a rough formula:

‘If God were loving, there would be no suffering in the world.’ Evaluate this statement.

In your answer you should:

  • refer to Christian teaching
  • give developed arguments to support this statement
  • give developed arguments to support a different point of view
  • reach a justified conclusion.                                                         [12 Marks]’

(AQA 2016, p.6)

The issue as I see is about what constitutes reasonable reasoning and therefore constitutes the development of arguments in RE? Do we expect reasoning to be an act of logical positivism, a kind of empirical rationalistic debate? Or would a more ethnographic approach be ok (a personal reflective commentary). Or would a mystical paradoxical formulation be ok (of the kind found in many spiritual traditions)? Reasons for positivist argument rely on a definitive sort of empirical evidence. Propositional forms of religion (systematic theology included) would suit the definitive kind of evidence, but it is based on faith, not empirical evidence as is commonly understood.

However, this kind of reason and argument is not the sort of thing the ethnographer would not be all that keen about. The ethnographer might be much more interested in personal and communal senses of meaning (and here is closer to pastoral theology or spirituality studies) rather than the veracity of claims to ‘objective rational truth.’ The mystical traditions might respond with counter questions, rather than answers – or parables, and continental philosophy might not be far from this.

There are sub-disciplines within strands of theology and social sciences that come quite close to one another. Positivism, on the other hand, is broadly in line with the natural sciences when it comes to questions of evaluation and evidence. Maybe we should be educating students in at least two of these three strands of reasoning? In each case what constitutes evidence, reasonable reasons and the values of evaluation differs.

The hidden knowledge of Religious Studies GCSEs requires that you unlock these secrets, but curiously, they don’t appear in the content being studied, and don’t seem to have much to do with the traditions of religion and belief being studied either!  That would never stand for maths or music, but somehow it’s what we get in RE. Perhaps it is time to focus on the quality of analysis and the frames used to analyse, rather than the business of trying to win arguments with dubious evaluations?

First published here:

What constitutes evidence, reasonable reason, and the values of evaluation in Religious Education


4Bs: Belonging, being, believing, behaving

4Bs: Belonging, being, believing, behaving 

The conversation around religion and non-religion, belief and non-belief, theism and atheism sometimes treat these terms as interchangeable. I don’t think they are.

  1. Religion / non religion is about participation in and commitment to organised communities of expression and the extent to which a person identifies with individualistic ideologies. This is a matter of identity and belonging.
  2. Faith – speaks to the extent one lives a life of trust in some idea beyond themselves (human rights, compassion, humanism, love/charity,  etc). This is a matter of being.
  3. Theism/atheism is a shorthand for doctrines that are assented to in some way or rejected. This is a matter of believing.
  4. And then there is the fourth B – behaving.

Note that these each wash over each other in different ways.

  • A person may live along and avoid all others yet hold very strong doctrines which drive what she does or doesn’t do ( 2,3,4). Hence a person may refuse to tick a religion box and yet hold and follow certain beliefs and practices viewed as religious.
  • A person may attend a religious community for the companionship and fellowship and feel this is the heart of his faith (1,2&4).
  • A person may have strong convictions that affect choices she makes in life at a personal level (3&4).
  • I think sometimes that 2&4 manifest in people who have this simply trust in life and live good lives for others, without much time for 1 and 3 conversations. They just get on with it.

This 4 fold categorisation is experimental – what do you think? Can it be improved?

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In Religious Education, is our approach to diversity too focussed on the ‘positions reached’ and not enough on the ‘ways of knowing’ that led people there?

In Religious Education we often focus on trying to ensure we cover different positions both between and within traditions. But there is another ‘diversity’ that is related to religious ways of knowing, not just positions held.

So you could approach a topic like religion and LGBTQ+ issues and want to make sure all of the positions are covered, but this wouldn’t tell you much about how people got to those ‘positions’. It would emphasize the differences between the positions but not the question of the way of finding out that led there.

For around 20 years or more there has been a really interesting debate involving Catholic and Protestant NT scholars about whether the discussion around welcoming gentiles in ACTS should be interpreted as an allegory for how the Church today might welcome LGBTQ+. The argument goes the early Church set aside centuries of tradition around ritual purity in what must have felt shocking for Jewish Christians, in order that gentile converts could be welcomed. This is touched on on this page under the inclusive case. The page lists a wide range of responses.

A question underneath is whether RE should teach children about how meanings are reached, or simply what positions are held. Do we promote a kind of arbitrary relativism (emphasising identities inclusion) or the study of diverse religious ways of knowing…. (enquiry inclusion). If we don’t explore religious ways of knowing then what message does this leave pupils with about any kind of sincerity a persona has about reaching their chosen way of life?

In the question of the early Church and gentiles, the discussion is whether the allegorical form of discerning meaning could be used in the way described in the question of  LGBTQ+ communities.

There seems to be relatively little about these ways of knowing and searching in RE curricula. There is a lot about the question of religious authority, and a lot about trying to be representative of religious people, but I think we are missing something else – the ways of searching and knowing that drives people to lead life in a certain way and how that seems to provide them with something they want, choose or need to live life with.

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Speaking truth to authority, conscience and getting your retaliation in first.

I asked my students to write a short reflection on ethics or values from their early years that they hold on to or think about now. Then I thought I would have a go at my own attempt at it and here it is

I have a vivid memory from my teenage years. Walking out from Church I see my mum standing on the steps of the Church talking, with great, and perhaps fierce passion to the priest who had just led the service. I used to be an Altar Server so would have to do all the clearing up before coming out to join my parents in the gathering that would take place out front before folk went to their homes. Mum was putting the priest straight on something he had said during his sermon. Clearly, he had got something wrong and he needed correction. This is an I often remember. I can’t remember what she was talking about, or where he had gone wrong. But the idea that my Mum, would happily challenge the priest and put him straight in public in that way was quite thrilling. We laugh about that now. But it taught me something about authority, and when you had to put it right. It was also a lesson on the different ways of going about things when you wanted to try and put someone right.

A second powerful idea that I continue to hold onto came from my Jesuit teachers. I went to a Jesuit school – a quite strict Catholic school with lots of walking on the left, lots of emphasis on behaviour and lots of religion. It was a London boy’s schools. We probably needed a lot of emphasis on behaviour. But the Jesuits didn’t just teach me to obey. They taught me that above all other things is conscience. You have to do and say what you truly believe is right, even when others disagree. You must inform it and educate it but ultimately your conscience is uppermost. Not blind obedience but conscience. In relation to this, I remember the quote from Cardinal John Henry Newman,” I will toast the Pope, but I will toast conscience first.” It seems to me that whenever we talk about integrity or values, conscience must be right in the middle of all of that.

A third powerful idea comes from my father. He would always say “you need to get your retaliation in first.” This was commonly in relation to rugby where the key thing is to drive into the other guy rather than let him drives into you, especially right at the start of the game so everyone knows where they stand. First contact sets the scene. Now, of course, there is a contradiction about getting your retaliation in first. It’s like advance self-defence, pre-attack! I know exactly what Dad meant by that. And I have always wondered if he wasn’t really only talking about rugby. I think he has always seen life through the prism of sport. He was a PE teacher. I wonder if somewhere he was also trying to encourage me to be bold in life. Well, that’s what I take from it.

I doubt these are the only things I have taken from my early years. But they are things which I continue to draw strength from. And I tell my children about them.

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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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