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In Defense of Religious Education

In Defense of Religious Education

In the U.K.’s TES Magazine religious educator Tom Bennett, despite being an atheist, believes that providing children a well-rounded religious education is one of the most important he will ever do. Bennett writes,

Religious education in English schools is being edged out, marginalised by exam and curriculum reforms. To some, this is a cause for celebration. In many countries, such as France and the US, it would be unthinkable to include religion in the syllabus other than incidentally. Religion, they say, is a matter of personal conscience, to be taught at the family altar if at all.

But although this creed has admirable ambitions, nothing could be more dangerous, nothing more nurturing of fundamentalism and misunderstanding. If religion were only about piety and devotion to an ideology, I would exile it from the classroom. But the study of religion wrestles with aspects of human existence that are unavoidable. It tackles the whys as well as the whats. Proper understanding of religion requires a level of core knowledge that would choke a scholar’s library. It can be taught with a view to proselytisation, but that would be immoral; it can be taught as a bedtime story, but that would be pointless…

Much has been made of the potential for religious study to develop emotional literacy. I simply don’t believe that such things can be taught directly, only as a by-product of a civilised education. It is true that RE can be taught spectacularly badly – with the drab orders of liturgy and unimaginative summaries of the Old Testament, or the missionary fervour of the zealot. But one should not judge a subject by its worst delivery; bad English literature can be just as damaging to a child’s educational health.

In England, the national state school system evolved in tandem with (and often from) church schools, which explains why the UK has so many faith schools and such a powerful mixture of state schools and RE. It also explains why other countries, such as the US, have none. The US’ unequivocal distinction between church and state wasn’t a reaction against organised religion or religious instruction, but against denominational prevalence. Yet this country, which guards against any state-sponsored RE, is ironically one of the most religiously affiliated countries in the West. Clearly the separation of church and state hasn’t acted as much of a bulwark against the expansion of faith. Perhaps Richard Dawkins should be campaigning for more RE, not less.

The full article is available here.


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