Is Religious Education out of Date?

Posted 18 August 2021 by Luke Burns

The National Secular Society has recently published a piece by Keith Sharpe, in which he argues that it’s time to move on from Religious Education.

Sharpe’s argument is centred on the ambiguity and lack of purpose that accompany Religious Education in the current period. He makes a number of points, which I have summarised below.

1. RE has always been a vehicle for communicating cultural values.

Rather than a distinct area of learning as with other curriculum subjects like maths, history or physics, religious education has always been a form of socialisation, a process through which children are inducted into a national identity based on societal norms, values and beliefs.

This is a fair point, particularly given the way that the current curriculum is arranged - RE is both confessional and academic, which I have argued elsewhere is not a good idea. I would note that it’s a little trite to claim that other subjects (especially History) don’t act as a form of socialisation - every subject comes with cultural baggage and to claim otherwise is disingenuous.

2. In its original form, RE taught the principles and history of Christianity, as this was the dominant religion in the United Kingdom during the 1940s.

In the 1940s Britain was an overwhelmingly Christian country. Along with most of the population the politicians of the 1940s believed that all children should be brought up in a broadly Christian faith and that the ethics and morals engendered in schools should be entirely Christian.

No real argument here - Christianity was (and largely still is) the major religion in the UK.

3. The new dominant religion in the UK is not named, but nevertheless exists, and it features a sort of diversity-embracing equality-supporting respect for everyone: today’s RE aims to teach this religion.

In the written form of this paper, Sharpe mentions that following the 2018 CoRE report, the ‘…basic idea is that now children need to learn about the diversity of worldviews and to have respect for social and cultural differences.’

This is something of a gloss on his more comprehensive comments made in the recorded version of the paper (available here, or watch below).

Absent from the written version of his paper (but present in the video-recording) is Sharpe’s observation that current efforts to recognise difference and support equality are tantamount to a new religion, one which leads to ‘virtue signalling’ and ‘cancel culture’.

I appreciate that definitions of religion are tricky, but there are - I would argue - some real dangers to using religion as a label for a set of cultural values like this, particularly when you’re writing from a perspective that views religion in general as something that does not belong in the public sphere.

Though Sharpe does not use the words ‘Critical Race Theory’, he seems to be addressing it, particularly the concepts of structural inequality and the relationship between historical racism and present-day culture.

Indeed it is sometimes argued that concern for social justice and respect for diversity now actually constitute a new religion; the foundational belief is the existence of institutionalised structural inequalities and prejudice against specific minorities, and the narrative locating responsibility for this injustice in past colonial oppression by Western societies. The putative religion imposes sanctions on those who question the legitimacy or the truth of its prevailing dogmas. The public shaming and ostracising of any person making public statements deemed unacceptable, which is characteristic of what has come to be called cancel culture, arguable resembles the treatment of heretics in the Middle Ages. People are expected to demonstrate their piety with regard to these doctrines, consequently politicians and other public figures now spend a good deal of their time virtue signalling, in a manner not dissimilar to ostentatious religious observances in past eras. Whether or not this can be called a religion, it is the kind of culture that schools are now seeking to prepare children for. In 2021 it seems the most important thing they need to know is the supreme value of equality and to have respect for diversity.

Sharpe never makes a firm value statement of his own here, but reading between the lines I get the sense that he does not view this arrangement favourably. Why else would you frame not being an asshole as ‘virtue signalling, in a manner not dissimilar to ostentatious religious observances in past eras’?

4. RE also teaches about other religions like Christianity and Islam and Buddhism, and calls this ‘religious literacy’.

…the CoRE report continues to argue that it is worth spending curriculum time describing to pupils the particularities of a variety of differing religious (and non-religious) beliefs and practices. This has been called ‘religious literacy’ but it is really just a superficial ‘Cook’s tour’ of diverse credos and rituals.

Sharpe then states that the only distinguishing feature of RE (or the proposed Religion and Worldviews) is that the subject teaches the details of actual religious traditions - he argues that this effort to introduce religious literacy to pupils is ‘really just a superficial ‘Cook’s tour’ of diverse credos and rituals’.

He asks rhetorically if pupils really need to know all these details in order to understand the principle that people should be respected and difference accepted. From Sharpe’s perspective, bothering to learn about the intricacies of other people’s religion isn’t necessary, there are more important things, who cares?

Teaching that people’s worldviews ought to be treated with respect, and then not offering pupils any exposure to a variety of (perhaps challenging) worldviews, is not going to give them much of an opportunity to put the theory into practice, is it?

There’s also some sort of irony in dismissing religious literacy by calling it a “Cook’s tour of diverse credos and rituals”, which reads like it came straight out of the nineteenth century. Given that Cook was a Christian missionary, credo is generally used in a Christian context, and not every religious practice is a ritual, most contemporary scholars of religion would opt for something more widely applicable like ‘beliefs and practices’.

5. The only reason to develop religious literacy is to serve the dominant religion, i.e. to promote equality and diversity.

This point is the underlying principle on which Sharpe makes his entire argument - RE is all about serving the dominant religion (which is now the agenda of equality and diversity) - see point 1.

If RE includes religious literacy, by definition religious literacy must be supporting the overall aim of the subject. Which it does, but I disagree on the overall aim.

6. Religious literacy doesn’t serve the dominant religion any better than other academic subjects like History or English, in fact by exposing pupils to negative images of religious violence or prejudice, we’re more likely to facilitate the growth of negative feelings towards those actions or individuals and this contradicts the unnamed religion of equality and diversity.

The obvious question is though: do pupils really need to know the intricate details of various religious groups’ conceptions of the world in order to understand the principle that other people should be respected whatever they believe?

…any child being taught about the doctrines behind the treatment of women, gay people or freethinkers, for example, is at risk of developing negative feelings…

Just to be clear, no one is asking pupils to think that every religious practice or belief is acceptable, they’re asking pupils to look without prejudice at a wide and complex picture. There is not one single Islam, one single Buddhism, one single Judaism (or for that matter, one single secularism) - a stereotyped view of religious adherents is dissolved by exposure to this complexity.

Furthermore, the idea that religious literacy is just a way to promote equality and diversity illustrates a failure of understanding. Having a working knowledge of the general types of perspectives in the world is helpful in navigating social relationships and making sense of things like public festivals or religious holidays, but it’s also beneficial in order to understand your own perspective, to think about your place in the universe. If the same curriculum was delivered under the heading of ‘philosophy’ a lot of these complaints would mysteriously vanish…

Here’s a helpful guide on what religious literacy is:

And here’s a blog post we wrote on the topic a few years ago, which discusses why it’s important:

7. RE also develops a range of academic skills like analysing source materials, interpreting meaning, etc.

Sharpe pulls this observation from the CoRE report, and it’s true - although these aren’t the primary reason for studying the subject.

8. RE doesn’t do this any better than other academic subjects like History or English.

…if it is multidisciplinary and already covered by other subjects, the obvious question arises – ‘what is the point of RE?'.

many other established curriculum requirements cover the same ground … There simply is no need for RE to replicate all of this.

After effectively reducing the benefit of RE to the promotion of equality and diversity, and the bolstering of academic study skills, there’s really nothing left to the subject - and so, point nine…

9. There is no good reason to teach RE.

Time is hugely pressured in the modern curriculum. There are better ways to use it than trying to find a purpose for the perpetuation of RE using outdated legislation. It is time to move on from RE and ensure that the established curriculum requirements, especially citizenship education, are enhanced to provide children with a secular schooling which prepares them to consider and understand their future rights and obligations as citizens.

Boom. Mic drop. You’re a citizen so stop all this faffing around and get on with it.

The key thing that Sharpe does is strip away the knowledge of religions themselves as a valuable element of the subject, then all that’s left is an odd husk of a curriculum that has no right to assert itself as worthwhile.

But why did he remove the heart of the subject in the first place? The Commission on Religious Education went to some lengths to explain why religious literacy is important, as did an All Party Parliamentary Group some years earlier.

I don’t believe the importance of religious literacy has changed, and I still think there’s a place for the academic study of religion in schools, so I can’t really agree with Sharpe’s assessment.

Luke Burns | Director, OCRS

Luke is the founder and director of the OCRS, and has a First Class Honours Degree in Humanities from the Open University. He lives in Somerset with his wife, Rosie.

You can find him on Twitter here: @lbburns13

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