In June 2022 the Independent Schools Religious Studies Association (ISRSA) published a response to the 2018 proposal by the Commission on Religious Education to overhaul the subject of Religious Education, make it more academically focused, and rename it to Religion and Worldviews.
We have previously covered the proposed change, and its challenges, here: Religion and Worldviews (24 February 2019).
This article was updated by Luke Burns on 22nd June 2022
The position of independent schools
To be clear at the outset, the CoRE recommendations and the proposed national entitlement are intended for state-funded schools. Independent / private institutions are already free from the requirements of the national curriculum, and the report states:
We recommend that the Entitlement applies to all pupils in all publicly funded schools, and that independent schools are encouraged to adopt it as a mark of good practice.
Any concerns that the ISRSA raise ought to be viewed in light of this.
Worldview or Weltanschauung?
The ISRSA publication references two previous reports, the CoRE final report from 2018, and a piece published by Theos Think Tank in 2020. Only the CoRE report uses the German word Weltanschauung, and only in an information box to explain the meaning of the term ‘worldview’.
No one is talking about introducing ‘Religion and Weltanschauung'; it’s unclear why the ISRSA goes out of its way to keep using the original German term. In any case the usage is completely unnecessary and doesn’t serve to make things any clearer for readers.
Change of name and approach
The ISRSA argues that the meaning of the term worldview is ‘contested and recondite’ - presumably they believe the concept is too technical for the average person (teacher or pupil) to wrap their head around.
They then ask some ‘salient queries’, which I’ve attempted to address (with some degree of politeness) down below. I may have been a bit cheeky in places. Sorry.
Is ‘a worldview’ an individual cultural viewpoint, or is it a way of referring to one’s own outlook or a set of shared customs and traditions?
All of them. There are several paragraphs which cover this, but it’s described most succinctly here:
We use ‘worldview’ to cover both religious and non-religious worldviews, and both institutional and personal worldviews (CoRE, 2018, p. 73).
Is it about the way the world looks to you; or the way your world looks to outsiders? Is it the way you see yourself in relation to those around you; or the way your see yourself in relation to everything (ie. the universal claims you make about the structure of reality).
It’s about how you view the world and your place within it, again, the CoRE report does (I think) a good job of explaining this:
…an overarching conceptual structure, a philosophy of life or an approach to life which structures how a person understands the nature of the world and their place in it (CoRE, 2018, p. 72).
Is it about ethos and morality, your style of life, or the distinctive answers you give to existential questions?
Yes, since these topics all directly relate to one’s understanding of the world-self dyad.
Is it a negative term used to reinforce the otherness of other people and cultures? ‘They don’t think like us’, ‘they don’t have the same view of reality as we do’ so that there are no points of contact. Historically this has been used to justify genocide.
No, and this is frankly a ridiculous appeal to an extreme outcome. Everyone has a worldview; we’re not saying ‘we have a religion, they just have a worldview’. It’s all worldviews.
ISRSA members list their reservations
There are some fairly detailed concerns voiced here and I won’t presume to have answers to all of them, but here are some of my thoughts.
It is questionable whether ‘religion’ sits inside the umbrella term, ‘worldview’. (3a)
Religion is clearly more than just a point of view, it involves behaviours, practices, and relationships; if worldview was no more than an individual’s perspective, I would agree with this concern.
However, the CoRE report deliberately positions ‘worldview’ as a category that encompasses these other aspects of behaviour and belonging, rather than allowing worldview to be limited to just perspective or outlook.
Going back to the 2018 CoRE report (page 72), these two points make it quite clear:
- As stated above, a ‘worldview’ is an overarching conceptual structure, a philosophy of life or an approach to life which structures how a person understands the nature of the world and their place in it. Worldviews encompass many, and sometimes all, aspects of human life – they influence how people understand what is real and what is not, how they decide what is good and what to do, how they relate to others, and how they express themselves, to name but a few examples.
- Worldviews should not be understood merely as sets of propositional beliefs. They also have emotional, affiliative (belonging) and behavioural dimensions.
I agree that a word like worldview naturally implies perspective and attitude more than action and interaction, but I think this is a minor barrier to understanding the more nuanced definition that is being proposed.
The 3a comment goes on to say that there is a ‘…suspicion is that the worldviews proposal is driven by a maximally secular agenda which sees all ideas as equal but in which the ‘secular’ is the ‘most equal’'. This is worth addressing.
One of the key skills that people require in order to get a balanced understanding of someone’s religion (or non-religious worldview) is the ability to set aside one’s own judgement in order to see (or at least attempt to see) from the other person’s point of view. This sort of approach is not secularism.
What is secularism, then?
The National Secular Society provide a three-part definition below:
- Separation of religious institutions from state institutions and a public sphere where religion may participate, but not dominate.
- Freedom to practice one's faith or belief without harming others, or to change it or not have one, according to one's own conscience.
- Equality so that our religious beliefs or lack of them doesn't put any of us at an advantage or a disadvantage.
Reading between the lines, I think that the author(s) of this comment is/are concerned that they will be forced to teach all religious and non-religious worldviews as though they are equally valid, and further that it isn’t possible or appropriate to make a judgement about which one is true in the classroom.
That’s what academic religious studies is supposed to look like.
If you also want to have classes on theology or confessional religious education, where you preach while you teach, no one is stopping you. But the subjects are different.
And again, to reiterate, none of these proposed changes would be binding for independent schools anyway. They are already given the freedom to do whatever they like with their curriculum.
There is a danger of a colonialist and ‘western’ approach … potentially deeply phenomenological and sociological in its conception of religion … religion is seen only as a social and/or psychological construct (3b)
We can’t study deities or supernatural entities, we have to study people and institutions; if you want to start teaching learners about who YHWH is then you’ll be obliged to make theological decisions about the existence of that particular deity, the type of evidence you’re willing to include, the traits and attributes that are acceptable to you, and why other deities are not real / as important; this is theology. There is nothing wrong with theology, but it isn’t religious studies.
This doesn’t mean that religion is only a psycho-social phenomenon, it just means that the only place we can grab hold academically is the psycho-social aspect. You can even describe the metaphysical realities perceived by a worldview, as long as you aren’t saying ‘this one is actually true, the others are mistaken’.
It is impossible to understand the social reality of another, to hold the jar of civilisation to the light and expect worldviews to separate like oil and water (3c)
It’s impossible to understand the social reality of another? So I guess we also give up on history, literature, music? Teaching children about how other people see the world is something that Sesame Street can handle, but not your fancy educational establishment? Mate. Come on.
If your point is that worldviews overlap and interpenetrate one another, so that a Christian worldview and a capitalist worldview and a democratic worldview and an English worldview all intermingle, making it difficult to say conclusively which aspect of a person’s identity and outlook can be traced back to their religious tradition - cool, that sounds like a really interesting conversation to have with your pupils. People don’t fall into neat boxes, and this is part of the reason why we have concerns about the World Religions Paradigm (later in your report you seem unclear on why it’s problematic, here’s a good example!).
A multidisciplinary approach is: unrealistically ambitious, secular, lacking depth (3d)
On the first point: if you think it’s unrealistically ambitious then don’t do it, again, you’re independent, so… be independent. Others will attempt the challenge because they can see the value.
On the second point: it’s not secular to put all traditions on an equal footing for the purpose of learning about them - we covered this earlier.
Also, again: religious studies isn’t theology. If your theological lessons are going to be hampered by learners having a better awareness of how your religious tradition exists alongside others I guess that’s a separate problem - don’t force ignorance on your pupils to salvage it. Or do. You’re independent.
The third point is fair, to an extent. Multidisciplinary approaches might not be able to delve deeply into all areas, but this can actually be a benefit, since you gain the insights from multiple approaches, each of which reveals another facet of the subject. This will require work to develop curricula and schemes of work, but stands to benefit learners, and is in alignment with approaches taken at higher levels of study.
Will the worldviews approach reflect the fact that the religious traditions of Great Britain are, in the main, Christian? (3e)
Sure, there’s scope for localisation, as the national entitlement doesn’t specify which religious and non-religious worldviews should be taught, this would be agreed with local advisory boards.
But that doesn’t mean Christianity gets treated any differently to any other tradition that’s taught. Since I’m not sure you read it, here’s the relevant part of the CoRE’s recommendation from 2018:
Programmes of study must reflect the complex, diverse and plural nature of worldviews. They may draw from a range of religious, philosophical, spiritual and other approaches to life including different traditions within Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism, non-religious worldviews and concepts including Humanism, secularism, atheism and agnosticism, and other relevant worldviews within and beyond the traditions listed above, including worldviews of local significance where appropriate (CoRE, 2018, p. 13)
Given the potential for future wars of religion there is a place in education to teach students about the nature and character of religion in its own right. Given that the dominant cultural perspective of the UK is generally humanist/atheistic most students have a good grasp of what these points of view entail and they are already included in well taught RS classes as a critique of religion and vice-versa. Perhaps what is needed is more lessons like this, where non-religious positions are not taught in their own right, but as atheist critiques. This would not require any change to the curriculum. (3f)
I struggled to make sense of this one, so I included the text in full. I think what you’re saying is that you already teach pupils about atheist / humanist perspectives by introducing them as criticisms of religion (either as a category or perhaps individual traditions / beliefs / behaviours?). Because atheistic perspectives get an ‘in’ via this route, you could just standardise the practice a bit and effectively meet the requirement to teach non-religious worldviews.
I mean, maybe? I feel like atheism is bigger than just the complaints made against religious traditions, it’s certainly not one category and covers a wide variety of positions. Humanism likewise is more than just opposition to religion, so it feels like what you’re proposing would do them a disservice. Might be misreading you though.
The worldviews approach has historically resulted in the rejection of metaphysics and a critique of religion… (3g)
My understanding is that you can still teach metaphysics as long as you’re presenting it in the context of a particular individual or institutional worldview (for example, Orthodox Jews typically believe that Moses was…).
What you can’t (shouldn’t) do is say things like: ‘God revealed himself through Moses, we can tell that this is true because it confirms this prophecy / lead to that event’ - that’s theology.
Metaphysics isn’t something that we can study directly, only indirectly through people’s claims. That doesn’t mean the metaphysical isn’t real, just that it’s not accessible for a balanced, neutral classroom study. Unless you want to do experiments with prayer, meditation, seances, etc., which would be interesting, but how happy would your pupils or their parents be if you had them chanting Sanskrit or reading the Shahadah?
There is a general fear that a shift to worldviews, rather than improve academic standards, will not prepare students for GCSE/GCE RS, even less philosophy and/or theology at university level (3h)
I trust that those designing curricula and working with awarding bodies will work to ensure everything fits together, but I can’t really comment on this as I don’t know - maybe?
I’ve been helpfully made aware that Dr Opinderjit Takhar, president of TRS-UK, is in favour of a move towards teaching worldviews in schools, and Durham University has developed a brand new undergraduate degree built around this new approach.
So there’s a good chance that this fear about disadvantaging students is not well founded. Credit to Tim Hutchings for the pointers in this area!
Conclusions and recommendations
The ISRSA report then draws some conclusions and makes some recommendations, most of which effectively say: go back and look again, this doesn’t sound right to us.
I found their request for evidence that the world religions approach is problematic to be a little concerning. It’s been out there since at least 2011.
Overall, C+ report.
Appreciated the small number of pages, but found them to be overinflated with waffle and whitespace.
On closer inspection, seems to represent a conservative viewpoint that doesn’t want to surrender its (arguably unhealthy) overlap between religious studies and theology, doesn’t want to put Christianity on same level as other traditions (especially not atheistic worldviews), and seems to be overly preoccupied with speaking German.
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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