Adoph Tidemand, Low Church Devotion (1848). Source: National Museum of Art, Architecture and design, Norway, via Wikimedia Commons

Some stakeholders in the world of religious education believe that RE is the best subject in the curriculum, offering an exploration of deep existential questions; philosophical and ethical discussions and debates about the meaning of life, purpose and identity; and learning about other’s worldviews in a way that is culturally, morally and socially enriching. Unlike other subjects, which are a dry accumulation of facts and figures mainly driven by economic and employability values, RE offers – so the argument goes – the development of the whole person. RE complements the curriculum perfectly. It is all pink bubbles and balloons everywhere.

Religious Studies GCSE entries have fallen for the third year in the row, but according to NATRE (the National Association of RE Teachers) and the REC (Religious Education Council), this is despite the subject’s popularity among students.

In his book, Reforming RE (2020), Mark Chater describes the ‘enthusiast’ position shared by teachers and educators who believe that everything in RE is great. According to ‘enthusiasts’, the drop in intake is due to neglect by the Department for Education (DfE), low funding, and RE not being included in an ‘Ebacc’ – an accountability performance measure by which schools are monitored. RE, they say, is invaluable for a well-rounded curriculum and relevant to modern life, and we just need more of it and better funding… Why can’t others see it this way?

Ofsted’s 2013 report on RE, ‘Religious education: realising the potential’, concluded that the structures that underpin the local determination of the RE curriculum have failed to keep pace with changes in the wider educational world. The same report stated that the teaching of RE in general is poor and that many pupils leave school with scant subject knowledge.

One survey by Opinium Research asked more than 1,800 adults who had attended UK secondary schools which subject they thought was the least beneficial to their education: RE was among those ranked lowest. Just over one in five (21%) said that RE was the least beneficial, and this was followed by art (chosen by 16%) and PE (10%). Another more recent survey by YouGov from 2022 asked the question, ‘How important do you think it is to teach [various subjects] at secondary school?’ It found that 55% people in UK believe that RE is either not very important or not important at all, ranking it 15th out of 18 subjects in terms of importance. Even more tellingly, the same polling company asked school students in 2018, ‘Which subject do you enjoy the most?‘ On a scale of ‘I enjoy it a lot’, RE was second to last, with only Citizenship being behind. When it comes to the percentages of participants who chose ‘I don’t enjoy it very much’ or ‘I don’t enjoy it at all’, RE was by far the least popular, with 44% pupils disliking the subject.

Yet the number of students entering on GCSE RE full courses increased from 170,303 entries in 2009 to 284,057 in 2016. This was used by enthusiasts as evidence that the subject is popular among students – despite consistent feedback about its confusing purpose, the low quality of the teaching, and its low popularity among both students and parents. However, any weight placed on the increase in the number of students taking the subject ignores the fact that RE is compulsory across all key stages. The increase in the number of entries was always driven by its compulsory status rather than its popularity. The recent decreases which are taking place in spite of its being compulsory only serve to show how troublesome a state RE is in.

The latest Ofsted review of RE, published in May 2021, has provided the first academic literature review of RE and pointed out numerous flaws in subject pedagogy as well as in the general teaching of the subject. Among many technical points that are more relevant to teachers, I will focus on the parts that I think are the most important in demonstrating why the subject is inherently flawed, why students dislike it, and why its educational outcomes are not beneficial for our modern liberal democracy. 

Firstly, the problem of the knowledge being taught. The report states that there is no clarity as to what constitutes reliable knowledge in teaching religions and non-religious worldviews, and a lack of clarity as to what constitutes objective, critical and pluralistic scholarship in RE. This is because the subject is not grounded in the academic study of religions, and is consequently the only subject without a national curriculum. Rather, the ‘knowledge’ taught in RE in schools is determined by religious groups themselves, in every borough, through religious representation on the SACREs. The latter are the standing advisory councils on religious education which usually determine the syllabus for maintained schools in their area, and which act as political interest groups offering their ideological products.

Religious groups are less interested in the academic study of religions than in the pastoral aspect of their religion, religious apologetics, and in presenting their religions in the most beneficial light. They are happy to use taxpayers’ money to do a soft form of proselytising by influencing schools’ RE syllabus.

The status quo, and the power structures that determine the RE curriculum to the benefit of religious groups, are sometimes defended with an argument that the current RE settlement of local syllabus-making promotes democracy, inclusivity and diversity. But this is a fallacious and self-serving argument. The current arrangements are only beneficial to the dominant religious groups’ interest. They are not in the interest of the public, nor of religious and non-religious minorities, nor of dissenting ‘heretical’ and progressive voices, nor of our students, who are being denied an unbiased education.

Similarly, in the opening decades of the 21st century in the USA, we have seen Christian groups passing ‘academic freedom’ bills and using their privileges and influence to undermine the teaching of evolution in science lessons – all in the name of inclusivity and pluralism. They love democracy and freedom when it benefits them, but less so when their privileges are challenged.

As a consequence of the local arrangements of syllabus-making, in which the representatives of religious groups decide what should be taught, the content of RE becomes distorted. This is because the purpose and vision of the subject, as interpreted by religious representatives, is to implicitly assert a benevolent view of religious traditions and beliefs. This is usually done indirectly, through the omission of the negative parts of a religion. Explicit instruction into positive beliefs is never as effective as indoctrination through the omission of problematic ones. The subject tends to be taught as a form of indoctrination through a partial and incomplete presentation of a particular religion’s tenets. Students are left with a false sense of having complete knowledge and an educated understanding about the religion, when in fact they do not.

This outcome has been emphasised in the Ofsted review: it concludes that ‘bad RE’ is spreading ‘unhelpful misconceptions’ by presenting religions only in a positive light, and claiming that ‘only good and loving religion is true religion and bad religion is false religion’.

As teachers of RE, we seem to be masters of spreading the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy. Take any of the abusive theology found in religions or any abusive beliefs or practices throughout history or today that are inspired by religions. These are usually omitted in RE lessons, but sometimes crop up. As an RE teacher, one just needs to select one of the plethora of rhetorical devices deployed in religious apologetics to dismiss any such negative aspect out of hand. For instance, one can tell students that they are taking it out of context; that people who do unpleasant things in the name of religion are not true believers but are just extremists and not true to their religion; that it is culture rather than religion; that it is politics hijacking religion – and so on and so forth. The blame is always laid on something else, while the attitude is maintained that nothing negative could truly be part of the religion.

RE as taught in England and Wales today is a subject where religions are deliberately sanitised and misrepresented in the name of promoting respect, tolerance and community cohesion. Respect and tolerance are legitimate ideals that we should still hold on to, but unfortunately, we extend these to respecting beliefs and religions, rather than promoting respect for individual people and their rights.

It is vital to promote respect and tolerance for individual human rights and people, not for individual beliefs, including religions. In doing so, we must be able to deal with the abusive elements of religions that do not respect human rights.

The 2021 Ofsted review made several recommendations that could enable RE to become a pluralistic, objective and critical subject, and not spread unhelpful misconceptions. Above all, it recommended that RE should be grounded in the academic study of religion and non-religious worldviews, using the well-established methods, processes and other tools of scholarship that are already used by scholars to make sense of global and historical religions and non-religious worldviews. However, the DfE seems unwilling to make reforms. A recent chance to make progress would have been following the REC Commission on RE final report in 2018, which recommended changing the subject to ‘Religion and Worldviews’. But the DfE rejected this recommendation on the basis that it would add too much to teachers’ workloads.

With the DfE unwilling to make reforms, RE remains cluttered with many pedagogies and different visions about the aim and purpose of the subject. Enthusiasts believe that having a subject that touches upon philosophy, ethics, theology and many other disciplines is its strength. Yet in reality, this mixture of approaches only obfuscates the subject further. It would be far more beneficial for our pupils to study only ethics or philosophy, with their clear aims and purposes, as well-established disciplines in their own right, than to keep on with this artefact of the past called RE, burdened as it is with external ideological demands that acts as a proxy for religious apologetics and soft proselytism. We do not have ethics or philosophy in our schools because RE has hijacked them and is doing their work badly. 

RE’s distorted pedagogy, lack of objective knowledge and unclear educational outcomes produce confusing assessment criteria. In KS4 (when they are aged 14-16), students face exam questions like ‘Why is prayer important for Christians?’ or ‘How does a belief in resurrection influence Christians today?’ A typical mark scheme will contain a list of benevolent generic answers: ‘It makes them do good deeds in order to go to heaven’, or ‘Prayer gets them closer to God’. It is not hard to see why students dislike the subject, especially as according to the latest research on religiosity, almost 60% of citizens in the UK are not affiliated to a particular religion. The proportion is even higher among the young. Outside school, it would seem, religion in the UK is losing relevance generation by generation.

In the limited time allocated to a subject on the curriculum, is RE as it is currently taught really what we want our students to learn about? Is it going to help them grasp the messy complexity of religion and non-religious beliefs and their global, historical and contemporary place in the world? The educational outcomes of RE are designed to create a ‘religionist’: a soft religion apologist who will not be able to think of the place of religion in the world in a critical manner, but will be well-equipped to explain away any criticism of religion. They will become bad thinkers, and fail to see both the good and the bad in religions. They are wired to believe that the RE teacher in Batley Grammar school should have never shown the cartoon of Mohammed in class, because it is ‘disrespectful’, whilst in another breath stating that violence and hatred have nothing to do with religions.

Extreme beliefs and behaviour can only flourish when they are protected with a buffer zone of ‘enablers’, a majority of well-wishers who view their tradition uncritically and are happy to endlessly explain away any abusive theology.

It might be hoped that the fallacy that ‘only good religion is true religion’, identified by the 2021 Ofsted review, will trigger a change in the way the RE syllabus is put together, and the way it is taught. But I am not so optimistic. It seems to me that there will be no change until the power structures behind RE, and the influence of privileged religious groups over it, are removed.

This does not mean that religious groups should not be stakeholders, influencers and partners when it comes to working on the RE syllabus. Rather, it means that their privileged position should be removed, so that we can have a secular RE for the 21st century. Such a subject should be grounded in academic study; should be objective, critical and pluralistic; and should be inclusive of both religious and non-religious views. It should offer powerful knowledge of the best that has been said in religious studies scholarship, not theology. It should have clarity in its aims, which will be to promote academic scholarship about religions, as well as the British fundamental values of liberal democracy, equality and individual liberty. By doing so, it should implicitly promote respect for human rights. This should in turn aid and support progressive views in religious traditions, because students will be more educated and more able to identify and discern what the real scholarship is and what is just religious apologetics.

But support for these progressive views can only happen if we are able to identify which ones are regressive and which ones are progressive. We cannot do this by lumping together all religions and religiosity in one basket. Change will not come until privilege-blind stakeholders change themselves – which is highly unlikely – or until their privileges are taken away from them. This will only happen when this country truly becomes a secular country and a state for all of its citizens, no matter what religion or belief they hold. We can start by taking into account the important insights from the 2021 Ofsted review, and work on building a national curriculum for RE that is grounded in the academic study of religions.

When the DfE, in 2018, rejected the recommendations to start working on a new subject called ‘Religion and Worldviews’, I felt disappointed. Now, after considering what kind of changes the RE stakeholders do propose, it has become clear that much of what they propose is merely cosmetics without any substantial change in the pedagogy. Religious groups are as keen as ever for RE to be their platform for apologetics.

As long Britain has an official state religion, and as long as dominant religious groups are privileged, real reform of RE will simply not be achieved. Perhaps we should replace the subject with wider civic and moral education, which would include the basics of religious education, but not be the basis of the subject. Such a subject would enable our students to learn more objectively about human rights like freedom of expression and freedom of religion, and concepts like religious discrimination and religious privilege. It would enable them to discuss the place of religions in the world in a more informed and critical manner.

Civic and moral studies was introduced in France during its 2015 school reforms. In a light of the DfE’s inability to substantially reform RE in a critical, objective and inclusive way in England and Wales, a vision for a similar subject, which would replace RE, is slowly being formed, among others by the National Secular Society’s Secular Education Forum, of which I am a member. I and others have also been helping the NSS to develop resources for schools that touch upon issues of secularism, human rights, equality and freedoms, religious privileges and discrimination. These themes should be well suited to civic and moral studies; to me, at least, they seem far more educationally meaningful than the proselytising of RE. Ultimately, replacing religious education with wider civic and moral studies would probably be the best course for future students and our society as a whole.

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