Does Religious Education still have a place in schools?

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Religion is something that is often debated, and regardless of whether you consider it a force for good, a negative influence or something outdated and irrelevant; it is a topic many have strong views about.

Despite being an Atheist and critical of organised religion, I am a reasonable enough human being to allow others to believe in whatever they like, as well I should. However, it is the methods in which faith is ‘presented’ to youth that I disagree with.

From the beginnings of organised education, religious organisations and charities, often established by the church, have run schools. This was before the time of a national curriculum and before the time of state funding. Yet, in the large leaps and bounds the education system has progressed through, there still seems to be some unnecessary link to its religious beginnings.

As schools have developed there have been regular efforts from the religious community to gain access to the students, seemingly in the hope of scaring them into the faith through tales of sin and hell. For example, there are specially classified ‘faith schools’ which aim to teach students within the framework of a specific faith. Yet, this doesn’t seem to be enough. State schools have to include religious education in the curriculum. This means that students who may not have a particular faith, or parents who may have chosen a non-faith school to avoid religious indoctrination, are going to be exposed to religious teachings anyway. It is preposterous that students are not given a faith-free choice. You can choose between a religious school and a non-religious school that teaches religion… Hardly a choice!

It seems ridiculous that religious teachings are even considered relevant in the modern curriculum. The ‘Ten Commandments’ of Christianity are ingrained into children before they could even conceptualise religion as a whole. So the supposed morals described by the religion are already being taught in a faith-free way. It is unnatural to scare children to behave in certain ways with the fear of eternal torture in hell. Another consideration is the recent story with regards to extremists trying to gain control of schools in Birmingham. Had they succeeded, they could have attempted to mask their true intent through the veil of being a faith school.

Surely, the curriculum should aim to provide a challenging and varied group of topics/subjects that allows students to develop critical thinking and autonomy so that they are able to make their own decisions. By all means keep Religious Education available extra-curricular or as a GCSE/A-level that students can opt-in or out of, but by forcing all students to take this class is nothing more than allowing the church to impose its views on the minds of students in an effort to convert as many people as possible to their declining belief. It seems maddening enough that parents can force their beliefs on their children and indoctrinate them from an early age, but it seems beyond comprehension that the government would allow it to happen in schools as well.

bible Re Religious Education teaching

Rights; MorgueFile

The whole system seems more obscure when you consider that the number of ‘irreligious people’ in the UK has grown year on year; statistics from the ONS say that between 2001 and 2011, there was an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent) at all. As well as this a survey carried out in 2009 with 13-18 year olds revealed that roughly two thirds of all teenagers no longer hold any religious beliefs.

Naturally there is nothing to stop students who do believe in a particular religion from going to their place of worship and learning more or from reading their religious texts; but I cannot find any reason to agree with the need for religion to be taught in schools, especially standard state schools without the express permission of the students themselves, or at least a fair compromise of faith schools still maintaining their curriculum whilst non-faith state schools do not.

  • Mel

    The aim of religious education seems to have been lost in this article. The aim is to educate about religions, the emphasis is on their beliefs and why they do what they do, not some backhanded attempt to force students to believe. GCSE courses often ask students to compare and contrast two religions, therefore improving critical thinking skills. There is no requirement for them to study Christianity either… As an educator (not of religious education) I feel you should do some more research before joining the education bashing parade…

  • Richard James Albert Toulouse

    Hi Mel,

    I appreciate that you have taken the time to read the article and I sincerely welcome your opinion on the article, but I must strongly disagree with you that I’m just joining in the ‘education bashing parade’ and have done no research. Quite the contrary. I am going into my final year of a degree in Education and hope to work within the field, so I certainly am not a supporter of mindless criticism. I personally just feel that religion has less place in the classroom where it could create some of the negative connotations suggested in the article, that’s not to mean it will in every case, but I am sure that critical thinking could be taught more effectively with non-religious material therefore removing any possible drawbacks.

    As well as this, I am aware that Christianity is not the only religion that is taught exclusively, I chose to write from the perspective of someone who was forced to attend a Christian Primary School and therefore with experience of a school that specialises in that faith.

    Regards,

    Richard

  • Rebecca

    This article was very interesting to read and having studied faith schools and the pros and cons of both I thought I would give a few thoughts as I find it is
    always interesting to hear other people’s views!

    I believe that the way Religious Education is taught has changed dramatically
    over the past few years, obviously you will be taking some of your thoughts
    from your own experience, however from my personal experience the RE lessons that I had at school only covered only the basics of the different religions, so much so that the pupils hardly have a proper understanding of the basic teachings of religion at all. (one example being that many people see Christianity as ‘if you do good things your whole life you go to heaven’ but that isn’t actually what Christianity teaches!)

    I see it as an important part of the curriculum, particularly as the likelihood
    of you encountering different cultures and religions in the work place is
    becoming increasingly more probable due to the increased communications and relations around the world. For this reason alone it is important that we
    should have at least a basic understanding of the major world religions so as
    to avoid causing serious offence.

    On a different point, you may have experienced Christian teachings of Hell and
    eternal torture in your time at school but due to the way that culture has
    shifted in the past 10 years or so, these teachings are no longer considered
    acceptable and many Christians working in schools have to be very careful about their wording so it is more common that you find teachings about God’s love for the world than you do about Hell.

    Also in your article you mention that Christian teachings are now irrelevant and you give the example of the 10 commandments, yet I struggle to see how teaching children not to lie, steal or murder can be wrong? Also Christian teachings are mainly based around loving one another, living at peace with each other and making decisions out of genuine care for other people…I find it hard to see how this could be a bad thing to teach our children?

    I appreciate your point about not shoving religion down children’s throats if
    this is from your own experience however I think culture has changed
    dramatically in recent years, so much so that your experience of RE is
    incredibly different to that taught in schools today.

    Regards,
    Rebecca

  • Richard James Albert Toulouse

    Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks for your thoughts! I understand that teaching standards and the content within the courses may change frequently (as with most classes) however the point you raise of many students only gaining a basic understanding of most religions and sometimes misunderstanding (with your example of Christianity being given) does that not suggest that the subject as a whole could be failing to achieve what it sets out to do in the first place? Possibly strengthening the argument that the time in which students are spending in that class could be better spent on a core subject?

    As for my personal experiences, it may have come across a bit strong in my article, however my time at the religious primary school wasn’t too traumatic (thankfully!) yet, it just seemed that for example we had frequent assemblies in a church we had adjacent to the school. In my mind this was time that could have been better spent elsewhere. There were frequent bible readings etc and in my mind, that was a morning in which I could have improved my maths or English skills. Although I am glad that in your experience there has been a more careful selection of content within the religious curriculum.

    With regards to your point about the ten commandments, I appreciate your comment, but I was trying to suggest in the article that those guidelines should (one would hope) already have been taught to children before they get to the age in which they could possibly conceptualise any religious ideas making the teaching of the religious version of these irrelevant. I like to think that prior to school my parents taught me that lying, stealing or murdering was wrong! And with regards to the loving each other, the world and peace etc. I feel that these are perfectly suitable things to teach to children, however, it is known that there are passages in the bible and some religious organisations that openly criticise and demonise homosexuality, and although that may not expressly be taught in schools, any further reading could lead young people down a route that causes them to think along those lines, especially if they have been encouraged to believe in other parts of a holy doctrine.

    Nevertheless, I appreciate that culture may change and many thousands of individuals will maintain their beliefs and that is perfectly fine; I just feel that religion being taught in the classroom can (not always) but occasionally have negative effects that could be avoided with religion removed from the curriculum, at least at a compulsory level, then giving children the choice.

    Anyway thank you very much for your response! and I hope my retort was somewhat clear and hopefully addressed some of the points you made.

    Regards,

    Richard

  • Oida

    I must disagree with your point about it being time that could be spent elsewhere, purely because we divide our education into various disciplines anyway, when, in practice, we transfer all our skills across the board: so why not keep religion separate as it is? In a multi-cultural society, yet one that is not free of prejudice, it would be absurd to remove Religious Education. In my own experience, I must say that learning about Islam at school certain had a beneficial effect on me, for I began to make a distinct separation of extremists and the vast majority of Muslims. Could I have avoided these prejudices without Religious Education at school? Perhaps, but also perhaps not. I would argue, therefore, that if it was beneficial to me then it can certainly be beneficial to others and surely that should warrant its place on the syllabus.

    Furthermore, to return to my original point about how our disciplines are ‘artificially’ divided, if you will, Religious Education and comprehension of religious tenets is an integral part of other disciplines. If you want to study Language, Linguistics, or some other form of Cultural Studies, knowledge of the religion will help you understand a distinct part of the nation’s culture and tradition. If you want to study History, you would be seriously disadvantaged if you lacked a basic comprehension of religious belief. Even in the modern period, religion is still a crucial aspect of History that one simply cannot neglect. It is central to most areas of Philosophy, but I could go on. My point is that Religious Education has a role in supplementing one’s understanding in many other disciplines. Even if you think the standards of ethics and morality that it offers are out-dated by our current society’s values, what better class to hold a debate into these issues than that of Religious Education?

    I see from your own experiences that you seem to have been forced into Church, presumably quite unwillingly. While I don’t disagree that that is a practice we ought to re-consider, a more holistic approach to Religious Education, as I and it would appear some of the fellow commenters have had, should not be dismissed so readily.