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Jesus is just a tiny part of our pick-and-mix RE

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DID you know it’s possible to take GCSE or A-Level religious studies having hardly had to learn anything substantial about Christianity? So let’s play a game called ‘Do you know more than my year 10s?’

1. What religion was Jesus? (This is similar to: what do you put in a toaster?)

2. What does Judeo-Christian mean?

3. What is the relationship between the Old and New Testament? – For a bonus point, how old are both?

If you answered any question correctly, you know more than most of my students when they enter their first year of GCSE religious studies. At A-Level, whilst students can pick Christianity as a topic, they don’t have to. And for the philosophy and ethics section of the course, they need only learn a few arguments from the likes of Paley, the Christian apologist famous for his pre-Darwin watchmaker analogy, where he argued that complexity entails a designer.

How is this possible? AQA is one of the main exam boards and its GCSE specification is indicative of the general trend: pick two religions from seven (in year 10), and (in year 11) study some philosophy and ethics, where you should make reference in your answers to ‘the main religious tradition in Britain’ – this is a distilled reference to British law. However, we have now reached a point where only lip service is paid to the law.

The government states that a religious education (RE) syllabus should ‘reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’. What this means in reality is that RE has become an anodyne equality and diversity fest. Syllabuses silo off the six world religions, as students learn pub quiz facts devoid of context. About the only thing my fellow teachers recall from their own education on Sikhism: The Five Ks. Some might even be able to tell you what they are.

The implicit lesson being taught is that all religions are equal and all are quite arbitrary. Students lack any conception of time and place, they lack context. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of my year 10s aren’t able to delineate the world religions in chronological order. And they simply see Jesus as the archetypal man in white robes, instead of a revolutionary Jewish preacher. It’s here where I see the seeds of militant atheism sown. For if God is simply a homophobic sky wizard, well, what a silly belief for silly people; it’s easy to erect straw men from incomplete knowledge. I’m not religious, but I recognise the importance of teaching about our religio-cultural heritage (the good and the ugly).

RE is the only subject not to have a national curriculum, and the only one where parents can pull their children out of lessons. This is infantilising. It cements its status as either a soft subject or one that is about Bible study and indoctrination. Instead, the local education authority (LEA) works with other bodies to create an ‘Agreed Syllabus’ which reflects the local community.

One issue here is that the government’s mandated focus on British Values is somewhat contradicted by allowing a local authority to write the syllabus. However, if you flick through an agreed syllabus, even one for a religiously diverse London borough, such as Newham, you will often see a lot of Christianity (although again generally quiz-style knowledge). This can create an odd symmetry between GCSE and pre-GCSE syllabuses, but there is a much larger problem. Many schools struggle even to teach RE.

Detailed analysis of the School Workforce Census conducted by DFE revealed serious breaches of the law in relation to the statutory provision of RE in all state schools. A quarter of all schools surveyed said a weekly RE lesson is not available, whilst in academies and free schools this rose to 34 per cent for 11 to 13 year olds, and 44 per cent for 14- to 16-year-olds. Moreover, according to the government’s 2016 School Workforce Survey, more than half (55 per cent) of staff teaching RE in schools have no post A Level qualification in the subject.

There is also evidence that children are being withdrawn from RE at many schools because their parents fear that their children could be exposed to faiths other than their own. Yet the majority of school leaders support the abolition of the parental right of withdrawal from RE, as do the majority of the public.

Many of the pub quiz facts about world religions could be acquired in history or geography. RE needs to be something more. It should be updated with sufficient academic rigour, putting it on par with history and English. It should emphasise the continuity between Athens and Jerusalem, right through to the Enlightenment critique of biblical texts. This is the dialectic of Western civilisation. And, importantly, if you study for a GCSE or A Level in religion, you should study Christianity.

We currently tread a dangerous path. We may find that multicultural, multi-faith society accelerates the decay of our ability to understand our own story more than it enhances our empathy for others. Interfaith dialogue and understanding are important, but that’s not what is being delivered through the current system, and it arguably shouldn’t be prioritised at the expense of crowding out our own specific religio-cultural heritage.

The sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote:

‘Society can survive only if there exists among its members a significant degree of homogeneity; education perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by fixing in the child, from the beginning, the essential similarities collective life demands.’

We might question the desired degree of homogeneity, but we shouldn’t underestimate the value of such solidity.

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Matt Archer
Matt Archer teaches philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology, and politics. He’s a freelance writer and tweets as @mattarcher91.

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