Why teach RE? Aims and rationale
Why should pupils learn about religion and belief? Because it is there? Because it can be socially useful? Because we are human? Or …?
Why teach RE? Why should it be on the timetable? What do we expect RE to do for the learners? How would their lives be poorer without RE? You might be tempted to skip this section if you are simply looking for subject knowledge. But the ‘why’ of RE – its rationale – is an important influence on the kind of subject knowledge we offer to young people. If we are clear about that ‘why’, we can be more confident about the ‘how’ and the ‘what’.
In the simplest terms, studying religion and belief has a claim to be an indispensable part of a complete education because of the influence of religions and beliefs on individuals, culture, behaviour and national life. Most religions and beliefs offer answers to life’s deepest questions. And most young people are seeking answers to those questions, as they grow into independence and work out how to live a good life.
People have developed different rationales for RE depending on (a) what they think the main aims of the subject are and (b) the context in which RE is taking place.
Here are some examples:
The Faith Rationale
- Particularly in a ‘faith school’, if it is thought that one of the main aims of RE is to hand on the truth of that faith to the next generation, then a faith or ‘confessional’ rationale for the subject might be built around the transmission of doctrines, rituals and ways of life, so that they are understood well enough to hand on in turn. The rationale for RE here will be concerned with such questions as:
- How can we prevent our religious community from shrinking and losing its distinctive identity in a secular and pluralistic environment?
- How can we protect our young people from peer pressure, scepticism and idolatrous lifestyles?
This rationale for RE may be justified in that it intends, with divine help, to open young people’s minds to the reality of God and nurture them in the ways of the religious community. [See How RE: Faith Nurture].
The Whole Person Rationale
- If it is thought that one of the main aims of RE is to help young people on their personal quest, then a rationale for the subject may be built around the development of ‘the whole person’, helping young people better to understand themselves and the world. The rationale for RE here will be concerned with such questions as:
- What is the meaning and purpose of life?
- Where are we going?
- What is ‘true’?
- Is my own existence meaningful, and is there anything beyond personal happiness?
- What skills do I need to succeed in life?
This rationale may be justified in that it can enable pupils to gain insights from religions and philosophies and give them practice in ‘skills for life’, such as empathy, sensitivity, humility, and in thinking and communicating well. In various ways this argument has influenced most pedagogical models of RE. [See How RE]
The Scholarly Rationale
- If it is thought that RE is a study of religions and beliefs for their own sake, a rationale may be simply that religions and philosophies exist, and they offer fascinating cultural phenomena, having limitless interest in their own right. This rationale is concerned with questions such as:
- Who was the author of this sacred text, and what meaning did it intend to convey?
- How can I penetrate through my own cultural assumptions, and my distance from the original context, in order to discover the truth about this text or object?
- What languages do I need to translate an ancient scroll?
This rationale may be justified in that it faces the intellectual challenge of exploring religions and beliefs and lays a claim to contribute strongly to young people’s cognitive and cultural development. RE in this sense is a specialist subject. [See How RE: Phenomenology]
The Academic Rationale
- If it is thought that RE’s aim is to develop young people intellectually, it can provide a mental discipline to sharpen young minds. Since religious and philosophical systems offer a rich and complex field of study, they can bring intellectual stretch and challenge even if they are not directly relevant. This rationale focuses on questions such as:
- How can we explore religions and beliefs as a way of challenging and developing young people’s intellectual abilities and skills?
- In what ways have religions and beliefs influenced us positively and negatively, and how can we develop arguments that evaluate their influence?
This rationale may be justified in overall curriculum terms as a rigorous and challenging exercise. [See How RE: Phenomenology, Critical Realism, Conceptual Enquiry]
The Human Development Rationale
- If it is thought that RE’s purpose is to develop young people spiritually, morally and ethically, the rationale is part of an overall intention to equip young people to lead a good life and achieve moral autonomy and responsibility. In the light of the many moral and ethical dilemmas we meet in life, ranging from the personal to the global, young people are seeking answers to questions such as:
- What is it to lead a good life? How do we know? Whom should we trust?
- How can I become my best self?
- What is my destiny and can religions or beliefs help me to understand it, shape it or accept it?
This rationale may be justified in that the process of young people reflecting on their own beliefs and values, seeking guidance when faced with moral dilemmas, can be informed by their understanding of religious and philosophical principles. . [See How RE: Human Development]
The Social Improvement (or Progress) Rationale
- If it is thought that RE and all other subjects serve some higher social purpose, this rationale shows how RE can benefit society. This can happen, for example, through understanding people and society better, being tolerant about diversity, improving social relations and promoting peace and prosperity. This is sometimes called the intercultural model, but it belongs in a wider set of instrumentalist thinking about education (i.e., that education is a social instrument primarily rather than an individual or communal enterprise). This rationale asks questions such as:
- How can we best understand the relationships between people?
- How can we appreciate the religious practices and festivals celebrated by our neighbours, including those who may be in our school?
- How can we use our knowledge and understanding to overcome differences and causes of tension?
- What motivates people?
- Why are our public institutions set up in the way they are? How do/should people behave when in positions of power? How do/should people react when others have power over them?
- How can we deepen people’s sense of wellbeing by giving them a sense of personal meaning?
- How can we use study methods that make young people employable by giving them critical thinking, group work and presentation skills?
This rationale may be justified, for example, by those who link RE closely with community cohesion or with Every Child Matters outcomes. Its main claim is that RE strongly contributes to making young people more tolerant, happier and more economically secure.
The Cultural Heritage Rationale
- If it is thought that one of RE’s most important functions is to help young people understand and have access to culture, then RE can be justified because culture and belief are so closely inter-twined. RE helps young people to become culturally literate, accessing and enjoying their heritage. Europe and the UK are deeply influenced by the Abrahamic religions, in their language, literature, law, holidays, art, architecture and moral standards. Many great artists, composers, musicians and writers had deep religious and/or philosophical inspiration for their work. Many use religious themes and employ references to religious literature and thought. This rationale has a specific interest in questions such as:
- How can we understand the work of Milton or Mozart, without a knowledge of the key religious texts that they used? ideas and stories?
- How can we feel part of the history and traditional cultures of Britain without a knowledge and understanding of the religious and philosophical traditions which helped to form them?
This rationale may be justified if we believe that a significant proportion of RE and the whole curriculum should be about the past and how it impacts on cultural expression today.
The Omission Rationale
- Another possible way of thinking about a rationale for RE is to consider the potential problems caused by its omission from the curriculum. The rationale for RE here will be concerned with such questions as:
- Does a secular or atheist bias to education suggest that religion is not important enough to study or is simply ‘not true’?
- Will a young person’s education be incomplete if it ignores a dimension of human experience vital to the identity, beliefs, and values of the majority of people in the world and perhaps half of the population in the UK?
- Will young people’s understanding of key issues raised in history, citizenship and by the news media be distorted if religious perspectives are discounted?
- Will young people’s understanding of religion be limited to what they learn from peers, parents and the media?
RE may be justified here in that it could provide pupils with a depth of understanding of beliefs, practices, identities and values that will enable them to make reasoned and informed judgements about religious and non-religious groups and issues.
A Practical Blend
In practice, most teachers answer the question ‘why RE?’ using a blend of two or more arguments. However, it is a good idea to be clear and coherent about ‘why RE’. Pupils, parents, Heads and others often ask. It helps professionally if you have a fluent and compelling answer.
RE has developed historically in Britain since 1944, evolving through several of these rationales. More detail on this can be found in the RE CPD Handbook
Links and Think Pieces