“Religions die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions.”
So quipped Oscar Wilde as part of a series of sarcastic epigrams entitled Phrases And Philosophies For The Use Of The Young.
Juxtaposing science and religion, Wilde contrasts two approaches to knowledge often thought to conflict, and asserts something often presumed of religion in the modern era: that it should rest on faith rather than proof. The thought-provoking statement that science provides a method of recording superseded belief systems suggests that we should consider a scientific approach to explaining them.
Wilde’s irony leaves his view of the value of religion ultimately ambiguous, however, because while suggesting religions are ephemeral in contrast to the stability of science, he simultaneously claims they can also be true and demonstrated as so.
Religious educationists are often at the centre of a similar kind of paradox. We may be accused of teaching dead religions, and we may even be sometimes tempted to think that our approach is incoherent, or our raison d’être anachronistic.
Wilde, writing in the 1890s, was playing with a well-acknowledged cultural tension surrounding Christianity that continues today, and has perhaps reached a crucial turning-point. Researchers of ‘unbelief’ have recently declared that the majority of Britons have no religion, while pressure groups, like the National Secular Society argue that the role of religion in public life and education should be radically rethought.
In addition to a being a sensible interpretation of contemporary sociological data, to posit the death of religion in Britain also rests upon, and is sometimes used to support, a certain view of history. One narrative of Western civilization is the triumph of reason over superstition, the achievements of the scientific method, and of the boons of democratic governance over that of the divine right of kings. According to this view, the record of dead religions is the story of how religion rose and fell giving way to the greater enlightenment, technological superiority and social amelioration of modernity.
To negotiate ongoing debates about religion in the classroom and in their curriculum planning, religious educators need to identify and engage with this implicit view of history. We also need to understand the relevance of history for religions more generally. By this I do not suggest that religious education should become like the curriculum subject History. Rather, I mean any treatment of religion, including that retold to students of all ages and abilities, needs to be understood within its historical context.
In one of the most famous non-fiction books written in English, The Story of Art, E. H. Gombrich makes a startling assertion for an Art Historian: there is no such thing as art. This is because, he argues, despite always being contingent on the art of the past, the word ‘art’ has meant different things at different times. Gombrich’s bold statement provides a useful analogy for religion. For we could say that there is no such thing as religion, or at least, whatever ‘religion’ may be defies precise definition and its meaning has changed over time. Indeed, this is perhaps more true of religions than works of art, for we now use the word ‘religion’ to group together a series of sometimes disparate and unconnected historical movements, which each themselves have created their own interpretation of the past – among other things.
The English sociologist of religion Edward Bailey made the astute observation that what is often thought of as religion in England are those things connected with two dominant movements in Anglicanism: the evangelical movement of the 18th century and the Anglo-Catholic revival of the 19th. To many, extremism aside, the Dibley-esque image of a mannerly person in a dog-collar and the musty smell of old pews are probably what first comes to mind when they hear the word ‘religion’. Common perceptions of religion are often of a mythical past and may have little to do with living religions, or the way religions are lived.
The word ‘religion’ itself belies studying religion through an ahistorical lens. Coming from the Latin verb ‘to bind’, religare, in the middle ages (and still today in Catholicism), to be religious meant to be bound to monastic vows rather than to be a believer (belief becoming much more important in the modern age). This entails the confusing prospect of there being ‘secular’ priests, i.e. those who are not members of religious orders.
Like the story of art, the story of religion begins in antiquity and in the historical movements we commonly call religions, we see continuities from those distant times. However, the narrative of different religions occupying the same psychological/spiritual and social/political space is arguably a relatively new one, particularly in the field of education. Previously in England, ‘religion’ meant Christianity. Further back in time, ‘Christianity’ meant the Established Church. Often religious educators make the assumption that while people may have different religions, they are essentially the same apart from in the content of people’s beliefs. Religions require obligations that are similar: rites of passage, pilgrimage, adherence to authority, ‘following’ scripture etc. But as anyone who has a deep experience of any one particular tradition will concede, each religion actually makes fundamentally different claims, often in conscious opposition to their historical competitors.
In a short book, Why Study the Past?, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, sets out the importance of church history for Christians. Narratives about the past are told to help us understand who we are and why we are like we are. Christianity is a religion that relies on testimonies to historic events, including that God became man. History and theology must therefore engage in dialogue to inform each other.
Returning back to school this September, teachers of religious education face the perennial problem of helping students make sense of religion. This is in no way straight forward. As Wilde’s wit illustrates, religion is not something that rests on ‘scientific’ knowledge yet at the same time it can be studied, somewhat like a science. Furthermore, as I have argued, our understanding of what constitutes our subject matter, religion, is historically contingent. And here lies another problem, for in religious education we need to encounter religions in all their diversity while also negotiating the modern view that religions can somehow be condensed into the category of ‘religion’. Even this category can skew our investigation and make inaccessible the important realization that any view about religion comes hand in hand with a particular view of history and from a specific location in time.
So what can we do as religious educators when faced with such responsibilities, and when such controversies divide opinion (or perhaps worse still, when religious controversies are no longer controversial)?
The great historian of religions, Arnold Toynbee, observed that his own ‘view of history is in itself a tiny piece of history’. Perhaps placing our own religious perspectives before us and recognizing their part in our personal histories is one good place to start. This reflection enables us to engage with the complexities of religion and consider our potential impact on the perspectives of students. One task of religious education is to understand the nuances and radical differences that may exist between those identifying with any given religion. It is in these complexities that we can find the excitement of religious education and its relevance. Religious education dies if we make naïve assumptions about the past. To study religions is to apprehend the complexity of living histories.
Dr Daniel Moulin-Stożek is Associate Fellow of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit.