Does RE Matter?

December 10, 2012
Think Pieces,

Most of us involved in RE believe this. But is it true, and if so, how? The short answer is that RE matters because religion/belief matters.


You may ask ‘What’s this religion/belief?’ Fundamental to this article is the view that there is no such thing as a person without beliefs. People have beliefs like they have thoughts – it goes with being a person. You cannot get by without them. Non-religious people have beliefs, some conscious and some less so. Believing in no god is a belief. More specifically this term is now widely used under human rights legislation to include those who have convictions and philosophical views that are not usually regarded as religious, such as humanism.


OK, why does religion/belief matter so much? Apart from the fact that anything so fundamental to being human as religion/belief is bound to be important, there is the obvious reason being shown us on TV every day at the moment: religion/belief matters because it is a persistent, widespread and potent form of power in contemporary life.


Some of the ways in which this power is exercised are:


  • Religion/belief shapes or sets understanding – of oneself, of others, of the world, of life in general. It helps to make sense of things.
  • Religion/belief guides or manipulates our values, i.e. the importance we put on particular aspects of life and which determine much of what we think, say and do
  • Religion/belief influences or specifies attitudes – to people, places and events
  • Religion/belief directs or requires action for it shows itself in our behaviour.


This is not an exhaustive list of ways, but they apply to all forms of religion and belief, including secularism, scientism, humanism, for they too are part of the landscape of ideas in which we live. And as everybody has religion/belief in one form or another, this form of power is very important in our times.


Note the double-edged nature of this power. Religion/belief can be used for good or ill, for opening or closing minds, for liberating or enthralling human potential and spirit, for deeper or shallower understanding, etc.. Religion/belief involves a battle of ideas, concepts, values and positions, and as a result has differing impacts, applications and effects on human life.


It is worth pointing out two things. First, religion/beliefs do not have to be regarded as competing forms of power all the time. They have much, perhaps more in common as well as in difference. They may all wish to promote their own brands, but as often as not, they may also work together where there is a common approach to important issues, such as community cohesion. Second, the diversity encompassed in religion/belief is itself of different kinds; there is obvious diversity between one religion/belief and another, e.g. Christianity and Buddhism but a more important diversity might be the type of religion/belief held, e.g. liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, open or closed. This sort of diversity unites all religion/belief because it is found in them all.


There are several things that exercise power and influence on how we live. Many of them are part of the school curriculum. For example:


  • The power of number underpins our sense of order, logic and structure, studied in Mathematics
  • The colossal classification of knowledge and its applications which is characteristic of Science
  • The power of words, studied in language and literature
  • The importance of a sense of time and change, studied in History
  • The importance of a sense of space and place studied in Geography
  • The power of creativity, symbolic representation and imagination found in the Arts.
  • Education is all about knowledge and understanding – of self, others, the world, life – about how to acquire such knowledge and understanding, and how to use them to act.


In other words education is about theory, skills and practice, i.e. about ideas and their power.


What is missing from the list above is the form of power (and its corresponding subject) that unites all the others, that puts them all into a full context of ultimate meaning and purpose – religion/belief and RE. This form of power uses all the others; religion/belief brings into service symbolism, imagination, time, place, order, knowledge, language etc. in explaining and expressing itself. In one fundamental sense, then, religion/belief is central to all education, for they are both about values, assumptions, ethos, concepts, attitudes, behaviour.


Education is thus an arena, in which the various forms of power of religion/belief are to be found, both as fundamental aspects of life to be discovered, understood and controlled (to be educated about), and as influences which actually shape the educative process itself, i.e. to be experienced and worked out (to be learned from). These forms of power may present different images, have different agendas, and pull in different directions. They may not all be powers for good in every way. Education becomes an arena where their similarities and differences are explored, tested, debated, and exploited. Education is, in this sense, an ideological conflict zone.


This goes for the classroom too. Here, you will be only too well aware of the ‘battle of wits’ that goes on every day. This battle may take different forms:


  • between understanding and ignorance (the vocation of the teacher),
  • between rules and behaviour (the ideal and real life in school),
  • between theory and practice (assessment and marking),
  • between wills (yours and theirs),
  • between intention and action (homework set but not done),
  • between ideas in debate (pro and anti views).


It is in engaging in such battles of wits that learning takes place. Without them, there would not be that progress in knowledge, understanding, skills and practice that comprises education. If this engagement did not encompass the forms of power found in religion/belief then it would be shallow, lacking direction, relevance, meaning and purpose. In other words, if the curriculum did not include RE then it would not be meeting the need for and entitlement of pupils to engage in the serious battle of ideas in life. If they do not do that at school, they will be ill-equipped to do it later and prey to those who do it for them for their own purposes through leaflets, preaching, TV image or worse.


John Keast (Chair of the RE Council)