The Commission on RE is to be congratulated for such a wide-ranging report. I write my comments fully aware that it is much easier to criticize than it is create such a document.
The Commission articulates the need for RE to allow students ‘to reflect on their own worldview and consider the worldviews of those with different opinions’ and to give ‘a nuanced understanding of key social and political issues’ (1). This is not to be done through the presentation of religion in an essentialised manner (5), and the text emphasizes the need to consider how ‘communities maintain continuity in different times and contexts as the surrounding culture changes’ (8b).
However, I am wary that many teachers and students seem to interpret this as a study of the relationship between (religious) communities, as part of the wider promotion of cohesion. Students emphasise that RE discourages bullying of those who are different, because it generates empathy with other worldviews, and generates tolerance in a pluralistic environment (27). One teacher described how RE played a role in ‘celebrating diversity’ (73). And Ernst and Young stressed the role of RE in making students into effective members of diverse workplaces (28).
All three of these ideas are indeed social goods, but I worry that they correspond too closely to an instrumentalised view of RE as something that promotes cohesion by emphasizing the positive side of religion. In teaching CPD for Islam, I wonder whether teachers’ reluctance to teach anything that might be seen as negative may also impede their ability to historicise religious developments or to examine the social consequences of the behaviours mandated by religions. The need to contest Islamophobia is, of course, very understandable, but I argue that this is better done by differentiating between the unfair stereotyping of Muslims as a population and the possibility of critiquing Islam as a worldview.
After reviewing textbooks for Islam in RE for a forthcoming publication, I was struck by the failure to present the diversity of Islamic belief and practice. This was not just a matter of group divisions (eg. Sunni and Shia), but also issues like the wearing of the veil, of male and female circumcision, the creation of human images or the consumption of alcohol. As Shahab Ahmed has recently argued, this diversity of practice (in the past and the present) is often sacrificed to a single normative vision, created by those recognized as spokesmen for a majority.
This majoritarian bias can silence the voices of others, and RE needs to ensure that teaching recognizes that a diversity of texts and precedents that are used to authorize behavior. This censorship has real effects in the classroom. For instance, the sociologist Kathryn Spellman reflects on how Muslim students may seek to present themselves as real Muslims (by wearing the hijab, for instance) and cause other students to categorise anyone who does not do the same as non-Muslim.
My review also highlighted the absence of any discussion of the social consequences of ideas. RE tends to concentrate on how practices are justified and embedded into a worldview. But I think its remit should also include how communities are created and policed through these practices. One textbook I read (Steve Clarke, Religions to Inspire for KS 3. Islam, 57ff.) describes a Muslim girl meeting non-Muslim classmates for the first time and explaining that her father would never allow her to wear revealing Western clothes. She tells them that she prefers not to socialise with non-Muslims and that she can only eat halal food. One of the students in this teaching example observes ‘isn’t that a bit racist’, to which she says, ‘It’s not like that…it’s just that people from western backgrounds have different values’.
This textbook should be applauded at one level for discussing the social reality of differences in religious practice, and allowing students to reflect on what such encounters might feel like. But the learning objective here seems limited to an observation of the differences that exist between religious communities. I think this is exactly the kind of area where there needs to be an examination of how ‘communities maintain continuity in different times and contexts.’ Religious worldviews in diaspora contexts can act to preserve migrant social networks from contacts with outsiders, partly because of the wish to marry second-generation migrants with spouses from the homeland. And this in turn means that social contact (and therefore interpersonal trust) with members of other groups is discouraged. It is precisely these sorts of social consequences that I think ought to be considered in RE, and the sociology of religion and the sociology of migration provide rigorous academic contexts for doing so.
Several commentators quoted in the Commission stressed the lack of RE teachers’ subject knowledge (eg. 105, 251), and this compounds an inability to engage with material that has political and social significance. But I would be wary of giving religious authorities themselves a monopoly on the provision of CPD to enhance subject knowledge. Though they will have important theological knowledge and be able to discuss their ‘community’s’ presence in British society, it is necessary to combine their observations with the perspectives of sociologists of religion. We can, with theologians, ask how a discourse functions within a worldview, but, as sociologists and historians of religion, we also need to consider how discourses function etically, how traditions preserve communal boundaries and the vested interests that benefit from these boundaries. To my mind, this would be an example of ‘understand[ing] how worldviews work and their impact on individuals, communities and society’ (119e).
I was impressed by the Commission’s willingness to consider Communism or nationalism as worldviews alongside ‘religion’ (20). To mind, this is crucial to our ability to acknowledge that worldviews have a political and social impact. This in turn is a key reason to engage with the worldviews of others: they are our co-citizens and the sum of our worldviews will constitute the society that we share. However, we need to be cautious about accepting all claims that adherents make about what the social and political impacts of their ideas are. Precisely because we are accustomed to think about politics as a matter of choice, I think that including ideologies like Communism alongside ‘religions’ carries the implication that all worldviews should be chosen by informed citizens rather than inherited by bearers of tradition. Furthermore, an understanding that different worldviews have different social and political consequences is as much a part of assessing their validity as their moral or theological claims about themselves.
Philip Wood (@DrPhilipWood) is a historian of the Middle East. He has published on the development of political and religious ideas in late antiquity and is interested in the reception of these ideas in contemporary contexts. He teaches at the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations in London, part of Aga Khan University. He completed his doctorate at Oxford, and formerly taught at Cambridge and SOAS.