A worldviews approach doesn’t dilute RE, it gives the subject context and relevance
31 July, 2020
We are delighted to be launching a new summer blog series called ‘Opening up conversations about religion and worldviews’. This blog series is being run in collaboration with the RE Policy Unit, a partnership between NATRE, the RE Council and RE Today. It will include contributions from a wide range of teachers, those working in initial teacher education and researchers in this field.
In December 2018 the then Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, wrote to Dr John Hall (Chair of the Commission on RE) expressing significant reservations about the findings of the Commission’s report. In particular Hinds questioned its central focus, which advocates a shift to a worldviews approach, stating that ‘the inclusion of ‘worldviews’ risks diluting the teaching of RE’. For many this sounded the death knell for the report.
Here I explain how I believe that Hinds’ judgement betrayed a significant misreading of the roll worldviews can play in RE. I would argue that, rather than diluting the subject, the inclusion of worldviews enables young people to connect with religion(s) in a much more profound and inclusive way.
As teachers of RE, our aim is to help pupils explore what people believe and what difference this makes to how they live. Culturally we are witnessing a significant shift in the way individuals express their personal beliefs and values, with fewer people identifying their own worldview as ‘Christian’, a growing number of ‘nones’ and an increasing attraction towards ethical and lifestyle movements such as Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and veganism.
The Commission report offered a new vision for the subject, identifying the study of worldviews as a ‘critical gateway’ to our understanding of religious and non-religious perspectives (p27). To facilitate this shift the REC’s Worldview Project (to be published and consulted on in the autumn) aims to provide a robust academic underpinning for using a worldviews approach to RE.
In their paper Worldviews and Big Ideas, Rob Freathy and Helen John set out a number of arguments which refute the claim that a worldviews approach dilutes the subject. They explain that religions are not discrete entities, distant and separate from their surroundings. To understand religions and beliefs fully they need to be studied in the context of other perspectives and life stances. Religious traditions are fluid and porous; they shift and grow through the influence of social and cultural factors; beliefs intersect, cross-fertilise and conflict with other cultural dynamics.
As far back as the 1970s, the late John Hull advocated the inclusion of worldviews into RE (he used the phrase ‘stances for living’), in order to aid our understanding of religion(s). In his view, the study of such alternative perspectives serve a valuable purpose in shedding light onto the subject.
By adding the term worldviews, we are reframing the study to emphasise a more far-reaching programme. Far from watering down or weakening RE, this approach gives added depth and relevance to the subject, helping pupils make vital connections and setting topics in a context which enhances the way they are understood.
Don’t exceptionalise religions
There is a danger that a predominant focus on the ‘Big Six’ religions, can lead to the exceptionalising and essentialising of religion, as if other forms of belief are less coherent or of lesser value. It is important for teachers of RE to represent the fact that religions are themselves worldviews, not fixed and boundaried, but with diverse forms and expressions. If they are studied in separation from other ways of seeing the world, we risk making them stand out as isolated oddities, idealised or objectified, disconnected from everyday experiences and concerns.
Connecting the concepts
From my perspective as a teacher and educator, I find the notion of including worldviews into the subject a powerful teaching tool. For example, by giving pupils a brief introduction into the worldviews of hedonism (do whatever makes you happy) and existentialism (we are free to make our own choices), we equip them much more fully to understand religious concepts like sacredness, duty, commitment and divine guidance.
One of the few moments of direct insight I can clearly remember experiencing at university was in making the realisation that for learning to be truly embedded it has to have context. According to Piaget we form meaning through connecting new ideas to our own experiences and patterns of thinking, assimilating them into existing frames of reference. A worldviews approach enables pupils to explore and gain ownership of their own perspectives, fitting new understanding into their existing mental framework. We learn about religion and beliefs through connecting and contrasting them with our own way of seeing the world. There is no true form of any religion, separated from other competing worldviews. All human beings construct their belief systems through a mixture of personal and institutional perspectives. It’s just that some people identify more closely to established descriptions and designations they like to call ‘religion’, and others do not.
Worldviews: a foundation for classroom practice
Damian Hinds’ response was far from a death knell. Since the report’s publication, nearly two years ago, it has become apparent that in practice, teachers are finding a worldviews approach attractive, and work is continuing apace to establish a firm academic foundation, enabling this approach to become embedded into classroom practice.
Ed Pawson, RE adviser and consultant
 Worldviews and Big Ideas https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/40513