An Interesting View of Worldviews

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.

OK. I admit it. I’ll come clean: I think religion is inherently interesting.

Personally, I am intrigued by some of the ways people carry out their deeply held beliefs. I am impressed by the way that many people find comfort in doing seemingly strange things or by having faith in apparently unfathomable beliefs. I love the stories that they tell – and those they ignore – and the different ways people interpret, reinterpret, and misinterpret their own sources of wisdom and authority. I enjoy doing what’s called reception criticism, studying the way that these texts have been interpreted by popular culture in different times and how popular culture has reciprocally influenced the perceived understanding of the texts. I’m interested in how people who don’t want to belong (to a religion) do have beliefs, and how some people do want to belong to groups with which they share very little beliefs. So, for example what many Roman Catholics believe is often different to what the Catholic Church teaches, but that doesn’t seem to affect many people’s ‘being Catholic’. And I’m fascinated by the fact we use language like ‘belonging’, ‘being’ and ‘believing’…. What do these really mean? I’m amused (not in a funny way) that asking a person, ‘Are you religious?’, ‘Do you have a faith?’ ‘Are you a member of a religion?’, ‘Do you have a religion?’ or ‘Do you belong to a religion?’ might result in very different answers.

I’m not very interested in shopping, although I seem to do quite a lot of it. One of the arguments for a new vision for RE is that the study of religions is no longer relevant to young people as most of them don’t belong to a religion. I don’t really buy that argument (do you see what I did there… shopping… buy! Oh, never mind…).  I don’t think the majority of (young) people are ethical vegans, or Humanists, or liberal Anglicans, or Buddhists, or Muslims. And even if they were, I don’t think we should be teaching just what most people think they are (that was possibly a mistake of the RE of the latter decades of the last century).   I think that the majority of people in the west have a consumerist capitalist worldview underpinned by a sort of selfish rationalism. For many of us the purpose of life is to accrue apparently attractive property and wealth in order to ‘feel good’ in a quasi-hedonistic way. And that’s fair enough. If I were more interested in studying that, I would be a sociologist, and I’m not. In RE we should probably be teaching what is most interesting, or most useful in helping people make sense of the world, what is most … relevant.

So, I have no desire to study shopping, and I’m not a sociologist.  I’m not much of a historian or a theologian, either, although I understand that these disciplinary lenses can be useful in pursuing our aims.  Ah! – but what are these aims? …Well, John Hall in the Foreword to the CoRE report suggests, “The subject should explore the role that religious and non-religious worldviews play in all human life.” Which is lovely, but possibly a little vague.  (As an aside, I’ve been wondering recently why the phrase “religious and non-religious” has been adopted.  I dislike defining something by what it is not.  Wouldn’t “secular and sacred worldviews” be a better phraseology?).  The CoRE report, has another stab at the aims of the subject, tucked away in Appendix 1:  “It is about understanding the human quest for meaning, being prepared for life in a diverse world and having space to reflect on one’s own worldview” (CoRE: 73)

Now that’s something that does interest me, what the best RE teachers have been doing for years, and a vision I think I can get behind: pupils should study the ways secular and sacred worldviews have used narrative, questions, symbols and praxis [1] to try to make sense of the world, both through history and in contemporary society. If pupils understand the ways that these secular and sacred worldviews relate and inform the fluid worldviews of individuals in society, causing people to believe or behave in certain ways, it will prepare them for the contemporary liquid modernity [2] which they inhabit.  And through all this learning, if given space for personal reflection, pupils will have opportunity to engage in epistemic cognition [3] and develop their own emerging personal Weltbild [4]. This is the sort of RE that I have encouraged those beginning RE teachers who have trained with us at Edge Hill to explore. I hope their pupils find it interesting and relevant.


[1] Hella, Elina. 2009. “Developing Students’ Worldview Literacy through Variation: Pedagogical Prospects of Critical Religious Education and the Variation Theory of Learning for Further Education.” Journal of Chaplaincy in Further Education 5 (1): 4–12.

[2] Bauman, Z. 2000, Liquid modernity, Polity, Oxford.

[3] Fetz, R.L. & Reich, K.H. 1989, “World Views and Religions Development”, Journal of Empirical Theology, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 46-60

[4] Weltbild is one of two German words for worldview, this one having the idea of a personal image of the workings of the universe was favoured by Heidegger.  Weltanschauung tends have more of the feel of an all encompassing meta-narrative.  I am sure this will be much more comprehensively covered in the REC’s forthcoming ‘Worldviews Project’


Paul is a Senior Lecturer in RE at Edge Hill University.

See all posts by Paul Smalley

Opening up conversations about religion and worldviews

See all the blogs in the series so far