What are worldviews? How should I teach about them? How is RE changing?

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.

Approaching two years on, we may be getting to grips with the significance of the final report of the Commission on Religious Education.[i] Some things are clear. To become Religion & Worldviews (R&W), religious education (RE) needs to embody the meaning of the new language of the Commission report. The Commission report never meant that the new subject should simply refer to religions as worldviews or add an extra set of content on non-religious philosophies or ways of life.

What are worldviews? How should we teach about them? How will RE change as we negotiate the transition to R&W? These are the big questions which cannot be settled quickly, but current research brings interesting suggestions into the mix: not easy suggestions, but that is because the transition is no easy matter. In this blog, I look at three current British Journal of Religious Education articles, all of which we have just reported on Research for RE in the hope that quick access to the key points will be helpful to readers.

Firstly, Trevor Cooling confirms that the Commission report proposes R&W as a ‘significant reframing’ of RE, ‘understanding worldview as a shared human phenomenon, of which there are religious and non-religious manifestations’.[ii] When religions are viewed as fluid, complex, diverse worldviews, the subject changes; it moves away from ‘sealed-box’ presentations of religions. One key focus is on the lived experience of people and communities identifying with a particular institutional worldview: CORE, here, draws heavily on Robert Jackson’s interpretive approach to RE.  A second is on personal worldview, where the positive elements of the ‘learning from religion’ aspect of the world religious paradigm of RE are used – pupils should understand the varied influences on them as they form their own worldviews. [iii]

For Cooling, Anthony Thiselton’s ‘responsible hermeneutics’ provides the disciplinary knowledge needed in R&W. It gives teachers three responsibilities. We need to promote rigorous knowledge of what is being taught; ensure reflection on the contemporary context and how it may influence both teacher’s and pupils’ perspectives; and enable reflection on the potential interaction between what is taught and our own perspectives, so that teacher and pupils benefit in their own self-understanding.

Cooling recognises that a workable curriculum and resources are still to come. He also recognises that the need for teachers to reflect on our own worldviews warrants further attention, though in fact the issue is established in research. During my studies with secondary pupils in Sheffield, I found that the RE teacher’s role should be to collaborate with them, modelling enquiry into religions and non-religious worldviews, emphasising interpretation. [iv] Cooling does cite Ruth Flanagan’s research in this regard, and we now turn to it.

For Flanagan, teachers need to become conscious of their own worldviews. Otherwise, unconscious biases may be communicated to their pupils through what we teach, or how we teach it. Flanagan warns of a tendency for teachers to emphasise those parts of worldviews most amenable to our own views on what is rational, and, again, this is already established in prior research, the Does RE Work? data showing how teachers prefer to construct religion as ‘safer’ philosophy. [v] What can be done about this? She suggests that if teachers are supported to reflect on our own notions of a good life, we can guard against only emphasising those features of others’ worldviews that we find palatable. [vi]

It is interesting that though Tuuli Lipiäinen, Anna Halafoff, Fethi Mansouri and Gary Bouma focus on Finland and Australia, they echo Trevor Cooling’s thinking. They do report global trends, principally the decline in ‘old-style’ or ‘packaged’ religion where less and less people follow one religion’s rules, beliefs, or ways. Instead, people’s worldviews often comprise different elements from inside, between and outside religions, and (especially those of young people) they often change. The researchers call for education on these processes, to help young people to understand themselves and others and to manage the ‘superdiverse’ religion and worldviews situation. [vii] Once more, these are not yet curricular plans or resources, but may help policy makers, curriculum developers and teachers to understand the direction of travel from RE to R&W.

Arguably, by my own reading of them, one need pointed to by all three sources is for the future subject to give increased attention to personal worldviews, with regard to how these are formed in relation to complex influences. This would apply to individuals who were studied as representatives of organised worldviews, as well to pupils themselves. There would be balances to seek. Worldviews at the organised or institutional level would need to form a permanent background to the study of personal worldviews. My use of ‘background’ is in no sense intended to suggest that organised worldviews should reduce in importance within the new subject. Of course, I would argue that the nature and influence of large-scale organised worldview movements are also necessary foci in their own right. That the various ways in which wider traditions and personal worldviews interact are hard to pin down offers the rich intellectual challenge of R&W, which  – for all of the researchers whose ideas we have covered  – is also a matter of self-awareness and readiness for twenty-first century life.

Returning for a moment to the interactions between wider tradition and personal worldview, and echoing Cooling’s acknowledgement of the importance in this regard of Jackson’s work, we might bear in mind Jackson’s adaptation of Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s two-level scheme to a three-level one. Cantwell Smith used the terms ‘faith’ (to denote the personal involvement of an individual in a tradition) and ‘cumulative tradition’ (to stand for the entire mass of data associated with the community in question, past and present).[viii] Jackson made several criticisms of this model and added the term ‘membership group’ in recognition that individual identities are also shaped by smaller groups – which could be based on peer, ethnic, family, gender or other relations – within broad traditions. [ix] This point adds ways to account for the complex influences on personal worldviews, especially because the range of available membership groups has grown exponentially over the internet since 1997, when Jackson published the book which I have cited.

We eagerly anticipate further publications on worldviews, in the near future. The Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) have commissioned a literature review on the concept of worldview, through the organisation Theology and Religious Studies UK (TRS-UK) which is due to be published soon. This has been funded by Culham St Gabriel’s Trust. Culham St Gabriel’s are also funding the dissemination of a Theos report on worldview, which is due in early Autumn 2020. For more details of these and other current Culham St Gabriel’s grants, see https://www.cstg.org.uk/grant-giving/grants/grants-awarded/


[i] RE Council of England and Wales, “Commission on Religious Education Final Report: Religion and Worldviews: the way forward. A national plan for RE,” online material available at https://www.commissiononre.org.uk/final-report religion-and-worldviews-the-way-forward-a-national-plan-for-re/


[ii] Trevor Cooling (2020) Worldview in religious education: autobiographical reflections on The Commission on Religious Education in England final report, British Journal of Religious Education, DOI: 10.1080/01416200.2020.176449, 4. See also https://researchforre.reonline.org.uk/research_report/what-does-the-shift-to-worldview-mean-for-teachers/


[iii] Cooling, Worldview in religious education: autobiographical reflections on The Commission on Religious Education in England final report, 6-7.


[iv] Kevin O’Grady, Religious Education as a Dialogue with Difference: Fostering Democratic Citizenship through the Study of Religions in Schools (New York and Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2019), e.g. 48.

[v] J.C. Conroy, D. Lundie, R.A. Davis, V. Baumfield, L.P. Barnes, T. Gallagher, K. Lowden, N. Bourque and K. J. Wenell, Does Religious Education Work? A Multi-disciplinary Investigation (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 88-89.


[vi] See https://researchforre.reonline.org.uk/research_report/teachers-need-to-become-conscious-of-their-own-worldviews/ and Ruth Flanagan (2019): Implementing a Ricoeurian lens to examine the impact of individuals’ worldviews on subject content knowledge in RE in England: a theoretical proposition, British Journal of Religious Education, DOI: 10.1080/01416200.2019.1674779


[vii] See https://researchforre.reonline.org.uk/research_report/worldviews-education-in-finland-and-australia/ and Tuuli Lipiäinen, Anna Halafoff, Fethi Mansouri & Gary Bouma (2020): Diverse worldviews education and social inclusion: a comparison between Finnish and Australian approaches to build intercultural and interreligious understanding, British Journal of Religious Education, DOI: 10.1080/01416200.2020.1737918


[viii] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (New York: Mentor, 1962), 141.


[ix] Robert Jackson, Religious Education: An Interpretive Approach (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997), 62 ff.


Dr Kevin O’Grady is Lead Consultant for Research at Culham St Gabriel’s Trust

See all posts by Dr Kevin O'Grady