An Approach to Decolonising Religious Education

November / December 2021 research of the month features Krystian McInnis

Krystian presents an approach to decolonising the curriculum drawing on his research with black students.

Historically, from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, religion and education have been at the epicentre of all European empires (Gearon et al. 2021). Whilst decolonising has had little uptake in recent years, with much left to the outskirts of British academia, a more detailed focus has been found in the US, Sub-Saharan Africa (Matemba 2021) and Canada (Cote-Meek & Moeke-Pickering 2020). The senseless killing of George Floyd however, brought to the forefront not only a conversation regarding race and racism, but the need to see institutional and structural change within society and education. With this the case, my research focuses on exploring decolonising religious education through the Black student perspective, a voice far too often neglected in both society and academia.


I feel it vital, at this early stage, in line with postcolonial theorists’ work, to state my position as a Black male secondary practitioner and researcher. With my research exploring decolonising religious education, my cultural identity allows me to write from a position of strength. With very few academics writing within this sphere, and an even fewer number Black; my insider perspective is both valuable and necessary within this topic. Furthermore, my perspective allows for not only my voice, but others like me to have their voices heard and listened to, often a privilege not afforded within education.

Having been educated within the British education system myself from EYFS to postgraduate studies; I know too well of the diversity deficiency regarding religion and culture in secondary education. Moreover, from African-Caribbean lineage, consisting of a recent and brutal past of colonised heritage, I am acutely aware of my culture’s erasure from the British curriculum, confined to an annual acknowledgment of slavery in the month of October (Campbell 2020). Therefore, for me it has been pivotal to explore and research in this space, to bring about a long overdue change, exploring literature, neglected for far too long.

Furthermore, my position as an insider within the topic of decolonising the curriculum I feel is multi-layered and vital. With a severe lack of representation within education, much of the conversation appears to be stagnant with very few academics or school practitioners pushing the conversation forward. With approximately 2.3% of teachers in the UK Black compared to 85.7% White whilst in leadership positions 2.6% Black compared to 95% White, this arguably could be why within secondary education the conversation has not progressed much further. What must be noted however, is the impact this has on students. With a lack of representation, coupled with a non-diverse and colonial-centred curriculum, students with backgrounds similar to mine will continue to not see themselves truly reflected within their educational lifespan, bringing about complex identity issues which we see present in society today.

What is meant by Decolonising?

In recent years, calls for decolonisation have echoed through educational communities with much discussion regarding form, content and interpretation of the curriculum from the colonised and former colonised (Arday and Mirza, 2018). In addition, the debate on decolonising the curriculum has not been more central within history than it is today. However, much of this debate surrounds Higher Education. Arguably, exacerbated by the death of George Floyd, the conversation within academia and education most notably erupted with the infamous, Rhodes Must Fall Campaign, which called for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College Oxford (Chaudhuri 2016; Chigudu 2020; Makori & McKay 2020). It is paramount however to assert that decolonising the curriculum is not merely demanding the removal of statues or previously taught material, or the erasure of White history, but rather for an additional lens to be provided, exploring the voice of the ‘other’, the ‘colonised’, the intentionally forgotten. This additional lens allows for a holistic view of historical events, taking into account the lives and experiences both positive and negative of all those involved.

Postcolonial Theory 

In attempting to define postcolonial theory there are a plethora of definitions available, which has caused much debate over the years. Commonly accepted however, is that of a critical academic study of the cultural legacy of colonialism and imperialism, focusing on the human consequences of the control and exploitation of colonised people and their land. In addition, present within postcolonial theory is a false dichotomy between postcolonial theory and postcolonial criticism. Nevertheless, the key works and contributions of Aime Cesaire (Discourse on Colonialism), Frantz Fanon (Black Skin White Masks), Edward Said (Orientalism) and Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) are a good starting point for exploration within this field. Whilst through a historical lens, postcolonial theory analyses texts, literature and prose, it is also important to note its analysis regarding race, culture and religion. By magnifying the socio-political layers of literature, postcolonial theorists show that aesthetics are not objective, disinterested or natural but rather politically constructed to put white European literature on a pedestal whilst simultaneously disregarding Black, native and aboriginal aesthetics (Eglinton 2019).

Key findings from my semi-structured interviews

  • Students had a lack of awareness regarding decolonising Religious Education. Students who were interviewed were aware of the need to diversify and add more ‘people that look like us’, but decolonising was a phrase they had not come across
  • Students were only able to make links between colonial and History; in particular, slavery however, felt this was limited to the British Empire
  • Students were unaware that Religion and education has played a pivotal role in the colonising of countries and expanding colonial empires
  • There appears to be a wider misunderstanding of what a decolonised curriculum is, with many practitioners believing it is in part to remove aspects of White British History rather than to include the voice of the oppressed
  • For a successful decolonised curriculum, cross-curricular collaboration will be curricular to ensure that students are getting a holistic picture, rather than it confined to one area of subject
  • Many practitioners appear to be apprehensive regarding decolonising the curriculum due to workload and time pressures. However, decolonising religious education does not mean new schemes of work per se, but rather for example additional resources and worksheets showing a different viewpoint

Decolonising Religious Education

My research, still in its early stages, has attempted to explore decolonising religious education taking into account the Black student voice and experience. What was stark however, through my semi-structured interviews, was that the students had no understanding or awareness of the politicised phrasing ‘decolonising the curriculum’ or ‘decolonising religious education’. Whilst students were able to suggest that they felt Religious Education did not represent them fully and needed to be ‘more diverse’ and argued they wanted to see ‘other cultures and backgrounds’ in their lessons and books, they believed that decolonising referred solely to a colonial past which was only relevant to History and the British Empire. Students did however; assert that Religious Education is more diverse than other subjects are.

Furthermore, what was more interesting is that students appeared to make no connection between the colonial past and its role within religion. Missionary work, most remarkably, was central to both the expansion and maintenance of the British Empire (Reichard 2015; Velho 2007; Vandrick 2018; Meier 2018). What this did however make me note, is that within religious education this is not an aspect often covered, nor is there investigation of the Church within History except most notably the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. I argue that perhaps a decolonised curriculum would explore the effects of missionary work in society today in particular within Sub-Saharan Africa.

As aforementioned, decolonising the curriculum requests for the inclusion of content, to both supplement the current curriculum and provide an overlay, exploring the views and perceptions of the ‘other’, the previously colonised. An example of this could be the teaching of key figures, such as Gandhi within religious education. Whilst much conversation appears to surround his teachings, it neglects to highlight his fight was directly against the decades long oppression of the British Empire on India. Additionally, perhaps the teaching of Martin Luther King Jnr, often portrayed as the epitome of pacifism, in direct opposition to Malcolm X, could be studied including recognition that the US government deemed King an ‘enemy of the state’.

Ideally, the impact of my research will help bring about the necessary decolonising of Religious Education and subsequently wider curriculum too. Whilst there is some suggestion Religious Education is already decolonised, I assert that this is not the case, however, arguably in some places the process has certainly started.

Discussion Questions

  • Are there, could there be, or should there be links between the worldview agenda and curriculum decolonisation in RE?
  • What would decolonising the RE curriculum actually mean in practice, not just rhetorically?
  • Discuss and identify some ways in which your own RE curriculum could be decolonised: come up with two or three specific examples of changes that could be made. Think about content, but also approach.


Arday, J., and H. S. Mirza, (2018) Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. London: Palgrave.

Campbell, L. (2020) ‘It isn’t a tick-box’: young BLM activists on Black History Month in UK schools, The Guardian

Chaudhuri, A. (2016) The real meaning of Rhodes Must Fall:  After the nation’s long retreat from multiculturalism and the return of a rose‑tinted memory of empire, it is no accident that the Rhodes Must Fall movement has come to Britain, The Guardian

Chigudu, S. (2020) Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford: a critical testimony, Critical African Studies, 12:3, 302-312

Cote-Meek, S., Moeke-Pickering, T. (2020) Decolonizing and Indigenizing Education in Canada, Canadian Scholars

Eglinton, Y. (2019) Postcolonial Literacy Criticism: An introduction Handbook, Textual Matters

Gearon, L., Kuusisto, A., Matemba, Y., Benjamin, S., Petro Du, P., Koirikivi, P., Simmonds, S. (2021) Decolonising the religious education curriculum, British Journal of Religious Education, 43:1, 1-8

Makori, B., McKay, H. (2020) Rhodes Must Fall – Oxford protesters target statue of colonialist

Matemba, Y. (2021) Decolonising religious education in sub-Saharan Africa through the prism of anticolonialism: a conceptual proposition, British Journal of religious education 43:1, 33-45

Meier, V. (2018) Neither bloody persecution nor well intended civilizing missions changed their nature or their number, Critical Romani Studies, 1:1, 86-126.

Reichard, J. D. (2015) Mutually transformative missions: A postcolonial, process-relational Pentecostal missiology, Missiology, 43:3, 245–257

Vandrick, S. 2018. Growing up with God and Empire: A Postcolonial Analysis of Missionary Kid Memoirs, Blue Ridge Summit

Velho, O. (2007) ‘Missionization in the post-colonial world: A view from Brazil and elsewhere’, Anthropological Theory, 7:3, 273–293

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