Letter: Teaching RE as a social science

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The Independent Online
Sir: One reason why RE has 'lost its way' (leading article, 10 August) is that since 1944 religion in the curriculum has been - one way and another - 'commended' rather than studied. In the Forties it was 'wholly' Christian; in the Sixties 'multi-faith', and now, from the 1988 Act, 'mainly Christian'.

All postures assume that religion is fundamentally good for the rising generation and is not merely a matter for scrutiny in the academic context at whatever level; it is to be promoted. Religion is believed by the establishment - political and ecclesiastical - to provide the safest foundation for moral behaviour, given that the linkage between rationality and belief is secure: fanaticism is not acceptable. Yet, as the mainstream religious institutions decline, religious fanaticism is on the increase.

Is it any wonder moreover that RE has 'lost its way' when, alone in the curriculum, it is the responsibility of a teaching force of which almost 70 per cent have no qualification in the subject; most of its textbooks are written by adherents rather than academics; and the syllabus is set 'locally' by the institutions of religion rather than learning?

It is time that religion in school was studied with a determination to equip the young with the discernment needed to resist the seductive blandishments of the maniac cults, new religious movements and other fanatical sects now burgeoning in a social and cultural environment wherein the Judaeo-Christian tradition has lost its deposit.

Religion in the curriculum demands the scrutiny of religious origins, phenomena and ideology that we expect of every other discipline: scientific, critical, open-ended analysis which at last will examine the subject as a branch of the social sciences with all the complexities of the political, cultural and aesthetic causes involved.

Religion in school must eschew that protection to which all the representative religious bodies have clung for so long. The rising generation must be given the knowledge to explain how people come to believe and not to believe - indeed, the nature of belief itself. We must show how greatness has come from the heroic believer; we must also explain how religion continues to engender illiberality, the persecution of minorities and in many religious traditions - then as now - the oppression of women. The study of religion must examine above all those dreadful coercive endeavours that have, and continue to accompany, the shrieking recital: 'We know the truth because to us God has revealed it finally.' At what cost]

We may not manage to follow the American example and call it 'The Scientific Study of Religion' (we have too few who could teach it in the schools anyway). We could, however, make a good start - away from the confessionalism of half a century - and call it Religious Studies and leave religious 'education' or spiritual development to the religious institutions on their own time.

Religion in school must be studied from an abundancy of scholarly standpoints; it cannot continue to be discreetly commended by those believers whose interests are motivated by creed rather than criticism.

Religion in schools must be liberated from its protective ghetto. Only then will the philosopher, social scientist, historian and psychologist be part of the search to help the young understand the origins and causes of all the religious cosmologies - dead and alive - that have engaged the energies of mankind for good and ill: how some have served their fellows and others have shot them in the name of their god.

Yours faithfully,

KENNETH WOLFE

Head of Religious Studies

Godolphin & Latymer School

London, W6

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