Not just a showcase for our gods: Religious teaching suffers from a lack of academic rigour, argues John Wilson

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SO THERE is to be yet another 'initiative' on religious education, this time aimed at developing multi-faith syllabuses to suit differing local ethnic mixes. Anyone who, like myself, has been in the religious education business for several decades is bound to have found Baroness Blatch's announcement last week depressing. Admittedly, it is a sign of grace that the topic is still discussed and that some kind of practice continues; but it is a sign of original sin, or perhaps of what the Roman Catholics used to call 'invincible ignorance', that no initiatives even address the basic issues, let alone try to solve them.

Yet the basic issues are simple enough. Whatever one thinks about religion, it is obviously important. If we want to educate pupils in religion, we have to face up to what that means. It does not mean - or certainly does not only mean - either selling a particular religious line - some kind of indoctrination or reinforcement of the faithful; or conducting a sort of sociological shop-window or supermarket tour of various religions in which pupils are encouraged to get a taste of all of the products on offer.

Somehow it seems very difficult for us to get beyond these two ideas: perhaps because we either want to preserve some particular faith or culture, or want to do justice to various cultural groups in a pluralistic society. But these wants, understandable in themselves, have little to do with education.

Educating pupils in religion is on a par with (but of course not the same as) educating them in science, history or mathematics. We do not just tell them the right answers, nor do we teach them that different people have different answers that are all more or less equal in value. What we do is to show them how to make up their minds, in the light of some kind of reason or understanding, about what is true or right in science or history or whatever.

We show them how to approach the subject, how to detect errors, how to distinguish between good and bad evidence: in other words, how to find the truth. That, of course, is what any serious pupil wants. He/she does not want to be told the answers, nor that the whole thing is just a matter of taste, but rather to learn how to make sensible choices in religion, how to avoid mistakes (worshipping Hitler, for instance), how to perform well in the form of thought and life we call 'religion'.

Our problem is at root a failure to see religion as a form of thought in its own right. We make the same mistake with morality: either we want to give children the 'right answers', or we want to show them all the different answers that might attract them, in order to convey a message of relativism - 'there aren't really any objectively right answers'.

What we don't do is to show them what counts as good thinking in this field and what kinds of reasoning are bad, or irrelevant, or in some way improper. We do this with other forms of thought well enough, but not with morality or religion. It is as if we saw morality and religion as some kind of individual or group possessions, which then have to be politically reinforced or protected or shared out.

But if we genuinely want to provide religious education, we have to accept that it is in some way an academic discipline, subject to standards of reason and understanding appropriate to the field. Religion and morality are not things that we own, but fields in which all of us - whatever our particular beliefs and cultural backgrounds - aspire to truth.

It is only in this light that we can hope to have a unified programme of religious education for everyone. More importantly, it is only in this light that we can hope to make sense of religion and hence to educate our children in it.

Just how do we define the field? What counts as good evidence or grounds for our beliefs? What is it to be unreasonable? What qualities and virtues do learners need if they are to have some hope of progress? My own view is that religion is not primarily about historical or scientific fact or even about moral values (we have disciplines that cater for these already), but about the appropriate or inappropriate direction of certain attitudes and emotions - particularly those involved in awe and worship - to certain targets. Education in religion, I believe, is an important sub-section of education of the emotions. Some objects, features of human life, heroes, gods, or whatever, merit awe, reverence, and commitment: others do not. We have to work this out for ourselves.

But my own answers matter much less than that we should begin to face the questions squarely. If we do not, then either religious education will perish by default because we cannot put it on an educationally proper basis, or else we shall simply leave the field open to fundamentalists and others to sell some partisan line that is equally non-educational.

No 'initiative' will be more than a flash in the pan if the right questions are not addressed. Failure to do so is not only intellectually feeble-minded, but politically disastrous and - worse - will be of no help at all to generations of pupils who need to learn how to make their way in this field.

The writer is a tutor at the Department of Educational Studies, Oxford University.

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