In Defence of Religious Studies

The importance of religious studies as an academic discipline is something for which I have argued many times in the past, however it is a culmination of events and conversations this week that have compelled me to explain and cement the absolute necessity of religious studies to have a place in our schools’ classrooms.

There have been numerous news reports over the last couple of years commenting on the steady decline of religious studies across British schools. Attending an interview this week at an independent school near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, it came to my attention that this decline has seemingly reached a frightening place. Upon searching the school’s website and after querying the topic with school staff, it appears as though religious studies (including philosophy) has already found its way to the rubbish bin of academic subjects; the school does not offer, in any way shape or form, religious studies or philosophy as a subject for study either at GCSE or A-Level. Further to this horrific revelation, religion is only taught to Key Stage 3 and 4 students in brief as part of PSHCEE (Personal Social Health Citizenship Economic Education.

You may be wondering the reasons for this; I know I was. When asked about the absence of RS in the school curriculum, the principal replied that it was because of the multi-cultural nature of the school (helped along by the number of international students in attendance). I’m sorry, but surely that is a case for the teaching of religious studies! How are students supposed to gain an understanding for the differing religious beliefs of their classmates if they are not being taught about them? The best part of the school’s response to my questioning was their determination to make clear that the school chaplain gives assemblies regularly during the week; oh, so there is some element of religious discourse taking place. Yippee.

I strongly believe the problem with – in this case – independent schools and perhaps state schools that may follow the path of excluding RS altogether, is to do with what I call, academic snobbery. People still turn their nose up at the fact that I studied Theology at university by either saying “oh, is that like, religion and stuff?” or “why did you bother studying that?” or my favourite to date, “so you’ve been studying fairy tales then?”. People seem to think that the study of religion is a redundant discipline because of their ill-informed views (undoubtedly helped by the wonders of the free press) that religiosity is dead. Oh how wrong they are! Religion is far from dead, in fact, statistics show that in 2011 more than 50% of the population in England and Wales claimed to be Christian (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census/key-statistics-for-local-authorities-in-england-and-wales/rpt-religion.html 29/03/14); so how can it be that religion should not be taught in our schools?

Religious studies not only educates people about the major world faiths, that are still such a huge part of the world we live in, but it also teaches people to be critical and analytical thinkers. RS is renowned for being a subject in which people have the freedom to debate ideas and voice their own opinions on theological or ethical issues; we should be giving our children the opportunity to do just this. Whether they prescribe to being religious or not, theological ideas and issues surrounding morality have been at the forefront of human inquisitiveness since the beginning of organised society, so how dare people deem the discussion of these topics so unimportant as to not warrant their teaching? How can schools deem the study of fashion, television and tourism more integral to the human condition more so than the study of humanity’s oldest concepts? When put into perspective like this, I think it’s hard to deny the subject’s importance.

A recent BBC report showed that RS helped encourage a better social ethos (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-26617395 29/03/14); so it is clear to see that the subject is indeed important, yet there is still a stigma attached RS which is, I think, a contributing factor to the shortage of qualified RS and theology specialist teachers in schools. I have been witness to inaccurate teaching of Christianity and Buddhism in secondary school lessons which is just as damaging as not teaching it at all! There needs to be a revival of the way RS is taught to ensure that accurate education is delivered and perhaps most importantly, relevant education. Let’s get our children thinking and discussing rather than being bored by looking at turbans, Qur’ans and Bibles. If required, let’s have incentives put in place to attract highly qualified and experienced RS teacher into British schools. Let’s make it legislation that the study of religion be incorporated into school curriculums, be it state or private.

Let’s stop the stigma. Let’s continue to enjoy and relish in finding answers to some of life’s oldest and biggest questions.

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