I was recently at a conference for religious educators. There were world-class presentations on social phenomena, ethical issues, scientific developments, religious change, and so forth. Presentations were by atheists, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews. There was discussion on everything from euthanasia, through refugees, to our understanding of happiness. [And I’ve just been to an ethics seminar – again with a good mixture of positions on faith by the participants].
Religious Education (or Religious Studies) is regularly misunderstood. It is often confused with evangelism or catechesis (or Religious Instruction). The confusion does not seem to be present in tertiary institutions where Philosophy, Ethics, and Religious Studies are presented by lecturers who follow a religion or who are atheists or agnostics. There, it is understood as an academic discipline on an equal footing with others.
In New Zealand secondary education, Religious Studies is available in the NCEA matrix – but few schools beyond faith-based schools provide it. Religious Education is not sanctioned in NZ state primary schools. As a result, “well-educated” Kiwis often have a significant blind spot in their education. Many have no real understanding of the place that religion plays in our world, our history, art, and culture. They can struggle to articulate an argument for the ethical positions that they hold. There can be little appreciation of those who are different to themselves in a multi-cultural, multi-faith global village.
Even those advocating for Religious Education can misunderstand what they are advocating in favour of – and thereby undermine their own enthusiasm for the discipline. I recently read an editorial in the Guardian which was arguing that “RE provides an important tool for understanding ourselves and where we’re going”. But in doing so, it said:
The peculiar difficulty of religious education, which distinguishes it from all other subjects, is that it deals with beliefs that are not true in the way that the facts of other subjects can be. The sciences deal in testable facts; pupils can and do rediscover by experiment the truths of physics or of chemistry and biology. In history, economics and even literature, there are methods of inquiry that will converge around the generally accepted picture of the world.
What this Guardian editorial writes is simply false.
That NZ cannot be understood apart from the role of the missionaries is as true in the Religious Education classroom as it would be in the History classroom. That John’s Gospel presents certain themes and uses particular motifs is as true in the Religious Education classroom as it would be in the English classroom. The discussion of Karl Popper’s understanding of falsifiability, studied in the Religious Education classroom, enhances Science rather than detracting from it. The exploration of bioethics, led in Religious Education by persons trained in ethical theories, complements what is learnt in the Biology classroom.
Religious Educators, of course, must be well trained – or the sort of confusion evidenced in the Guardian editorial will continue.