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the consequences for teaching world religions by alendar


									             The Consequences for Teaching World Religions

How did the outcomes of the 1944 Education Act provide a model for the
teaching of world religions? We have just seen that one of the methods was to
look for a common denominator – in most cases the Christian Bible. When the
time came to draw up syllabuses that contained a number of religions, there
was a temptation to look for a similar common denominator. The result was,
as we have seen, that some religions were interpreted on the ‘Christian’
model. Looking back with the power of hindsight it is easy to criticise but the
study of non- Christian religions was, by present standards in it infancy and it
was logical to continue the ‘successful model of the late 1940s/early 1950s.
Just as the Christian Bible had provided a common denominator, so now the
model of that approach to RE (as that had a history of being less controversial
and was broadly accepted by all Christians), could be used when approaching
the study of other religions. What would be the model? Would the use of the
Book be helpful? Or the model of the founder of a religion? How about rites of
passage? Or festivals? The outcome was that some religions were to be
taught in a manner that would never have been easily recognizable by its
followers. Even devout Christians themselves began to query whether the
‘one size fits all approach’ was teaching pupils anything about Christianity as
they saw and experienced it.

The teaching of world religions began to find its way into schools, often
through the goodwill of some teachers and a sensitivity to the increasingly
diverse groups of pupils in front of them. New text books and other resources
were needed, not only to help the pupils but also to support the teachers. The
titles of the textbooks published, reflected an understanding of the different
faiths, often built upon what would now be regarded as dated and flawed work
by social anthropologists, ‘From Fear To Faith’ (Wigley 1969) is one example
of a popular textbook of that time. The presentation of the religions often
implied that monotheism was the pinnacle of the ladder to be climbed by
animists, polytheists etc and, naturally at the top of the monotheism pile, in all
its richness was Christianity and Jesus himself.

I would be unfortunate if in the 21st century critics were to make too
derogatory judgements about work carried out decades earlier based on
flawed scholarship and a lack of understanding about the religions
themselves. Many teachers were only too willing to teach about ‘other faiths’
in order to help the pupils in their classrooms feel valued. We will return to this
later. The lesson to be learned and explored is how best to put those lessons
learned in the past into effect in the classroom; recognise the provisionality of
many of teaching strategies, particularly the content; and identify where the
effective study of religion as an educational process might move forward.

As teaching about world religions became more sophisticated it was to
change the ways in which Christianity would be taught (see below). In his
excellent documentation of 50 years of Religious Education in England and
Wales, Terence Copley writes:
‘Teaching world religions added to the impetus to teach Christianity as a world
religion and not merely believers-began to appear in syllabuses and textbooks
along with Latin American or African or other cultural expression of
Christianity. Perhaps Roman Catholicism still has to be rehabilitated, outside
its own school system, in RE schemes in a secular protestant culture. Many
religious educators continued to feel that Christianity was often the worst
taught religion because teachers and children were often culturally tangled in
it, or perhaps because children and teachers assumed they knew it already.’
Copley, T., (1997) Teaching Religion Exeter: University of Exeter Press p191.

Social and Educational Change
Why is this broad paintbrush effect so important to the teaching of world
religions in the classroom? It is because the school curriculum is a reflection
of society and later Education Acts would indicate that it should promote ‘the
spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at school
and of society’ and ‘prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and
experiences of adult life’. (Education Reform Act 1988 Chapter 40 part 1
Section 1:2)

The twentieth century witnessed great social changes which were to be
reflected in schools. The events in Europe and across the world raised an
awareness of how other people not just lived but how they perceived and
understood the world. Soldiers came back from ‘foreign parts’ and the
growing availability of cheaper travel began to make the world available to a
greater section of the populace. Education had to catch up with this explosion
and so did Religious Education. The world was growing smaller with the
increased possibilities of travel and the enormous expansion of
communications; changes were taking place in the demography of Britain.

As the story of the Holocaust emerged and the horrors it revealed, it was to
become a compulsory topic in the History curriculum. The War had also seen
various religions and races fighting alongside each other against the Nazis
and against the Japanese. Soon after the end of the War there was
immigration into Britain of people from the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.
They came to work, to do the jobs the British did not wish to do and they
encountered prejudice, racism and ignorance; and they in their turn were
ignorant about the ways of the British. Religious Education syllabuses at the
time were largely Christian, indeed still largely Biblical, and although one or
two schemes of work might have required the study of Judaism, it was more
often regarded as an ‘Old Testament’ pre-Christian religion. The author can
remember in the early 1980s speaking at a meeting in Carmarthen and
encouraging the audience of teachers and clergy to teach about the world’s
religions. Recognising this may be an innovation too far for some, the
suggestion was they might start with Judaism as it was the religion of Jesus:
he was after all Jewish. It was not well received by all the clergy present!

Terence Copley catches something of this movement when, writing of the
early 1980s in Teaching Religion, he comments:
‘Agreed Syllabuses seemed to be reducing in influence compared to Schools
Council curriculum development projects, materials published by the Shap

Working Party on world religions, materials for the classroom produced by the
Christian Education Movement and at local LEA level. …In a BJRE editorial
for spring 1981 he [John Hull, the editor] was able to write of the world
religions presenting opportunities for RE rather than problems. He noted that
the Welsh Christian Teachers’ Association and the Association of Christian
Teachers in England wanted world religions teaching but via a Christian
interpretation and the Welsh Christian Teachers’ Association remained
opposed to the teaching of non-religious philosophies in RE. But there was at
least a consensus that world religions should be taught.’ ibid. P121

Change however, was remorseless. People can make claims when they first
started to each about faiths other than Christianity - the ‘Me First’ syndrome -
but it was in the 1960s that the movement to teach about the religions of the
world gathered momentum. There were two main reasons for the increased
interest and pace. One, as we have seen, was the growing number of people
from different religious communities in Britain. Many were first generation but
they were settling and their children were appearing in schools. Employers,
teachers, hospitals, social services, and other groups needed to know more
about the religious and social practices of these burgeoning groups of people.
Secondly, there was an acceptance that much of the study of religion in
schools and higher education had been the study of the Christian religion at
best or often just Biblical Studies. If there were to be an appropriate study of
religion as an academic subject there needed to be a greater understanding
of different religions.

A further problem, to which we will return later, was the problem of defining
‘religion’. Would it be possible for any study of religion to find comparable
models or would they have to be studied systematically as individual world -
views being studied and understood in their own terms.

There was, of course, a sub-text! There was a growing market for information
needed to meet the needs of the religious groups themselves and those who
serviced them; there was (and still is) a concern in Government about racism
and general disruption of society. Many people came to the UK from countries
that had been part of the British Empire; whose countries had gained
independence, and they were becoming less willing to be patronised by the
British. The late 1960s witnessed some signs of social unrest across parts of
Europe and all governments were concerned to meet and manage this
phenomenon. More controversially, the blasé assumptions in the Christian
hierarchies of a solid group of worshippers who attended church or were at
least in sympathy with it were beginning to be seriously challenged. Numbers
of churchgoers and Mass attendance were declining, not because of
conversions across to other faiths, but because the assumed edifice of
Christian tradition, patronage and triumphalism was being eroded. The world
of the young was changing rapidly. Young people were travelling the world
experiencing different ways of life, travel was cheaper and even the popularity
of some Hindu gurus as seen through the eyes of pop stars quickened the
pace of change.

The Advent of Religious Studies
In the late 1960s the University of Lancaster appointed Ninian Smart as the
first professor in Religious Studies. He was to have a major influence in the
development of Religious Education in Britain, an influence still felt today after
his death in 2004. A flamboyant character, he grasped the importance of
providing teachers with adequate materials to use in the classroom. Smart
was behind two Schools Council Working Papers that were to appear in the
early 1970s. The first Religious Education in Secondary Schools (Working
Paper 36 1971) was followed by Religious Education in the Primary School
(Working Paper 44 1972). The secondary publication was probably the more
influential, possibly as it was published first but also because it appealed to
specialist secondary school teacher. Both Working Papers caught the mood
that was also expressed in an increasing number of Agreed Syllabuses for

The old Biblical syllabuses had not exactly been discarded but they were
being redrawn in order to find space for making the curriculum more relevant
to the experience of pupils. The work of Harold Loukes and Ronald Goldman,
in their very different ways, both acted as a signpost in RE by addressing the
issue of relevance, and an existential approach to RE began to unfold. The
West Riding Syllabus of the mid 1960s had tried to do this but contained little
reference to ‘Other Faiths’. Controversy was to surround the Birmingham
Agreed Syllabus for RE in the mid 1970s not just because of its stand on a
breadth of study of religion but for its proposal to study other world views such
as Communism and Marxism – effectively Humanist world views. The case
became a cause celebre because it was regarded, by some, as the beginning
of a slippery slope upon which teaching about Christianity would fall. The
debate was characterised by a realism on the part of some protagonists that
Birmingham had a considerable number of pupils from a diversity of religions
(and other world views) in the classroom and this should be recognised in the
curriculum. Thirty years on, the debate may have had an historic importance
but the arguments themselves are a comment on society of the time.

The most successful RE Syllabus of the 1970s, judged by its adoption by over
20 other local authorities, was the Hampshire Agreed Syllabus for RE. It did
require the teaching of non-Christian faiths but the recommendation from the
RE Adviser was that Christianity should be taught for 80% of the time. This
was, of course, before the 1888 Education Reform Act and one can see that
the teaching about non-Christian faiths was not exactly over-whelming
teaching about Christianity. It might be interesting to do the mathematics for a
subject with a maximum of 4% of curriculum of which 20% would be spent on
religions other than Christianity. How much time could be spent on, say, two
religions other than Christianity? Not exactly radical thinking! By today’s
standards at least.

Dimensions of Religion
We need to return to Ninian Smart for it was his book The Religious
Experience of Mankind (see above) in 1972 that provided a framework for the
study of religion. In the book he presented the idea that there were six
dimensions of religions. Smart’s six dimensions became the platform for the
study of Religious Education for the next twenty years though he did amend

the number to seven in a later publication. It should be said here that many
teachers and some advisers did not and do not understand what Smart meant
by a dimension. It is clear that Smart meant ‘dimension’ to be what it is i.e.
something that runs through things so each aspect of a religion will have
some aspect of his six (now seven) dimensions. In this way we, in a non-
religious sense, speak of the first, second, third and fourth dimensions. Some
critics however, understood a dimension to be a form of pie-chart divided up
conveniently into six (now seven) sections so one could ‘do’ Myth as if it were
quite separate from the others. This misunderstanding is alive and well today!

Comparative Religion?
Scholars like Smart, Geoffrey Parrinder and Eric Sharpe may have been
engaged in university research but they were also teaching students and
helping to train teachers. Quite early on in the late 1960s the phrase
‘Comparative Religion’ began to be used to describe teaching about world
religions. Parrinder wrote a book on Comparative Religion and Hinnells was
Professor of Comparative Religion. Again titles like ‘Comparative Religion’ die
hard and, for some, the main purpose of studying world religions in the
classroom was and is to compare the religions with each other. The approach
has a relationship to the lowest common denominator approach mentioned
above. In order to help pupils recognise and identify aspects of a religion or
world view with which they may have no immediate knowledge or
understanding, the teacher would look for a comparison so one might
compare one religion with another. It is rather like a stepping stone path
across a stream: get to know this stone and feel safe with it and on it and then
look for something similar, another safe looking stone, you can move on to. In
the hands of experts and academics it may be possible to follow this approach
but it is requires a detailed knowledge of several religions and a recognition
that there is a danger of making the religions too trite resulting in an ‘all
religions are the same’ approach when they are patently not the same. There
is a seditious belief that all religions are but different ways to the same goal
but while that may be true for some it is extremely difficult to argue for
effectively and appears to reflect a Vedanta philosophy made popular in the
West through the writings of Vivekananda and his followers.

An example. It is true that for many teachers and RE syllabus creators, the
model for studying religion was, and to some extent still is, Christianity. This
may be because of the teachers’ personal belief in the truth of Christianity; or
a confident familiarity with the religion as it appears in public life and
perception; or simply the need to start somewhere, possibly within most of the
pupil’s experience. Even if the pupils are not religious or come from outside
the Christian tradition it is difficult to avoid the physical statement of church
buildings in cities, towns and villages. The next step is to identify important
aspects of the Christian religion and see how they ‘compare’ with the parallel
aspects of another religion.

Jesus is a key figure in Christianity and the Bible is the important book. Both
could form convenient models for teachers to begin with as a person and a
book appear more concrete than philosophical ideas and concepts, like the
Trinity or Brahman - Atman, that lie in wait elsewhere. Having started the
study with the person of Jesus one then moves to Islam, for example, to

provide the comparative person and book and one arrives fairly rapidly at the
Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an. How helpful! This is immediate
transference of approach. But alas! It is not as simple as that. The Bible and
the Qur’an are not really comparable in any simple way nor are Jesus (as
understood in the Christian tradition) and the Prophet Muhammad, even
though in the Qur’an Jesus is of course a prophet. In fact, in crude terms, one
could argue, as the author has heard many times both Muslims and Christians
argue, that the parallel, if there has to be one, should be between Jesus and
the Qur’an for both are regarded in their separate religions as the Word of
God and the Bible and the Prophet Muhammad are the means by which that
Word of God is revealed and known. Nothing is as simple as one would wish
or as it might seem. Such difficulties are compounded when one looks for the
‘Jesus figure’ or the Bible in Hinduism or any religion from the Indian continent
and beyond. Yet we continue to make these innocent but mischievous
comparisons out of either a misunderstanding; academic laziness or a
conviction that anything other than a vapid comparison is too difficult for

Themes, Systems and Cross-curricular Teaching
This tension is most clearly expressed in the relationship between a
systematic study of a chosen religion and a thematic study spread across two
or more religions. The Model Syllabuses on Religious Education produced by
SCAA in the mid-1990s were heavily (and rightly) criticised by some as they
focused strongly on the systematic approach. In fact, SCAA did provide two
models but neither demonstrated how a well taught thematic syllabus, taught
by teachers who are confident of their approach and familiar with their
material can bring the topic studied to life. One educational weakness of the
SCAA approach was that by studying each religion separately it could lead to
the isolation of religion, in the broadest sense, from all that surrounds it in
everyday life. Religions simply do not function in isolation from the events that
happen in society and opinions of followers and critics. All syllabuses are
‘political documents’ in the sense that they are literate and partisan
expressions of the opinions and prejudices of the people involved in the
exercise of creating them. We will return later to the notion that teachers
should teach what the religion deems to be appropriate about its beliefs and
practices rather than critique the religion from the point of view of
contemporary educational philosophy and pedagogy.

The Model Syllabuses were destined for failure as the members of each
religion, formed into separate groups, struggled to make themselves heard.
Members of the Working Group were far more concerned with the content of
the syllabuses than with the educational processes that might be involved. To
prove the point look up the profile for Christianity: it is so heavily content laden
that a pupil leaving school with all that prescribed knowledge would almost
certainly know more than a person leaving theological college. As each
Christian member wanted their own denomination and/or theology mentioned
it was inevitable that the syllabus would be weighted down by content. This
enthusiasm for coverage was, naturally matched by all the other religious
groups contributing to the Model Syllabuses! If one were required to teach all
that content, what teaching and learning processes would the teacher have to
employ and how much time will they have to do it in? One of the sad results of

the exercise, which was a good thing in itself in the cause of inter-faith
dialogue, is that it has left the legacy of two Attainment Targets to RE which
are likely to remain for many years (‘Learning about’ and Learning from’) as
they been retained by the non-statutory framework for Religious Education.

The systematic approach argues that if a religion is to be properly studied and
understood within the terms of how it understands itself, then pupils must not
be encouraged to make simplistic comparisons. This is a difficult task and one
over which religions themselves may disagree for there is simply not one
view. To look at the theme of ‘Founders of Religion’ (a popular thematic
choice of the time and earlier) distorts the role of the ‘Founders’ (whoever they
are) and encourages pupils to make naïve and simplistic comparisons. Clearly
the Prophet Muhammad is not the founder of Islam nor, one might argue, is
Jesus the founder of Christianity. Furthermore, who ‘founded’ Judaism,
Hinduism, Buddhism, etc? Even if the Syllabus adopts the title ‘Leaders’ there
are those who would want to say that a leader in a religion is of a different
order from the seminal persons who framed the religion as it is now
perceived. Jesus and Moses were indeed leaders but they were more than
leaders in the sense of just priest and teacher. The weakness of the
systematic approach is that, content-laden as it is, it does not readily offer the
pupil any immediate and relevant link into their own experience, religious or
not. The study of the religion, therefore, is in danger of standing alone unless
the quality of teaching is able to bridge that gap. Many pupils have no
experience of religion so the experiential aspect of what it means to be a
Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist etc can become lost in the academic study. This
weakness can, contrarily, be a strength of the thematic approach, for the pupil
can be ‘buried’ in one religious tradition and become thoroughly embedded
within it. When they do then study another religion in the same way they are
able to locate the content of the second religion in the parallel universe of the
first. By this one means they are able to see parallels but do not necessarily
make simple comparisons.

 As students of religion may expect, there is a ‘third way’ which can use the
best of both worlds in which thematic study is able to draw out parallel beliefs
and practices, ‘behaviours’ that have a resonance in human expression and
are contextualised within a particular religious tradition. This can be the most
fruitful way of teaching world religions in the classroom but it does require a
depth of knowledge and an awareness of the human condition if one is not to
fall into the simplistic elephant trap that awaits the unwary. Whatever model is
used, however, the pedagogical and educational processes of the teacher will
always be stretched so will the school finances to purchase sufficient high
quality pupil and teacher resource support.


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