Michael Nazir-Ali

The plot against religious education

The plot against religious education
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Faith is not the declining force that some secularists believe or indeed desire it to be. Even here in the UK, we have our growing and vibrant black-led churches; increasingly present mosques, temples and gurudwaras; and believers arriving from Eastern and Central Europe. 

This is why it's important for religious education to continue to have a special place in the curriculum of our schools. Although RE is not a ‘core subject', it remains a compulsory one. Successive Education Acts have stipulated that it should be taught in such a way that reflects the mainly Judaeo-Christian traditions of this country — while also covering the teachings and practices of other religions present here. It is worrying, therefore, that a report by the independent Religious Education Commission finds that RE is not effectively taught in more than half of our schools.

What is even more concerning is that the very organisations that should be promoting RE appear to want to inject the subject with Critical Race Theory. The National Association of Teachers of RE, which otherwise does much good work, has issued a detailed glossary on ‘anti-racist RE'. 

In spite of denials, this is clearly intended as a classroom guide for teachers. Although lip service is paid to the idea that these terms are ‘contested’, it is explicitly declared that there is 'no pretence of neutrality' in the document, which adds: 'responding to injustice doesn’t work from neutrality, but from understanding and a commitment to equality'. 

It states, for example, that the shameful complicity of Christians in slavery should be at the 'top of the list' for subjects to be studied and that the slave trade leaves a shameful stain on Christianity. All this without any attempt at balancing the long history of Christianity in ameliorating and abolishing slavery in this country, going back to St Anselm in the 12th century. In fact, it declares that later anti-slavery campaigners like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and evangelicals like William Wilberforce and John Newton should not be used to ‘sugar coat’ Christian history and values.

It wishes to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum, again with the untested assumption that everything in the British Empire was bad and harmful to the inhabitants of the countries which formed part of it. There was certainly cruelty, greed and oppression in the Empire but the claim that it was only a malign force is demonstrably wrong. Think of the abolition of slavery in traditional societies, the prohibition of widow burning and female infanticide; the introduction of universal education; a critique of the caste system; and the introduction of at least some democratic institutions — these all came about as a result of empire. To these we need to add the development of physical infrastructure; not just the oft-mentioned railways but also irrigation, urban planning, roads and more; as well as administrative and fiscal reform on a large scale.

There is a long paragraph in the glossary on 'intersectionality', a discipline that seeks to create a sense of victimhood in a growing number of groups identified by race, gender, class or sexual preference — with a view to creating a struggle for liberation from dominant groups. There is no discussion of the origin of these methods in Marxism, nor any mention of the Marxist revolution that good critical theorists think must precede ‘liberation’.

At the same time, the Religious Education Commission, which has made some good recommendations, wants to dilute RE by renaming it 'RE and Worldviews'. It wishes to include ‘non-religious’ theories such as humanism and secularism — those same forces that are opposed to religion and indeed the very idea of religious education itself. While the report explicitly says communism would not be appropriate for study, a push for a broader definition of 'worldviews' would undoubtedly follow. 

There may well be a place for the teaching of 'worldviews' in history, social studies or philosophy, but if they are taught in the RE slot they will swamp the actual study of worship, rituals, moral codes and practices of Christianity and other religions. Our children will be well-briefed on various ideologies but illiterate about the religious beliefs of their future colleagues and neighbours. They’ll be at a loss to understand faith and therefore history too. I am amazed that the Templeton Foundation, which exists to promote religion and spirituality in different areas of life, is funding research that recommends the inclusion of secularism in the teaching of religion.

In the face of these challenges, what should we do? First, it is crucial that we retain the involvement of local faith communities in devising the RE syllabus according to their own needs. Inspection processes should make sure that there is consistency as well as variety across the country. Proper funding and appropriate teaching materials should be offered for RE lessons, as well as training for the teachers themselves. Churches and faith communities need to offer school visits to places of worship. Pupils should learn about beliefs from people who practise them — from the leaders of the different faith communities themselves. 

It is not a neutral act to allow secularism and anti-faith theories to take the place of religious education. Please God let us not simply abandon our children to voguish ideology.