Review: Tides of Change within RE

Tides of change within Religious Education: where has it been, what is it doing and where’s it going?

In our March meeting, we had a talk by John Holroyd, who was Head of Religious Studies & Philosophy at St Dunstan’s College in southeast London for over twenty years, before teaching at the London School of Philosophy. He is currently writing a book entitled ‘Judging Religion’. Some of his views about religion can be found in his article ‘Between Dawkins and God’ published in Philosophy Now Magazine: Issue 86.

This is a full transcript of John’s talk:


Until the 1970s at least much Religious Instruction as it was known in the U.K. was confessional in character. This reflected the state of the nation in which many teachers of religion were in their posts for confessional reasons among others. One of my most memorable experiences of this was on an INSET course in my first couple of years of teaching in the late 1980s. A teacher sat next to me at the evening meal having asked where I was from continued to enquire about what church I attended. When I made it clear that I didn’t attend a church, that I was not a Christian, that I didn’t actually believe in God, this was clearly deeply shocking. A little later I overheard her say ‘and that guy over there told me he doesn’t believe in God and he teaches R.E. But by the time I came into teaching in some areas at least things were changing somewhat. I remember a survey about ILEA R.E. teachers in the late 80s that revealed that over 40% were non-Christian.

Things began to change with the publication of Edwin Cox’s Changing Aims in Religious Education (1968) and Ninian Smart’s ‘Secular Education and the Logic of Religion’ (1968). The teaching of Religious Education as it was becoming known became more about the teaching of the phenomena of religion. Smart, pioneered Religious Studies as an academic discipline distinct from Theology and quite opposed to orientalist perspectives that viewed the religions of Hinduism and Islam for example as the musings of rather inferior peoples who needed properly educating in Christian truth. Smart by contrast advanced a neutral approach to the study of religion in which both scholar and school pupil were to suspend their prejudices, backgrounds and beliefs in the study of religion in search of understanding. Having thus bracketed out bias, the student was then encouraged to enter into the life-world of a faith through the use of the sympathetic imagination. A range of techniques were to be used to achieve this result and this to my mind is still at the heart of some of the best Religious Education today. Rather than ask a straightforward question like why do you think Muslims wash before they pray, a teacher might tell pupils to imagine they are going to meet someone very important, more important than anyone they had ever met, how might they prepare for that? They might follow up this question with the question if there was a god how would you prepare to meet him? Then the question is added Why do you think Muslims wash before they pray? In this way the student can begin to enter into the life world of a believer and gain something of an understanding beyond the boundaries of belief and culture.


The non-confessional neutral approach to the teaching of R-E. was taken up especially by The Inner London Education Authority was in teaching a full range of world faiths in the kind of non-confessional way that Smart proposed. The thematic study of faiths in which first or second year pupils, as they were called before being renamed under the National Curriculum schema, became especially popular. Pupils would study festivals across a range of faiths in the autumn term, places of worship in the spring term and rites of passage in the summer term. There was a pressing desire to celebrate multicultural Britain and to expunge racism from the classroom and the wider society. The 1988 Education Act finally gave the imprimatur to non-confessional Religious Education and also gave it the odd status of being outside the national curriculum while continuing to insist that it was compulsory.

However, there was a backlash. Fearful that Christianity was being increasingly marginalised, the Christian right, through the work of people like Baroness Cox in the House of Lords succeeded in putting some limits on this development. Reforms to the bill for example insisted that collective worship in schools was to be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character, although some Christian theologians like Professor John Hull pointed out that happily through its series of qualifications this demand amounted to very little. However, the thematic study of religions also came under fierce criticism and this criticism was successful in large part. Locally Agreed Syllabuses as well as examination syllabi came to teach religions in a systematic rather than a thematic way once again. So rather than looking at themes like authority across a range of faiths that could be conceptually quite revealing, faiths were now to be discretely studied.

Voluntary Aided schools of course continued and still continue to be confessional as Robert Jackson concluded in his study in 2010. Church of England schools for example follow their own diocesan syllabuses and the School Standards and Framework Act of 1998, introduced the concept of schools having ‘religious character status’ whereby they could discriminate in the appointment of any staff on grounds of religious confession. Research does suggest however that an overtly confessional approach to the teaching of R.E. in schools today is largely counter-productive with those not already from strongly religious backgrounds being repelled rather than attracted towards faiths that take this evangelical stance within the classroom.


A further development took place in the 1990s and 2000s in Religious Education, this was the rise of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. The numbers taking Religious Education at A-level had been in decline in the 1970s and 1980s. Those studying the subject including many teachers coming into the profession in the 1990s were less interested in Theology and Biblical Studies and more interested in discussing concepts and analysing arguments. By the early 2000s 90% of pupils studying A-level Religious Studies were studying a combination of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. This has also led and been influenced by similar changes at university level, in which the study of Biblical Studies has declined and Philosophy and Ethics has grown. With this however the study of world religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam has also gone into decline at examination level, at least in schools. They are taught at KS3 level and to a degree at KS4. I think this trend is not for the best. The understanding of religion is today as important as ever and the study of the philosophy of religion really looks purely at the logic of a set of propositional beliefs and this is not the same thing at all.

Of a piece with these development Professor Andrew Wright of King’s College, London has had a significant impact on the way that teachers are trained today in the teaching of R.E. He has also had a key impact on curriculum design. Dismayed by the incursions of post-modernism and various shades of liberalism within R.E. and more widely within academe, Wright set out to distinguish between critical religious education and liberal religious education. The essence of religion, Wright insists is the pursuit of truth and truthful living. The study of religion in schools should therefore consider religions in terms of the truth claims they make. Its concern should be to evaluate these truth claims and thereby the validity of the entire religions on which they are based. Of course, we can’t tell straight off, which religion is true and which is not, but this is the issue before us and we shouldn’t evade it for the purposes of social cohesion or political correctness, that’s like ignoring the elephant in the room for Wright.

For me however, there are other elephants in the room. Wright is mistaken I think in speaking so boldly about the essence of religion. As his colleagues Byrne and Clarke have argued in The Definition and Explanation of Religion, it is hard to pin down an essence of religion. It is still harder to say what that is. Wright evades the issue as to whether his concept of truth is one of propositional truth or non-propositional truth because at the heart of his claim about essences is no essence but ambiguity. His claims are also not research based. They break one of the most basic methodological rules of thumb when thinking philosophically, that the grander a generalisation is, the greater an evidence base needs to be by orders of magnitude in order to support it and to generalise about the essence of all religion is to work on quite a grand scale. Of interest is the fact that widespread across faiths, most especially in their mystical expression is the view that the truth lies beyond words. Yet that truth is such that it cannot be critically discussed does not help Wright’s cause. Wright superimposes on such inconveniences a top down pedagogical approach rather than listening to what the very wide range of religious believers have to say about the essence of their faiths or if they have essences.

I have suggested that the understanding of religion is a key goal of the study of religion in both schools and at university level, at least as important as Wright’s focus on which religion is true. I would add a few further points however about what I believe is involved in understanding religion.

1. That while we must enter through the sympathetic imagination into the lives and experience of believers this does not mean becoming a believer in any way, empathy is not sympathy.

2. That to enter into the life-world of a believer for the purposes of understanding them does not mean that the believer is always right morally.

3. To enter into the life world of a believer does not either imply that the believer always understands their faith more than a non-believer. Outsider perspectives are also crucial. For example the sociology, psychology and anthropology of religion are important fields of study that rightly have their place in the study of religion both at university level and also in schools. For example pupils get the concept of religion as a wish-fulfilment, it’s an example of something to critically consider.

4. Much understanding is essentially about dialogue, between believer and non-believer, between different believers and this dialogue is about living with others as much as a verbal dialogue.

5. The classroom is then potentially an excellent context for understanding the faiths of others most especially if pupils come from a wide variety of faith backgrounds as well as none.

6. However in order for dialogue to be possible rules of engagement are crucial. The teacher needs to be confessional about certain values, values of anti-bullying, listening, tolerance of the expression of views differing from their own. All of this requires a degree of maturity and concentration. However, without these things dialogue and understanding are impossible and so being confessional about the kind of values I’ve mentioned is crucial.

7. As an anti-confessionalist about the content of what we should believe religiously I am in agreement with the philosopher of education Richard Peter who portrays education and indoctrination to be essentially in opposition. For Peters, education is literally about leading people out beyond their experience and reasoning so far into wider territory with greater information and understanding available, further reasoning and a greater range of options for our thinking and living. Indoctrination by contrast leads us into charted controlled territory with options closed down.

8. This essential project of being led out of our backgrounds, prejudices is of course at best a lifelong process and a global one too. The best educations are I believe international constantly digesting the diverse beliefs and perspectives both about the content of education and education itself. I am with Diogenes rather than Teresa May, we need an education for world citizenship because the problems and questions we face about religion as with other things are global and so are we, whether we like it or not.