Tue 03rd Mar 2015

'Religious literacy' and the necessity of RE

At the end of January, our highly respected and popular Executive Officer, Dr Sarah Smalley, retired from the RE Council.  Many tributes have been paid to her for her outstanding commitment, energy, professionalism and wisdom and I hope that she has left us knowing how very deeply she has been appreciated.  Typically, Sarah has volunteered to continue to support the work of the REC and we are immensely grateful for that.

At the beginning of this month, therefore, Rudi Eliott Lockhart took up his post as our new Chief Executive Officer and the change in title is significant.  Over the years she was in post, Sarah developed the Executive Officer’s remit from its initial role as providing support to one that incorporated operational management and strategic planning.  Now, it is time to develop the role further, hence the inclusion of ‘Chief’ in the title: Rudi’s role will be far more strategic and entrepreneurial and he will become the ‘face’ of the REC. Over the next few months we will be adjusting our ways of working so that the roles of the Chair and the CEO will be more carefully defined and we can become an even more effective and efficient organisation.  Already Rudi has made the job his own and we are all excited at the possibilities that lie ahead.  I hope that he will write some of the future blogs on this website which will give him the opportunity to introduce himself properly to our readers.

One of the key roles of the CEO is to communicate effectively with our Member Organisations, politicians, civil servants, the media and others with whom we want to have good working relationships.  There has been much talk recently of ‘religious literacy’ and its poor quality in public debate.  This includes a sometimes out-dated, frequently mis-represented and occasionally deliberate distortion of the nature and purpose of modern religious education.  One such example occurred this month with pronouncements by A C Grayling who called for separate examination courses in Philosophy and Ethics because of the changes in the criteria for GCSE Religious Studies.  His view of what we do in RE was hopelessly inaccurate and it is worrying that senior public figures can be so misinformed.  This website carries links to excellent responses from two of our professors in the field – Robert Jackson from the University of Warwick and Denise Cush of Bath Spa University  – and I urge you to read what they have to say.  Let’s hope that others read them too.

It is worrying and frustrating that after all these years of religious education as an important, relevant and challenging area of the curriculum, there are still many who seem to see it as indoctrination into religion and a proselytising agent.  Why have we failed to get our message across? Can we ‘proselytise’ more successfully and bring people to an informed understanding of the educational nature of our subject?  Is it not odd that the main non-religious bodies in Britain – including the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society  - understand the need for open-ended learning about religions and beliefs and yet so many vociferous ‘secularists’ do not?  I put secularist in inverted commas there because the view of secularism and religiosity being opposite ends of a spectrum is now strongly challenged and replaced by a recognition that in individual lives and communities there is a constantly shifting balance and accommodation between them.  An unnecessary polarisation results in the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and we need to guard against that.

The relationship between religion, belief and secularity is one that is being investigated in the work of two current major projects and I am delighted that I have been able to represent the REC at recent events. The Commission on Religion and Belief, chaired by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, has a very strong interest in religion and belief in education and I look forward to the publication of their report in June.  The second is the on-going Religion and Society project, led by Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University. That excellent project now has a range of publications to its name and a number of ‘Westminster Faith Debates’, chaired by Charles Clark, have taken place.  The most recent was held in Birmingham and, along with adults, a significant number of young people were invited to make their contributions to an informed debate on the nature, purpose and future of religious education in schools.  You can see some of that on the Westminster Faith Debates website

In its attempts to improve the levels of understanding about religion and belief in schools and to be as transparent as possible in its work, the REC always publishes a summary of its Board and Council meetings.  These are circulated to all the representatives of our Member Organisations to send on to their own members and they can be accessed on our website.  We hope that they are informative.