No, the ‘RE’ has not been Photoshopped! And, no, I was not trespassing on the railway line, but was on a level crossing when I noticed that Religious Education seemed to feature on the track of this little branch line in Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands. I was reasonably safe, since this line gets so few trains that I hardly needed to listen out for a rumbling that might have made this my last photograph.
But it set me thinking, both about Religious Education and about straight lines.
Nietzsche commented that his happiness was to be found in a straight line and a goal, and if there’s anything this mad world needs it’s a sense of direction and some sort of defined goal. Whether in political or personal life, there is surely a limit to the amount of ‘muddling through’ that can give satisfaction, and my heartfelt sympathy goes out to the vox pop‘d Brenda, whose ‘Oh, for God’s sake, not again!’ comment, on being told that there was to be another election, went viral. Whatever side of whichever debate you’re on, it is hard to believe that careful, reflective thought or precise argument grounds most political, social or economic decisions these days. Oh for a straight line and a goal in this world of post-truth, electoral statistics and the orchestrated events that attempt to fool us into thinking that politicians genuinely meet the public in this media-dominated world!
Getting a grip on direction, purpose and values seems to be the very essence of education, once it get’s beyond the utilitarian spoon-feeding of undigested facts that our examination system seems to encourage. Religious Education, I believe, has a valid part to play in this, because Religious Education, at its best, not only gives factual information about the lifestyles and belief systems of the world religions – itself absolutely necessary to promote a mature and sensitive approach to life and empathy with people of different cultures – but it should also provide an opportunity for students to learn to questions their own beliefs and assumptions, ask fundamental questions about life, and grapple with issues of meaning, value and direction.
Of course, that is the role for Philosophy too – and it would be offered more widely, were it not for the way in which, in the UK, Religious Education stands in the place that Philosophy occupies in most European education systems. (Of course, a majority of students, being wise to what they need and intuitively aware of the anachronistic nature of RE’s position within the curriculum, have tended to opt for Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at A level, thereby effectively smuggling Philosophy into the curriculum under the guise of RE.) A key difference between Religious Education and Philosophy, at this level, is that Religious Education, properly presented, seeks to earth philosophical reflection in the intuitive, the cultural and the personal – things that give religions their on-going attractiveness – whereas philosophy presents a more exclusively intellectual and enquiring approach to life, although one that is mercifully freed from dogma – except, perhaps, the Enlightenment dogma of humankind’s motivation being principally guided by intellect.
The best philosophy includes the all-too-human dimensions, of course, and when it does so, it gets beyond the superficial, Western distinction between philosophy and religion. They are both about finding direction and getting life straight, and both come with a legacy that can be difficult to reconcile with our present experience and assumptions about life!
For decades now, as a secular thinker, I’ve had difficulty coming to terms with Religious Education. At its best, it can indeed stimulate the sort of questioning and reflection about life that is at the very heart of education. At its less-than-best it can easily slip into the role of purveying traditional religious answers to questions not yet asked, at at its worst, offering dogma and supernatural delusions in place of that blend of intuition and reason that characterises the best religious thinking.
But of one thing I am convinced. Education is desperately in need of a solid grounding in the exploration of values, whether they come through Religious Education or Philosophy. Education is not the same thing as training, and it should never be evaluated in terms of economic benefit or a competitive accumulation of qualifications. Getting it straight is at the heart of what it’s about – and we’ve never been more in need of it!