Audiences may no longer understand Monty Python’s Life of Brian because of the biblical references.
Show Hide image

Why religious education is letting our children down

Religious illiteracy leads to an anxiety about the role of religion in the public sphere: from fear of terrorism to fear of exclusion and fear of litigation.

Last weekend my sister recounted a story of a friend of hers who had been “freaked out” by a seemingly sadistic birthday present she had received from her boyfriend.

“He got me this lovely necklace, but it had some dude hanging from a cross on it,” she said.

“That’s not some dude,” my sister replied, deadpan. “That’s Jesus!”

Although my sister’s friend might appear unique in her ignorance, this vignette actually fits neatly within a wider trend. Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, has recently expressed concern that the UK is so religiously illiterate that he fears audiences would not understand Monty Python’s Life of Brian because of the biblical references.

Of course, if the scale of religious illiteracy meant little more than a failure to understand jewellery and 1970s comedy, there would be no issue. But billions of people around the world are religious, despite the assumptions of secularity.

On top of this, religion also plays an important role in social action and welfare service delivery. The Church of England alone claims to serve 10 million people through its community activities – and that doesn’t factor in the help that people get from their local mosques, temples and syangogues.

Religion also permeates news headlines and world affairs: the Pope’s visit to Asia, tragedies such as 9/11, the murder of Lee Rigby, the persecution of religious minorities, or reports of Britons fighting with Islamic State. All of these are news stories that are informed by religion.

Religious illiteracy is responsible for a failure to understand and appreciate the power of religion. It leads to an anxiety about the role of religion in the public sphere: from fear of terrorism to fear of exclusion and fear of litigation. These fears flared up again during the so-called Trojan horse and gay cake sagas.

In a series of projects over the last decade, we have found, here at the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, that a better understanding of the real religious landscape will result in better public services and culture.

In light of these issues, it is especially worrying, if not surprising, that Ofsted has claimed more than half of schools are failing students on religious education (RE). It is in the context of these issues that we are undertaking a new project called RE for Real. This will explore what school leavers really need to know and understand about religion and belief in the contemporary world.

We need a newly invigorated national conversation around the future of religious education in the UK, one that addresses the lack of clarity about how and where learning about religion and belief should take place, what it should consist of, and what it should be for.

I believe that schools can and should play a crucial role in shaping how young people engage with the presence and diversity of religion and belief in the world around them. But the only way to enable them to do this is if we garner the views of teachers, parents, pupils and employers about what sorts of knowledge and skills school leavers should develop about religion and belief.

This is a real time of religious crisis in the UK. Our children cannot continue to be let down by having a poor religious context. In the UK, where we celebrate the vitality of a diverse life, we need to talk about religion more, and provide our children with the best religious education.

Professor Adam Dinham is Director of the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is Professor of Faith and Public Policy

Getty
Show Hide image

The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.