Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Compulsory religion

I'll not dispute that religion is one of the central aspects of our modern society; that much is sadly a given. But what I want to discuss today is the question of whether children should be subjected to compulsory religious studies in school. This is the case here in England to the best of my knowledge - up to the age of 14 a child has no option but to study religion alongside science, English, maths, and history. Then, even if they don't choose it as an option at GCSE level, they still have to take one compulsory (non-assessed) class a week alongside their choices.

What is the value of this?

I can understand and agree with almost every argument in favour of the subject - excepting the evangelical "convert the heathens" viewpoint of course - but still fail to see why it should be a) religious studies in particular, and b) why it should be compulsory. I can see the value in studying other cultures (naturally including religions), and yes that could be seen to be a good thing to have as compulsory. But please, let's have "cultural studies" or something; I can't help but feel that an emphasis on religion is doing nothing to shake the grip which superstitious nonsense has upon society.

The other aspect people might want to involve as a positive in favour of religious studies is the fact that it allows children to think about "the important questions in life" - the classic being of course is there a God? But religious education doesn't allow this in my experience. It either takes a purely cultural/historical viewpoint, teaching what it is that various faiths believe, or it takes belief in God (usually Judeo-Christian) for granted. Then it basically turns into big questions like "what does God mean to me", and examining the nature of omnipotence etc.

While the latter form of enquiry can lead to worthwhile places, it is rarely given the chance because of the religious bias. In order to free up the endeavour for these "big important questions", one must remove as much bias as possible. The neutral standpoint in this abstract area is epitomised by philosophy. This love of wisdom is the most pure form of inquiry - no question is off-limits, and the more abstract or the more challenging the better. Should philosophy replace religious education as compulsory in schools then? I believe so, but there is one subject that I think should trump it.

Critical thinking. I took a short pilot course in critical thinking in college - it was worth half an A-level as far as qualifications were concerned, but it was worth far more in terms of the skills it provided. If it is well-taught, it can give the students the ability to think clearly and perceptively about virtually anything. Brian Dunning of Skeptoid fame has just released a free 40-minute introductory video for the subject, and I would like nothing more than for this to be played in schools all over the world at least once. It's called Here Be Dragons.

In closing, I'd very much like to see all compulsory aspects to religious education removed from the curriculum. I have nothing against educating our children in cultural and philosophical concepts, or even against making a certain degree of that education compulsory; but why must it center around nonsense? Why can it not be centered around an open, enquiring mind - no matter what conclusions that mind reaches?

1 comment:

devine_artemis said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your argument. Speaking as one who attended a Catholic Primary School and a 'Convent' Secondary School, I had Catholicism thrust upon me between the ages of 8 and 16. Eight years of the "we are right, everyone else is wrong and is going to hell" standpoint is enough to turn anyone into an atheist! At GCSE, Religious Education was compulsory for us (as was attending mass - bearing in mind perhaps a fifth of the students were of Hindu upbringing), although we were told the course would cover a multitude of religions, from Hinduism to Buddhism. They lied. Raising questions was also discouraged in class, as they were worried that we would find holes in their teachings. Alternative viewpoints were met with detentions (and I had a few of those over the years!). I was made to feel an outcast because I did not take communion.

Children are discouraged from questioning anything. They are expected to accept all their elders tell them and grow up to be good Christian boys and girls. Surely it would be better to teach them not to shun knowledge in place of stories and nonsense, but to encourage exploration into the world around us?!

One might argue that the bible teaches morals. Perhaps this is true, but at best it is a story book. It should not take the place of life-skills that can form a solid foundation for life in the real world. We need to send children out into the world prepared for life, not with heads filled with stories of men turning water to wine and walking on water. That is just silly.