Religious Education: What do students need to KNOW?

2+ different: concepts of God, truth, faith & reason inc suffering & science, religious experience & miracles, approaches prayer & worship, interpreting texts & language, ideas about life after death, judgement & salvation inc. free will, ethics & issues, history & politics today

— Charlotte Vardy (@VardyCharlotte) November 14, 2017

Following on from discussions on social media, this is just to offer my solution to the perennial question in RE… what do students actually need to KNOW.

I don’t pretend that this solution is perfect or non-controversial, but I hope that by setting it out in more than the 280 characters Twitter now allows will provoke some constructive criticism and alternative suggestions.

My own view is that specified content should steer well clear of the GCSE annex approach of listing in bullet points somebody’s (peculiar?) idea of the “facts” about being a member of each religion.  Clearly, the soul of every religion is its diversity and complexity, so no homogenized summary of founders’ lives & stories, holy books, worship habits or festivals and significance is ever going to represent… or even be recognizable to… all members of a tradition.

I would embrace difference and go for a simple, clear thematic approach focused on topics which are both engaging and important for achieving the central aims of both RE and RS.

Through Key Stage 3 (assuming 3 years of 1 hour per week) I would suggest that all schools offer students the opportunity to study AT LEAST three different religious traditions as well as non-religious approaches to…

  1. The concept of God – e.g. Monotheism / Polytheism / Atheism, Omnipotence vs. a more limited personal God, God’s love / God’s justice, representing God / the Divine in Art, Language, Poetic writing, Music etc.  In any case challenge the idea that religious people believe in an old man with a white beard sitting on a cloud!  Personal reflection on the existence & nature of God – discussing personal beliefs with other people – hearing from people who hold different beliefs – listening and engaging with those who hold other beliefs.
  2. Approaches to prayer & worship – (how) do religious people communicate with God?  What form does worship take? What are the similarities and differences between different traditions in prayer and worship?  Explore at least 2 of: Meditation & Spirituality.  Pilgrimage.  Festivals.  Sacred Places, Places of Worship & Religious Architecture. Relics. Monasticism & Asceticism.  Compare & contrast approaches to these themes from the three religions studied, acknowledging diversity with each tradition and considering the reasons for the similarities and differences as well.
  3. Faith & reason inc suffering & science – Why do people believe in God? Is belief in God rational?  Is it morally wrong to believe something without evidence?  What counts as evidence where God is concerned?  Does suffering and/or science defeat belief in God, strengthen or change it?  Personal reflections on the existence of suffering and personal beliefs about the origin of the universe & humanity.  Expressing personal views through a creative medium.  Articulating a reasoned, personal perspective on paper which shows awareness and understanding of another view.
  4. Religious experience & miracles – what do religious people mean by Religious experiences and/or miracles?  Various examples of both, ancient & modern, credible and not credible.  The importance & significance of religious experience and/or miracles for faith and religion.  Religious responses to scientific critiques of religious experiences and/or miracles including those from Psychology & Sociology.  Developing a well-informed, reasoned, balanced written argument.
  5. Interpreting texts & language – what Holy texts do Religious traditions venerate?  How did they come to be written?  What do they contain?  What different approaches are there to reading or interpreting Holy Texts within each tradition?  How do Holy Texts influence Religious attitudes and behaviour today?  Responses to critiques of textual authority from, for example, Biblical Criticism. Developing a well-informed, reasoned, balanced spoken argument / participating in a debate.

At KS4, whether through GCSE or another non-examined course, I would suggest that students should explore two Religious as well as non-Religious perspectives on…

  1. Ethics & issues – different religious approaches to ethical decision making and their application to at least 3 contrasting contemporary moral issues chosen by the school. Comparison with non-religious decision making on the same issues e.g. utilitarianism. Recap on the use of Holy texts in decision-making and different approaches to reading / interpreting texts for this purpose.
  2. Ideas about life after death, judgement & salvation inc. free will – What do people believe about judgement, Life after death and salvation?  Where do these ideas come from?  What evidence supports these beliefs?  Are the beliefs consistent within the tradition or do they vary?  How do beliefs about judgement, life after death and salvation influence the life of the believer today and their decision-making?  Responses to critiques from e.g. Feuerbach, Freud and Marx. Recap on Faith & Reason and the relationship between them in Religion & the ethics of belief.
  3. History – A survey of the history of at least 2 different religious traditions, including consideration of the reasons for splits and schisms and differences between European manifestations of the tradition and non-European manifestations. Consideration of how these 2 traditions came to the UK and how they are manifest in the UK today e.g. demographic information, different groups represented locally etc. Make connections with different approaches to Prayer and Worship & Holy Texts where possible.
  4. Politics today – Explorations of 2/3 current political disputes with a religious dimension.  Consideration of the role of religion in these disputes and the relationship between religion, politics and culture.  By way of examples – Ireland & the troubles, Israel / Palestine and  the Syrian Civil War.  Relate back to Holy Texts where possible.
  5. The nature of truth – e.g. Consideration of whether truth is an absolute or more relative, is truth only what is verifiable or falsifiable, or broader?  Is truth accessible to human beings or ultimately obscure?  Relate back to concept of God, Faith & Reason, Prayer & Worship, Holy Books / Language & Life after Death.

Clearly, these topics could be specified together, so that students study the specified features of Religion A and then Religion B and then Religion C.  Alternatively, the topics could be specified thematically, so students explored one theme from 3 different religious perspectives… or a combination of the two different approaches.

Obviously, the GCSE in RS (whether short-course or full-course) would add to this list considerably (although there is considerable overlap)… but I think that this list would insure against the GCSE RS becoming too divorced from RE, without placing in impossible burden on departments trying to deliver BOTH GCSE and an “entitlement”.

Anyway… that is my suggestion on the table.  (Constructively) criticize away… preferably by responding with your own positive suggestion(s).

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