Saturday, 25 June 2011

Teaching them religion

The Virgin Mary depicted sharing her breast milk!
While driving in this morning, my attention was caught by a report that a quarter of secondary schools in England are  breaking the law by not teaching RE.  I pondered whether underlying this reluctance to teach RE was an active hostillity to religion, a belief that it is irrelevant, or just an uncertainty about how to teach about faith, and what is the purpose and point of teaching about faith in a largely secular society.

I am very far from holding the view that there is a deep rooted prejudice and discrimination against Christians in Britain. I do think that there is  an increasingly strident atheist element which could be more willing to promote a mutual tolerance and respect between those of all faiths and those of none, but this in itself seems unlikely to be enough to account for a decline in teaching in schools; indifference or even - whisper it - ignorance - may equally be contributing factors.  Personally, I think it would be a great shame if we were to lose RE ; the study of religion has all sorts of things to teach us - about other cultures, about history and politics, about choice and ethics, about philosophy and about the central thing that  that make us human, namely our search for meaning in its broadest sense.

 Just as I was pondering all this, another item came on, an account of an exhibition of religious artifacts, featuring, to John Humprey's amazement, a vial purporting to contain the breast milk of the Virgin Mary. From a purely academic point of view, the exhibition sounded absolutely fascinating, at the same time the idea of bodily fluids being preserved as holy relics did bring to mind the sheer superstition often inherent in religion, that element of irrationality and anti-intellectualism, not to mention the atrocities it can spawn, that rightly makes people recoil in disgust and horror and think, "I'm not letting any of that stuff near our kids." The problem with religion is it can be infectious - some people would like it eradicated like the smallpox virus, and would long to see the blueprint destroyed.

The trouble is that human beings are spiritual animals ; we look for meaning as well as for knowledge. I do not think it will ever be quite enough for humanity to search for meaning wholly in science and in the explicable; there will always be the inexplicable, and human beings will want to explore it and create beliefs about the things they cannot fully explain. Humans are credited with a divine spark, and it is spark that can become a destructive fire. We have burnt our fingers with the destructive power of religion,  that is not a reason to try to extinguish it. We should show children the beauty and power of religion, but also its danger and the need to handle it with care.


  1. Suem, you might enjoy Caroline Walker Bynum's 'Christian Materiality' which is an absolutely amazing scholarly work about how late medieval Christians thought about matter. It's beautiful and wonderfully well-written! V relevant to this kind of stuff.

  2. Hi Bo,
    I'm really interested in the medieval period, I chose medieval literature as my more detailed option to study during my first year, and then in the second year opted for a module in Arthurian literature. I must do some serious readin over the holidays -so thanks for the recommendation!

  3. The "destructive power of religion", while real, is a mere spark in comparison to the conflagration which is the destructive power of science. Our modern superstitious gullibility about the promises science and "progress" infinitely surpasses in stupidity and actual danger any silliness over the knuckle bones of saints. Even wars of religion and terrorism pose a tiny threat to humanity, plant and animal species, and ecosystems in comparison with that posed by the cold, cruel, amoral and frankly diabolical scientific worldview which, as the handmaid of unhinged capitalism and nationalism, would gladly stew the planet in greenhouse gasses, nuclear fallout and poisonous chemicals for profit. Even medical "advances" are a vain attempt to stave off for an hour or two the inevitable suffering of the earthly condition, with the result that in a very short time, the earth will be too overpopulated to support human "civilization" as we know it. Science and the scientific worldview have, in a mere two centuries, called the entire future of the planet into question, and destroyed cultures and civilizations that developed over millennia.

  4. The real question is what is ‘Religious Education’? If I were to teach RE my emphasis would be very much on the social mechanisms and structures of religion. e.g. how, in some respects, ‘High’ Islam, with its emphasis on the scriptural and its rise, at the same time as the rise in literacy and the social change from an agrarian to a mercantile economy has an uncanny resemblance to the rise in Protestantism – which itself only gained ground when there was a change in Western society from feudal to nascent capitalist economies. Indeed, Weber noted, predominantly Protestant societies tend to be more overtly capitalist. I would look at religion as a social institution that may or may not attribute meaning to social action, but nevertheless is something that is used or has a purpose in a given society that result in this end. Whereas a RC priest teaching RE would have a very different take, as would a Rabbi or an Imam.

    The difficulty is that once we begin to look at religion objectively, particularly when each are treated equality, as is the case in most RE curricula, then religion becomes just another object of study; in doing so it can loose some of its mystery. My secondary education was not particularly good – remember the beginning of my university career was not reliant on any paper qualifications, but by the gift of the gab (tho’ produced the best degree of my year). The school did not have RE on the curriculum; but two hours a week were given over to what was called ‘Social and Moral Education’; this could be anything from a film about the dangers of tobacco or alcohol, to a session where Mike Harding came in and just talked to us about life; to sessions on anti-racism or homophobia (this is was in the late 70s – and very liberal, even by today’s standards!); to sex education or just how to manage one’s savings or apply for a mortgage. Where S&ME did touch on religion, it was geared to getting us to question what life was about, but left us to make up our own mind. Which I think is all you can do. Personally I think S&ME is preferable to RE – but then I would, wouldn’t I?

    On the subject of the vile of Mary’s milk – we are very funny about breast milk – yet we are happy to base, in the West, much of our diet on the mammary secretions of a ruminant ungulate! If you think about it, it is weird that we happily consume another animal’s milk – all our daily pinter is, is another animal’s breast milk! Perhaps this demonstrates that as human beings we construct reality from diverse and sometimes conflicting notions of what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not. Hence although we like to believe we are creatures governed by rationality, in reality this is only part of the whole that is the mishmash of our worldview. Hence there will always be a place for religion, though religion often (indeed does) change to fill the space it is allowed in our personal psyche and in our culture. The Caroline Walker Bynum book sound interesting and I should image illustrates how at a given point in history religion’s role in our construction of reality changes; hence the reason why we can wander around a museum looking at religious artefacts and think - with perhaps just a dash of patronising – how quaint or foolish was the worldview of our antecedents. Yet to them it was their reality; just as our reality is a construction from the symbolic universe of which we are a part. Even a glance through the ‘Good News Bible’ reveals culture moves on, in that its language appears dated – and I am sure in a hundred or so years some of what mainstream Christians see as fundamental elements of their worship or concept of religion will have changed.

  5. Thanks Peter and Wayward Disciple - some strong and very interesting thoughts there!