What does Religious Education contribute…community cohesion and more…also one for the militant atheists and Brexiteers!

In 2000 The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain was published that analysed “the current state of multi-ethnic Britain and propose[d] ways of countering racial discrimination and disadvantage and making Britain a confident and vibrant multi-cultural society at ease with its rich diversity” (www.runnymedetrust.org/ 9th February 2009). It concluded that education equips children “with the essential understanding, skills and values which they need…[in building and maintaining Britain]…as a community of citizens and a community of communities” (Ibid). It also noted that there were inadequacies in official guidance in what this education should be (Ibid). Robin Richardson, looking at how Religious Education (RE) connects with community cohesion, noted that teachers have used some of the key points from this report in confirming the knowledge that “knowing about other people’s religions is a part of community cohesion. But knowing that other people are human in a myriad of ways, as one is oneself, and have a stake in the same place as oneself, is even more important” (Richardson, 2009, p8). It will be argued here that in achieving community cohesion in such a pluralist and diverse society as Britain, as the above mentioned Parekh report suggests, RE plays a significant and distinctive part since it can be argued that it is one of RE’s key roles to teach about and from religion as well as other lessons from society at large; in a great part teaching children about being human in a myriad of ways. It is in this and other ways that community cohesion to a large extent comes about.

So what is the government guidance on the issue? Looking at the 1988 Education Reform Act, we can see that Religious Instruction became Religious Education which “implied the formation of the whole person” (cited in Hull 1989, p2) and largely continued on from, and furthering, the 1944 Education Act by promoting “the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society [my emphasis]” (cited in www.know-britain.com/ 14th February 2009) and limiting any supremacy in instruction of one faith, namely Christianity (Hull 1989, p4); although this was not how the Act was first applied (Bates, 2006, p14ff). Before 1988, religious education largely ignored problems of religious pluralism (Tarasar in Thompson (Ed) 1988, p198) but this Act was to change this. Following Acts seem to confirm and extend this by further defining RE content or how this RE content should be decided, allowing for RE curriculums to be decided by local authorities (www.opsi.gov.uk/ 14th February 2009). This guidance would appear to confirm that Britain has become more than a Christian country and that RE must meet this change (Ibid). It would seem, then, that government guidance is that RE can, must and will contribute to community cohesion. Finally, to prove the point, “from September 2007, all state schools are required, under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, to promote community cohesion” (Osler 2007) and schools will find as we will see below and as this Runnymede trust interim report implies (Ibid), that RE can contribute greatly towards this.

But what do we mean when we say community or cohesion? Cohesion can be taken to mean “the act or condition of sticking together” (Thompson (Ed), The Oxford Compact English Dictionary, 1996). Community is much harder to define. Do we mean a global or (as we have implied above) simply a local/national community? Gilchrist (2004), (citing Hillery, 1955 and Taylor et al, 2000) defines it as:

…A core feature of regular, mostly cooperative interactions among a set of people over time. Calling a set of people a ‘community’ generally implies that they have some common characteristic or bond…It also raises expectations of loyalty, support, social cohesion and affirmation (Gilchrist, 2004, p1).

For the purposes of this essay and because of space restraints, we will accept this definition but also acknowledge that with the advent of globalisation and other factors, communities are expanding beyond the local to include a much wider definition and understanding of ‘community.’ However in this essay, since we are dealing with the British educational system when we discuss RE and as our title specifies “in schools,” we will limit our understanding of ‘community’ to the UK local/national level and specifically to UK schools. This means that we will look at RE’s distinctive contribution to community cohesion within schools but also at the spilling over of this into wider society since without a comma both understandings of the question can be made as ‘only in schools’ and also as ‘after schooling as well.’

Finally, we must define what we mean by ‘distinctive contribution.’ We will take this to mean what does it give, add to or improve by way of helping a community to be cohesive, as only RE can and which is peculiar to RE. We will identify a general contribution as well as many specific ones.

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So what is RE’s distinctive contribution to community cohesion in schools? Clearly, one must first mention what happens in RE lessons. As mentioned, and as the government (local and national) has decided, RE seeks to teach about as well as from religions (Bates, 2006, p12ff). What does this mean and what happens in lessons to achieve this? ‘Learning about’ means teaching pupils about religions. Therefore lessons will have a component of fact education on religions and associations. What is a Gurdwara, what do Muslims do and why do they pray five times a day? What do Christians do on a Sunday and what is the reason that they do it and in what ways? How many people were in the first Sangha and what do Jewish people eat at Passover? What is Brahman and is it similar to western ideas of God or not? All these questions and answers (or possible answers), facts, figures and linked pieces of knowledge are taught to students in the learning about part of RE.

Learning from religion seeks to teach the wider implications of these facts but also of what they mean to humans and society (as well as another element we will discuss shortly). Thus, why do Christians think Hindus worship many Gods and do they, what is the impact of Muslim’s shahadah and their obligations of their faith on their lives and society, can we see any similarities between faiths and are these similarities justified or not, can we say there are universal morals and does God exist; all become deeper questions and teachings that go beyond facts and start to get students to think, analyse and be critical. These thinking skills are a key component but are also complimented by philosophy (as a wider approach to reality) which can also teach endurance and the real face of reality as well as its prima facia basis. But there is even more to teaching from. Asking students to imagine, empathise, be creative, decide on morals or see how hard this is, to see what lessons if any can be learnt from a piece of knowledge, to get them to think about other approaches to life and spiritual and non-material approaches to reality are also taught and (hopefully) learnt in RE.

When this is applied correctly, this two-pronged basis/theory for the teaching of RE can clearly be shown to contribute to community cohesion in schools. Most, if not all, schools (and society) are made up of a wide range of people, cultures and religions etc (Milot in Keast (Ed) 2007, p1ff). Learning about allows people to understand, know, be aware of and communicate with each other better in this mixed soup of people and through this awareness comes respect (which is an additional lesson that comes out of fact learning not mentioned above). Learning from compounds this and goes further. The thinking skills and philosophical elements teach tolerance, analysis and that there is more than one approach to questions and life as a whole. Empathy, imagination, creativity, the inherent epistemology of learning from and the looking deeper and seeking out of meaning and further lessons all allow people to better interact, sympathise, care for and accept differences and they also develop a sense that we are all really one, despite our idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. Finally one could argue that the end result of RE is that there is more to life than facts and atoms and that religions seek to teach about the spiritual dimension to life which is essentially about love for one’s fellow man or woman despite his/her alternative views. When we learn in RE that Buddah, Jesus, the prophets or other faiths’ central figures teach tolerance, love, respect and so on (otherwise known as the Golden Rule) we are also learning of the values of these concepts in our own lives or schools (for other more spiritual benefits of RE towards community cohesion see Lee in Thompson (Ed) 1988, 57ff).

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Using examples where community cohesion has clearly failed we can ask; can a Sikh be killed in an anti-Muslim riot when people know that his turban is different from a Muslim’s (Hoosain and Salili (Eds), 2006, p1ff)? One would think not. Can the stereotypes that cause such an anti-Muslim riot occur in the first place when people are taught the facts and know that such stereotyping is false (Ibid)? Again, one should be able to argue not. If using “all the tools and knowledge of the social sciences and other fields of knowledge to grasp the various issues” (Ibid) is what learning from is in a large extent about, can we have a group of people argue that Christianity is the only way and that all other religions are false and must be destroyed? One, again, must say not. If we love and empathise with our fellow man or woman can we harm him/her or cast them out? Again, no. If people resist what they fear or misunderstand (Ibid, p259ff citing Berger and Luckmann, 1966), can this occur when they no longer fear or misunderstand them? Clearly not. It is obvious from all of this that education, and RE particularly, forms a central role in forming citizens who are able to live together peacefully (Milot in Keast (Ed), 2007, p19). Focussing on diversity and deeper learning as enriching, one can get over many of the problems of diversity and the implication is that communities are therefore more cohesive (Keast (Ed) 2007 particularly Keast and Leganger-Krogstad, p115ff).

Surely all of this is indeed distinctive of RE and contributes to community cohesion? Moreover, many writers tell us as such (see Bibliography but particularly Bates et al (Ed) 2006 and Jackson in Bates et al (Eds), 2006, p52ff). Let us now examine whether it does by looking at some lesson content itself and what students say on the issue as well as other examinations. The QCA (www.qca.org.uk/ 14th February 2009) is an excellent source showing explicitly what we have been arguing above about what one learns in RE and a printout of the particular page (focussing on Key stage 3) is available in Appendix 1. It is clear from this that guidance on what is to be taught in RE lessons must be both from and about religions as well as the wider implications of this and Appendix 1 also shows that lessons should include what we have said above and goes a long way to confirm our above assertions.

Looking at some text books, (Watton, 1997) shows in the table of contents that RE lessons are aimed at teaching from and about religions but also shows wider learning that is not just religious in nature and is about how society is and how other people do things which further supports our argument. Chapter one is on “Marriage and Family Life”, Chapter two on “Social Harmony” and Chapter three on “Believing in God” which all further confirms our argument above; what one learns distinctively in RE, contributes greatly to community cohesion. Looking at some of the activities in the same text book we can see from question three on page 73 “’Miracles don’t happen nowadays.’ Do you agree? Give reasons for your answer showing you have considered other points of view [my emphasis]. You should use information from the whole chapter in answering this question” This shows learning from (since students must reapply facts to an unknown (i.e. their lives today)), wider empathy and deep thinking skills (as we can see from the italics above) and learning about (“You should use information from the whole chapter”) (Ibid). By teaching what is contained in this book, it is clear that whilst it is RE and distinctive to this subject, it will have a positive and large impact on community cohesion, in schools and wider society.

(Lynch, 1996) also supports our argument and shows that RE lessons do, or are supposed to, contain teaching that indirectly and directly affects community cohesion. Part A is called “Growing up in the Community” some of which is about different rites of initiation and different rules for different religions and religious groups (Ibid). This again shows that whilst it is about religion there is also learning from and other lessons as identified above. Indeed this book is more explicit than most about RE’s contribution to the understanding of communities and related community cohesion since it is titled “Faith in the Community” (Ibid). Moreover, Part C is called “People around us in the Community” which rather nicely fits in with our argument (Ibid).

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Local agreed syllabuses such as the Hackney Agreed Syllabus (www.learninglive.co.uk/ 14th February 2009) also confirms that RE is about what we have argued and therefore contributes to community cohesion. Simply looking at the attainment targets confirms this and this is included in Appendix 2. Finally the non-statutory framework for RE in England (cited on http://betterre.reonline.org.uk/ 14th February 2009) also confirms what we are arguing and is included in Appendix 3. “I like RE because we don’t just learn about religions but we learn lots and lots of other cool stuff too! It helps me to think better” (a student at Cardinal Pole School, London 2008). “I think RE helps me to think and understand things and people more” (a student at St Mary’s C of E school, Hendon 2008). These two quotes show that students are indeed learning many things in RE particularly but not exclusively, learning about and from religions. As we have argued, it is this distinctive contribution of RE that helps community cohesion.

It does not seem necessary to look at RE’s contribution to community cohesion in the wider society any further since it is clear we have shown that it has or can have an impact and in many ways a large one, just asking some students who have left school one can discover that these lessons (or at least some of them) are more often than not taken with us when we leave school and that what one learns in RE does achieve many lessons learnt that benefits community cohesion in society. But we have not looked enough at RE’s contribution to community cohesion in schools and it is to this that we will now turn. Leaving aside world faith days, school fetes with a religious dimension, RE led school plays or other activities led by RE classes/teachers in society at large and within schools themselves that clearly contribute to community feeling and therefore cohesion by identifying and celebrating diversity and teaching about each other, does RE contribute to community cohesion in schools?

One would have to answer in the positive, since schools, by the very nature of sexual reproduction and the consequent schooling of society’s children, reflect society at large (as can be seen from Osler, 2007, p7). If a pupil knows more about Islam, he/she is less likely to fear a Muslim fellow pupil wearing the hijab. If a pupil has deep thinking skills perhaps he/she won’t just accept his/her racially stereotyped parents’ views (and I speak from personal experience here). If a person has empathy and love, perhaps he/she won’t allow a bully to ridicule a turban wearing Sikh (again I speak from personal experience here) and if all these things help a school to be more cohesive, which they clearly would since there is less division, segregation and conflict, then community cohesion in schools would be helped. Overall, since many if not all of these lessons come from RE, then RE’s contribution to community cohesion in schools can be seen to be great, positive and very worthwhile.

However, what about faith schools? Berkeley (2008) suggests that faith schools fail the poor and as it can be argued that inequality is one of the most (possibly next to religion) divisive ills of society, perhaps faith schools and the RE focus they provide harms social cohesion. The TES Magazine (19-26th December 2008) also suggests that faith schools can be divisive. “People are never given a moderate view of life, it is always this extreme religious view, and the result is we’re going to have a tense country” (Ibid). Since RE takes a central place in such schools, could it not be argued that in some instances in faith schools, RE can fail, hinder or damage community cohesion? One would have to argue that it could and sometimes does (Ibid and Berkeley 2008) but in a large part it does not (Osler 2007). Obviously if the teaching is poor, and learning about and from religions is used to promote a particular view, for example if students are made to feel superior to atheists or other religions (TES Magazine 19-26th December 2008), then clearly this will be divisive. But if these schools follow the government guidance clearly and believe in the current approach to RE then there is no reason to suppose that faith schools will harm community cohesion. Indeed, where these schools go out into the community and are open to society and do positive things and show that there is nothing to fear from such groups, they are in a way taking RE classes as we have looked at above into society itself.

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Does RE and the associated lessons learned actually help community cohesion?  A casual look at the press and media over the last few years suggests that we are more inclusive and cohesive in schools and society than we used to be (again I speak from personal experience as an outsider (non-English) who grew up in Britain). Asian headmasters (e.g. Sir Pritpal Singh), English as an Additional Language and the inclusion of 6 main world religions in curricula all also suggest this. Looking at France we could also argue that it must have some impact, since the UK has less problems with minorities revolting or rioting or similar and indeed it would appear the same can be said for our schools; “…if French young people had been taught about Islam it is possible that the problem of integrating Muslim minorities would not be so great” (Hobson & Edwards (Eds) 1999, p(ix)). Suffice to say that whilst it won’t always (there are always exceptions to everything), in this country at least, the evidence points to a positive response to this question and much anecdote can be made to assert this (also see Ibid, p(i)ff).

Does guidance from policy always make its way into practice? As we have seen above, it would appear so, but we must at least acknowledge that, according to Simon (1989) (cited in Allen & Martin (Eds) 1992, p4), it is problematic and there must be occasions when it fails (e.g. under poor teaching and other factors, as we have mentioned above and will visit below). In a school where most of the children are from (for example) the “White-British” ethnic group, there is the opportunity for two failings of our argument. One; is where students, whilst being made aware of the lessons above, feel it is irrelevant to them since there is no other community type within their school and so perhaps some of the lessons are lost or forgotten. Second; is where resistance to other cultures in such a school because of its make up (and therefore perhaps an implicit or inherent elitist/tribalist or even racist character (Gilchrist 2004, p9)) causes the same end as the former point. The same can be said about the latter point concerning some faith schools too (Osler 2007). We must also identify the possibility that where a group is not represented in RE lessons (and The Humanist Society, despite recent changes, have largely complained they fall under this category) pupils may see them as outsiders or deviants and not engage with them either in school or outside, thus failing community cohesion (Gilchrist 2004, p9).

On all these points, one must say that, again, this may be possible, but if RE is taught as it should be, then pupils will either be made aware of all groups or at least the possibility that there are others they have not met but are equally valid and that the other lessons from RE (thinking skills and so on) should allow pupils to not fall into this trap. Thus RE should positively and greatly and distinctively contribute to community cohesion in schools where practice accurately mirrors theory. As Gilchrist concludes (Ibid, p10ff), networks encourage communities to be cohesive and since RE as described above can be summarised as showing, encouraging and supporting pupils with these networks (i.e. all the myriad strands of society) and allowing them to see them all; RE helps community cohesion. Gilchrist also adds (Ibid, p1ff) that from the separatist and individualist character of Britain of the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s, policy has moved towards embracing difference and the current method of RE can be argued to reflect this. The point being that it seems to be the explicit intention of policy to help community cohesion and so failings of practice are simply indicative of growing pains of this new multi-cultural Britain.

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Hobson and Edwards (1999) whilst agreeing with our essay’s argument (see p3ff) identify a number of other possible problems. These are the dangers of scepticism, exclusivism, relativism and reductionism. Leaving aside exclusivism (which should only come about from poor teaching which we have looked at), it is possible that some of these things may harm community cohesion (Jackson in Bates et al (Eds) 2006, p52ff). This is because, after looking at all the lessons in RE and concluding that all religions and linked ideas are wrong, a sceptic might become isolated either voluntarily or involuntarily. A relativist may conclude that there is no real knowledge possible and so again, the rest of the community is wrong and fall into the same end as a sceptic. A reductionist could likewise, see it all as false and similarly isolate him or herself. It would appear that these are valid objections to RE contributing positively and greatly to community cohesion. All one can say is that these groups won’t always isolate themselves and that if such views are true they will possibly eventually be seen by all and so communities will re-join without the divisions of religions and different views that has so marked the history of the world (for more on this see Dawkins, R. 2006 The God Delusion, London: Transworld Publishers). It is RE that will achieve this and so RE does contribute greatly and positively to community cohesion in schools and society. Whilst we all do believe different things, RE will allow us all to respect, tolerate etc. each other better as we have argued (see Bates et al 2006, p1ff). To sum up the above criticisms of our argument: “There can be no guarantee that what is sought is to be found, but even if unity in diversity turns out to be a chimera it will have been worth the seeking, if only to expose the practical limitations of pluralist rhetoric” (Hulmes in Watson (Ed) 1992 Chapter 8).

Why not PSHE or citizenship or some other subject? It is true that some of the lessons we have seen can be learned in other subjects and indeed are, but it is distinctive to RE and best served by RE to facilitate this community cohesion in schools. This is simply because as we have seen and as many commentators identify (for more on this see Bibliography and also Dawkins, R. 2006 The God Delusion, London: Transworld Publishers) the biggest divider of communities are their beliefs and these are normally religious in nature. Therefore, teaching students about religious beliefs, which is surely only possible in an RE lesson (under current subject sovereignty), is a very large way to better allow, because of what we have said above about what RE lessons do, better community cohesion.

We live in a pluralist multi-faith, multi-cultural, local and global community and RE greatly and positively contributes to the cohesion of this distinctively because of RE-led activities in schools and wider society and the lessons themselves, particularly the learning from and learning about aspects of the subject which in themselves contribute to community cohesion as we have seen. These last two also lead to the less tangible contribution or effects that RE gives by developing, aiding and encouraging awareness, respect, trust, lessons of love and spirituality, tolerance, knowledge, communication, open friendliness, critical thought, analysis and deep thinking and so on as well as teaching that we live in a pluralist society. All of these things are necessary for community cohesion and indeed community cohesion is impossible without them. It also teaches that there are many of us here, with many different approaches to life and these contributions are the best way for community cohesion in a pluralist society, indeed, one might argue the only way. Since these effects are best achieved in RE lessons, as we have argued, the subject’s contribution is not only distinctive but unique.


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Bibliography Bibliography for this essay… Bibliography ComCohes.docx Microsoft Word document [13.7 KB]