A Short Address by the Revd. Dr. Ronald Noone at the
Education Forum at Trinity College March, 2012.
RELIGIOUS EDUCATION IN SCHOOLS
- Should Religious Education be offered in all schools? Yes and I believe that teaching religion in schools is more vital, more urgent and more important than ever. However, it should be taught not because we need to turn the students into good little Christians or any religion for that matter. And not because of some misguided notion that salvation, theirs and ours, depends upon knowing certain doctrines or reciting certain prayers.
- Religion should be taught because we are the guardians of the laws of the spiritual universe and the knowledge of that dimension is extremely important for human fulfillment and happiness. Religion is concerned with the nature of human flourishing and we know that such flourishing has something to do with the transcendent.
- The teaching of religion is socially, culturally and politically important. I don’t have to emphasize that the nature of some of the problems facing the world today are religious and their solution will, I believe, also necessarily be religious. In addition, it is impossible to have a real appreciation of western culture and civilization without knowledge of the Christian contribution to its development.
To the objection that children should not have any religion taught in state schools, I offer the argument of other subjects. Take music, for example. Children are encouraged to learn a musical instrument so they at least have a basic understanding so they can later make an informed choice about whether to go on with it. I argue that an introduction to religion and religious concepts is as important as any subject they may have at school. If they reject it later at least they will have some knowledge of what it is they are rejecting.
Question: How Should this be Done?
In the best case scenario the subject would be taught by people who are properly and professionally trained having some expertise in TEACHING. Being a Christian is not enough. The subject should be serious, academic and rigorous. It should never be seen as a soft option, a joke or some Mickey Mouse course that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Many students, parents and teachers will view it this way until it has professionally trained teachers. Religion must be an education that Enlightens, Engages and Informs.
The aim of the teaching in schools is not Conversion. Conversion is the job of the churches and you cannot use the schools as pew fodder that may later save the church from extinction. The church needs to work out how to save itself and not view schools as mission fields ready to be harvested by well meaning, even kind hearted volunteers.
“The duty of religion is not to preserve itself but to preserve the spirit; and its responsibility is to provide the language, forms and symbols in which the human spirit might come to understand itself. The old language doesn’t work and we urgently need a new one and religion has a lot of work to do if it wants to shift from being an obstacle to spirituality to being a resource for people’s spirituality. Instead of worrying about declining numbers it should worry about how to reach out to, and re-connect with the spiritual impulses and urges in people’s lives.” (David Tacey, Spirit Makes us Human, Dialogue Australasia conference 2002)
Children are segregated on the grounds of religion and this automatically creates division. This is the opposite of understanding. The way the current arrangements work fails to serve the values of education.
Children need to Incorporated into the program and the only way this can occur is a change in philosophy and methodology. The Structure of “opting out” needs to be abandoned and replaced by a philosophy that allows everyone to feel welcome. If the current system remains in place it must be made better by changing Christian Education into Religious Education and not in name only. It has to be genuine Religious Education. This requires major changes to the curriculum materials and the training and expertise of the teachers.
The model for this could be the UK. There was a massive undertaking to train all RE teachers because RE is a compulsory subject in school curriculum to a certain level. After primary school and through to the end of secondary school RE is an available option. In fact RE is a popular choice for many students. It is, for example more popular than Geography, Biology, many languages and students use it as a subject to gain university entrance.
So, in this country I would start with the primary school teachers and their training by offering Religious Education as a method trainee teachers could choose in their courses. It has been shown again in recent studies what many of us have known for a long time namely, that the students learn best when they have the best teachers. The quality of teaching inevitably produces the best results so why would think that Religious Education should not have the best trained, the most professional and most highly motivated teachers?