By Paul-François Tremlett
[What follows is an edited version of the paper I presented at the 8th IARS conference at the University of East London this January 29th, which was on the theme of violent youth radicalisation in Europe.]
Religious education in Britain has seen itself as contributing to the wider social aims of education, such as instilling tolerance, respect for difference and building social cohesion. However, in recent years religious education has been in something of a crisis. First has been the general suggestion that religious education is failing to meet its social aims, because it is failing to represent religions accurately. According to Barnes, “…current representations of religion in British religious education are limited in their capacity to challenge racism and religious intolerance, chiefly because they are conceptually ill-equipped to develop respect for difference” (2006, p. 396), while according to Panjwani and Revell, representations of Islam in textbooks, examinations and syllabi are essentialized “leading to stereotypes and unsubstantiated generalizations” (2018, p. 269).
Second is the ongoing decline in the numbers of pupils taking Religious Education at GCSE and A-Level in England and Wales and in the recruitment of students to undergraduate courses and qualifications in Religious Studies. For example, a recent report by the Religious Education Council found that entries for GCSE RS (combined short and full courses) in England and Wales had peaked in 2011 at 461,795: today’s figures show a decline in entries of 42.6% in eight years with almost 200,000 fewer pupils achieving a qualification in RS at the end of KS4. Moreover, according to a report by the British Academy, there were around 6,500 fewer students on Theology and Religious Studies courses in higher education institutions in 2017/18 than there were in 2011/12.
In light of this crisis in teaching and in recruitment, a report by the Commission on Religious Education report titled ‘Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward: A National Plan For RE’, aimed at revitalising the subject area in schools, drew the following response from the association of departments of Theology and Religious Studies in the UK (TRS-UK):
We consider the subject as crucial for all pupils, for their understanding of themselves and others, and of local and global realities. The current decline in religious literacy is already resulting in prejudice, discrimination, fear, hatred, and an impoverished public discourse. Education about religion and worldviews is important for all citizens, whether they are themselves religious or not. The unique combination of skills fostered by the subject is essential in the workplace, in the media, and in politics (local, national and international), and all pupils deserve to be well taught in this subject (link).
TRS-UK draw a causal link between declining “religious literacy” and instances of “prejudice, discrimination, fear, hatred, and an impoverished public discourse”. But what is religious literacy and how can it empower young people against prejudice and discrimination?