Do we need religious education in schools?

Although the posts on this site go straight to Twi**er, and I occasionally post something else there, I don’t follow the tw**ts of others. That’s mainly for lack of time: I can’t write on this site and tw**t at the same time. But I still parasitize my friends and readers who sent me tw**ts, and this post is an example. Alert reader Bryan sent me a pair of tw**ts, one from the National Secular Society (NSS, referring to an article on its website), and the other a response from antitheist philosopherAnthony Grayling, who happens to be the Vice President of the British Humanist Association.

Grayling doesn’t pull any punches:

But that got me thinking about this question: Is it useful to have religious education in government-funded schools? By that, of course, I mean teaching about the world’s diverse religions, not indoctrinating children in faith.

In England, religious education (RE) is a required subject in all government funded schools, and of course in “faith schools” that cater to a particular religion and also get government money. (For the record, I don’t think any public funds should go to supporting religious schools.) As far as I know, RE extends from the early years right up until at least the “fifth form” (equivalent to grade 10 in the U.S., with students aged about 16).

However, English students can opt out of RE, as well as of the required daily “act of worship.” Yet RE is not evenhanded: at least half the curriculum must be Christian, and, although the High Court has ruled that atheism was unlawfully excluded from RE, the Minister of Education has said that RE must include the idea that “Britain is a Christian nation” (!) and that religion can be given priority over nonreligious views.

So, although Britain is becoming increasingly (and rapidly!) secular, the government is regressing with respect to RE. In the RSS article referred to above, by Stephen Evans: “What do pupils need to know about religion?” there’s this:

In a new report on the subject, the All-Party Parliamentary group on Religious Education calls for a return of the ‘minister for faith’ position to the cabinet in order to address society’s urgent need for greater “religious literacy”.

Without providing any evidence that religious illiteracy is a problem of any significant importance, the APPG calls on the Government to promote religious literacy by “championing RE” and making its improvement an “important educational priority”.

The problem is, when it comes to this highly contested area of the curriculum, there’s very little in the way of consensus regarding what “improvement” actually means.

Evans concludes, and I agree, that there’s really no need for RE in schools. Now there are some prominent atheists, Dan Dennett among them, who have called for obligatory religious education—on the grounds that to be considered “educated” in the world you have to know something about religion. One can, I suppose make a case for that, but I think the counterarguments are stronger. Here are some I thought of:

  • Considering my own education, I had no religious teaching, as is the case in American public schools. (The First Amendment effectively bans it.) Have I suffered from this? I don’t think so. The time that would have been occupied by RE can be more profitably employed in learning about other aspects of culture: art, music, and literature, of which only the last is usually offered in American public schools.
  • The tenets of religion are fictional, made up by humans. That’s the most important thing to know about religion, and it’s the one thing that no religious education curriculum will teach. You learn what different faiths say, but there can be no critical discussion of that dogma.
  • Religious education can, all too often, turn into religious proselytizing, as seems to be happening in the UK.
  • What you need to know about religion you can pick up in the public sphere; anybody in the U.S., for instance, is constantly exposed to faith. Thus it is unlike algebra or chemistry, which you can get only in school.
  • There are simply too many religions on the planet to do a decent job teaching about them all. There are, by some estimates, over 40,000 sects of Christianity alone! Who decides which to teach? Do you teach the ones only practiced in the students’ own country, or do you anthropologically cover the whole panoply of human religious belief?
  • A big problem: how do you teach a religion objectively? With Islam, for instance, do you teach the Shia or Sunni versions, or both? What about Sufism? You can imagine the fracas that would ensue among the parents of Muslim children no matter what is taught about Islam. There will always be concern about whether one’s own religion is being taught properly to children.

One British reader, who went to a Church of England school, wrote me this:

I remember at the age of nine/ten being taught the story of the “miracle” of the feeding of the five thousand – loaves and fishes story – and being told that we should not take it literally but that it was an allegory (although I’m sure the teacher used a different word) and perhaps was meant to tell us to share what we have.

That would never fly in an America that harbors many Biblical literalists. Imagine telling a class in the South that the first two chapters of Genesis were allegorical!

  • Finally, what about atheism? Surely nonbelief should also be taught, as is supposedly required in England. But how much emphasis should be given to nonbelief? And, as we learned yesterday, most people’s atheism comes from a lack of evidence for the tenets of conventional religions. How can you teach atheism without being critical of those religions?

France circumvents the whole problem by substituting a course on ethics and morality, though in some regions students can still avail themselves of RE. I see problems with the secular version as well, for teaching ethics would be difficult on the secondary-school level.

I’d prefer to see an obligatory course in critical thinking. But of course that would raise an uproar in the U.S., with parents realizing that critically-thinking children could turn their doubts on their faith!

Overall, I see RE as misguided. It should not be part of the curriculum of any secular democracy. But, of course, readers are free to disagree below. The reader who went to the Church of England school, for instance, saw benefits to his own religious education:

On a personal note, I would say that I don’t object to teaching religion in that manner. I do think that the historical input of the various religions is important and having some idea of the stories and basis for the belief systems is a good thing. My own kids have pretty much no idea about the bible – they don’t know the basic stories. They had nothing formal in elementary/high school – and living in the [U.S. South] they were surrounded by indoctrinated kids. They both had religion/philosophy prerequisites as undergrads – one did intro Hinduism and the other intro Buddhism. I told them they should do intro Christianity – but they said that was a goof-off course for the kids who knew it anyway, and they would rather compete on a more level playing field.


  1. Barry Lyons
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I love that second bullet (“the tenets of religion are fictional”). Yes, quite: that detail would not be taught.

    Yes, an obligatory course in critical thinking! Absolutely.

  2. Kevin
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    No. Should there be mandatory classes on talentless fiction?

    The hard drive we’ve got is only so big, why misuse it with trivial records.

  3. Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    However, English students can opt out of RE, as well as of the required daily “act of worship.”

    Their *parents* can opt them out, but they cannot opt themselves out until age 16.

  4. David Harper
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I attended an English grammar school in the mid-1970s. I remember learning about different religions in our RE classes, and both atheism and agnosticism were explained to us. Alas, the O-level RE course in the fourth and fifth years consisted entirely of memorising chunks of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and regurgitating them on exam day, so that was pretty much an utter waste of time.

    However, my abiding memory is of the headmaster talking to us quite candidly about how he became an atheist. As a junior officer during World War 2, he was disgusted to see chaplains blessing artillery and tanks, and that, he told us, put him off religion for life. You can imagine the impact of hearing that from someone who we regarded as a figure of tremendous authority. He was a damn good Latin teacher too.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      Ab uno disce omnes.”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      I would think that taking RE for ‘O’ level exams was an optional subject?


  5. dabertini
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I had eight years of catholicism in elementary school. Thankfully, my good teachers rarely broached the subject. There is just way too much good curriculum that crowds out the woo of religion.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted August 3, 2016 at 4:37 am | Permalink

      I have deep reservations about ‘faith schools’ and think they should not receive any backing from the UK state.

      Not so worried about Religious Education in ordinary schools though. Done well it encourages children to think through the issues, but usually it is done poorly and is as swiftly forgotten as any other subject that is not relevant in daily life.

  6. TJR
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I’ve always been in favour of studying comparative religion as part of history.

    I reckon a double-lesson overview of the history of the invention and spread of the main religions, then another on all their evidence-free and contradictory claims, would about do it.

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    In the U.S. there does not seem to be enough hours of school at present to keep up with many parts of the world in education. Why would we waste more of this short time with something like religion. Just getting the children through and graduated from high school is failing in some parts of the country. In Iowa, said to have the best graduation rate in the country we have around 90%. And many of the graduated do not have the tools or background to make it in College.

    Teaching any religion in K thru 12, at least in public school is lost on me and cannot be justified. Besides, it is illegal.

    The countries that teach the most in religion would be Islamic centered countries. How is that working out for them?

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Just one other comment I forgot to include. Is it not odd that the large religious majority attempting to drag religion into the public school system are the same who want no sex education allowed. And what is the result of that?

  8. Jeff Lewis
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    In an ideal world where religions could be taught without proselytizing, I would favor religious education. I’m not sure it would require a dedicated class, or if it could just be included in social studies as part of learning about other cultures. Religion is a huge influence in the world, and I don’t think most people learn much of anything about other religions in the public sphere. Hell, most people don’t even learn that much about the history of their own religion.

    So, I guess I agree with Daniel Dennett – religious education should be part of any well rounded education, just as much as art, music, and literature (all of which, btw, were offered at the public schools I was lucky enough to attend).

  9. Christopher Bonds
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Anything that exists is worthy of study. Religion exists. Therefore religion is worthy of study. That is a valid syllogism. Its truth depends on the truth of the first proposition, which in turn depends on the meaning of “study”.

    Study of religion from a critical-thinking perspective would involve an investigation into such things as epistemology, logic, ontology, philosophy of science, belief, faith, evidence, and other things.

    • Christopher Bonds
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Addendum: Once religious education has been found to be a valid program of study, the next question would be: What, if any, are the benefits of studying [comparative] religion? Are there benefits to education in comparative religion that can’t be gained from training in critical thinking itself?

      Other than that one would learn the history and tenets of major religions of the world, I can’t see much benefit over a course sequence in critical thinking itself.

      If you are planning on becoming an anthropologist, I think a comparative study of religion would be essential. It would be of benefit for those in the mental health profession as well.

  10. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I had a phase in public high school in the US – hey where are you going, no please don’t go away! – in the US where I did a report on cults. It spilled over into daily personal curiosity, going to the library and also the public library to see how far they went with it all. I even purchased the Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey in my own time. I assure you it was all for the titillation/thrill of it – that is, operating with the assumption that there is significant truth to it. I was also quite a metal head. The one intellectual thing i gained from it was that Christianity was originally pagan – a cult. But that’s just because some book made the suggestion. I think the report was a dud.

    I assure you I learned from it. What though? Well, here in the autumn of my years, I learned the one interesting fact above – which isn’t very substantial – was obtained at the expense of way too much time that would have been better spent on other things. So I learned things around the intended intellectual endeavor. I suppose that’s the curse of youth, wasting time and all…. But i digress. High school history class also had a good treatment of religion I thought, including Egyptian myth to crusades, though it was more a just-so treatment and not critical evaluation of religion itself…. Maybe history class isn’t the place? Maybe it is?… A whole other class?… Dunno if that’d saved me the effort above…

    I’m stating to ramble I think…

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      The choice of the topic – cults – was my own. Mostly due, as I suggested, to an attitude problem.

      But I’m all better now!

    • Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      In my view students should be allowed a lot of freedom on how to pursue various sorts of “projects” and not simply attend lectures, etc. But I don’t know how to do this in such a way that they can learn the basics of what is already known in addition to correct methods and approaches.

      • darrelle
        Posted August 2, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        Reminds me of a British Literature teacher I had in high school. She has always been on my short list of best teachers ever precisely because she allowed a lot of freedom on how to pursue projects in her class.

        Her class was a lot of work. She didn’t take any shit and she wasn’t an easy grader. But within a general context, such as an essay or term paper, she allowed you to do just about anything you wanted to. Even then I was able to appreciate the enormous amount of extra work that required of her.

  11. Ian Clark
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    The rapid growth of secularism is a false comfort unless the secularism is entrenched in the education system. Explicit denounciation of the supernatural and simultaneous teaching evolutionary biology from first grade (primary 1) onwards should be the goal. Young children should be made acutely aware that the beliefs of their parents are not shared and in fact have no rational basis.

  12. Sven
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Maybe from a standpoint of geography or history. A lecture about Japanese culture is incomplete without touching on some of the basic beliefs of Shinto spiritualism. English history is replete with conflicts between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The division of India and Pakistan was very much about religious beliefs, and so forth.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      and literature and art and the history of ethics.

  13. jacoxnet
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I think your view is pretty parochial. There are few, if any, human institutions with a larger impact on civilization than religion. It obviously needs to be studied. By the way, the First Amendment would certainly not be a bar to the study of religion (as part of history, social studies, and so on) in public schools.

    • J.Baldwin
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      I tend to agree here and would add that ignoring RE in schools tends to add legitimacy to the taboo against criticizing it.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      The OP did not state that religion should not be studied. He said that he didn’t think the study of religion should be compulsory in grade school.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted August 3, 2016 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      ‘Parochial,’ eh? Interesting choice of words. Not sure what you mean by ‘institutions.’ Isn’t government one? How about science? Economics? And haven’t these had a ‘larger impact on civilization’ than religion?

      ‘Obviously’ is a reader-intimidation word–one that doesn’t work here. And, as a retired and now grumpier-than-ever old teacher, I really don’t appreciate someone suggesting that I put even MORE subject matter into my curricula!

      • Posted August 3, 2016 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

        Obviously, there’s been a failure to consider the non-human institutions?😉

  14. Frank Bath
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately here in Britain bishops sit in the House of Lords – the second chamber – and they make their voice heard.
    At my grammar school in the 50’s we had ‘Divinity’ classes but as the master was a Catholic he had to say nothing on christianity to us nominal C of E’s. He read us the Sherlock Holmes stories instead along with WW Jacobs. Great stuff!

  15. Jo
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    The main reason for studying the Bible, new and old testaments, is that english literature prior to 1945 is studded with allusions to the bible. Therefore a whole level of understanding would be lost. Reading Milton without the knowing the bible? Pointless.

    I imagine historians would also be severely limited in their understanding of old documents.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      I disagree. Reading Milton without knowing the bible is not pointless. I have personal experience with that.

      You have perhaps made a good argument for including study of religion in the context of literature in relevant literature courses and history in relevant history courses. But I don’t think you’ve made a good argument for compulsory religion courses in public schools.

  16. GBJames
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    What should be required is Anthropology (the scientific version). People need to learn about the variety of ways humans live their lives. Amidst this variety one finds religious stuff.

    As for “What you need to know about religion you can pick up in the public sphere“, I don’t buy it. The same could be same for everything taught in school.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      There is a better case for picking up religion in the public sphere because there’s so much of it than other subjects. However, that only really works for the intellectually curious. It always amazes me how much some people DON’T pick up from what’s going on around them. They never even watch the 6 o’clock news on TV, and have no interest in doing so.

      I learn lots of new stuff every day and I’m sure everyone reading this website does too whatever their age. That’s not actually typical though, and force-feeding via school is required.

      I think objective religious education is good, but I’ve always been in two minds about mandating it. Personally I’m glad I know about it. I would have learnt it all without school though via family/church/Sunday school.

      I did RE at school – everyone did when I was a kid. Half an hour Wednesday mornings taught by Christian volunteers throughout primary school. More and more schools are pulling out of the programme these days, and a few years ago it was renamed RI – religious instruction – which is more accurate. It should be Christian Instruction. Most of the volunteers these days are evangelical. Parents can pull their kids out.

  17. Christopher
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I took a mythology course in high school that was taught by one of the English/Literature teachers. Of course this meant Greek, Roman, probably some token Viking myths or something. That did NOT include any Judeo-christian myths, because, of course, those are religions, not myths, as we were told.

    The only place for religious education is in myths, anthropology, or philosophy courses. and that probably should wait until university, objective, and should be completely and totally voluntary.

  18. Paul S
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    My mid 70’s grade school social studies included Aztec, Egyptian, Greek and Roman religions. I don’t see a reason to exclude other religions as long as the format is the same.
    However, I very much doubt the people who want religion taught in school would want their religion given the same analytical treatment.

  19. Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    After some experience in Quebec’s first attempt to be broadly ecumenical in religious education (in the early 1990s), I came to some conclusions (ask me for arguments if you want them):

    (a) teach religious *history* (including “global studies” and so on) from a scientific and scholarly perspective, not the perspective of believers (e.g., explain that Acts is held to be more or less fictional by mainstream scholarship, with the edges holding that it isn’t at all such and that it is completely such at the other). This must include the history of freethought, non-belief, etc. (This latter topic was completely omitted from my education in school.)
    (b) even in early grades, if the stories and texts are referred to, use the originals. No more bowlerdized old testament!
    (c) if students are to present materials on “their own views”, find a way to make these the students as much as possible, and *not* that of the parents. In Quebec, a 14 year old can consent to medical treatment (including birth control and abortion) without parental consent. I think this principle can be extended.
    (d) there must be no public funding for any religious *doctrinal* instruction whatsoever (and I’d argue in the limit for any private schools at all, but that’s another discussion).
    (e) religious history must be taught “intersectionally” and systemically as well; explain the role of other ideas, politics, economics as they influence and are influenced by religions. (For example, the role of religion in the conquest of the Americas by Europeans.) BPEC a la Bunge is worthwhile.
    (f) avoid wishy-washy “everything is equal” relativism. If (a), (e) are done right, this is “for free”, but a reminder is worth it.
    (g) do not let any students in any context opt out except in the case of recognized intellectual or other general handicap affecting all subjects. This extends to private schools where doctrine will for the moment also be taught.
    (h) courses which touch on religiously controversial subjects, like human and general biology, ecology, world general geography, general history, etc. can and must be taught in a way that makes their “atheism” clear. (I.e., teach the science as is.)
    (i) students who refuse material based on religious grounds should suffer the penalty in grades (as if they had not completed the assignment for any other reason) unless it can be clearly established that the student is acting out of genuine conviction, and not his parents’ (cf. (c)) and hence is also past the “age of consent”. I don’t know how to do this in general and the burden of proof likely has to be on the student. Tricky area: other areas of conscience, like refusing dissections in biology courses.

    • Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      In case (g) and (i) appear contradictory, this is because (g) is about the mandantory religious history modules and (i) is about religious impacts on other courses.

  20. Pliny the in Between
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always thought that a ‘history of thought’ course would be interesting. Combining intro level exposure to philosophy, theology, and the scientific method. Discussing how each approaches questions and how each has shaped our culture. Concentrating on how people think about things and how they define knowledge.

    • Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      I would be in favour of that, if done in a scholarly (not relativist or whiggish or pomo) way. The history of religions course I mentioned above would be a module in such.

      Might be an interesting intersection with the science (including social science) curriculum.

  21. bluemaas
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    At least within the United States, I personally fear religious education in its public schools. I know this post relates to it as if of teachers’ curricula and not as if of kiddos’ inculcation. To me I cannot .trust. coming from adult “educators” in public settings a difference.

    These, although recounting her bravery of ~70 years ago, re the fired Ms Vashti and her bullied kiddo(s) and their family’s murdered kitty cat explain why my take: and

    Then too, there is again just today’s F F R F’s continued vigilance !

    Which, to date re just this specific and utterly ridiculous logo, has not succeeded in this particular public school’s adherence to the First Amendment, to the LAW, that is, … … let alone in any way, its officials’ and adults’ very much needed – rebuking !


    • bluemaas
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Yes, ~70 years ago = one big ol’ basis for my fear re USA public schools’ curricula containing any RE for its kiddos which is, as well … …

      Q U I T E succinctly explained by today’s tw**t from Dr DeGrasse Tyson of @neiltyson:

      “Seems every few decades the World goes batshit crazy. Just long enough to forget the last time the World went batshit crazy.”


    • Kevin
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      The fear does not have to be unanticipated. I have two kids in elementary school. They talk. I listen. When they tell me of anything that might ‘overstep’ the boundaries of Church and State, which is very rare, I know about it. In most cases it is easily extinguished.

      I reference FFRF’s useful site:

      I do not have to mention any of this to FFRF. Typically school administrators get so scared they remove any religious content immediately.

  22. gareth
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    An oft cited defence of RE/RS is that it includes some sort of critical thinking, as well as philosophy and ethics. But Critical Thinking, and Philosophy & Ethics have their own separate specialised subjects. Even GCSE has its own separate Philosophy studies course.
    Which to me suggests that RE is something of a jack of all trades master of none course at best.

    The only reason it even exists as a compulsory subject is due to when the Anglican Church, as the established church was able to insist on compulsory classes in their particular interpretation of Christianity. Its been gradually watered down and made more ‘inclusive’ ever since.

  23. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    A huge proportion of pre-twentieth century art, literature, music was influenced by christian beliefs and I believe a full appreciation of this art (in the wide sense)requires some knowledge of what those beliefs were. (And I would add that I think that a reasonable degree of cultural literacy is an important thing to develop in young people).
    Without the reader knowing something of the bible many literary allusions would sail right past him or her. I don’t have to share Bach’s religious beliefs to enjoy his music but knowing something about christianity helps to understand and appreciate his work.
    Of course the same is just as true of classical Greek and Roman mythology and, when we start to look more widely (I write from the perspective of a European caucasian), it is clear that to understand the art and culture of other parts of the world we will usually also need to know need to know something about the spiritual beliefs that underpin them.
    The time available to deliver the school curriculum is limited so clearly not all religious belief systems can be treated in equal depth and choices have to be made. It seems to me that a comparative study of the major religions (in terms of geographical influence and numbers of adherents)is an appropriate compromise.
    I should stress that what I think desirable is a kind of objective anthropological study of the religions NOT any proselytising of ‘truth’ claims for one or other of them.

  24. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    At whatever stage students are ready to study anthropology and sociology, they should be offered coursework in comparative religion. Plus, with the possible exception of Shakespeare, there is no richer source of literary allusion than the KJV.

    The closer question is whether any religious education should be compulsory. My feeling is that students should have some grounding in knowledge of the world’s major religions, although I understand the argument that it’s simply not worth the candle.

    But not one penny of public funds for religious inculcation.

  25. Tamethyst
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Re- “What you need to know about religion you can pick up in the public sphere; anybody in the U.S., for instance, is constantly exposed to faith. Thus it is unlike algebra or chemistry, which you can get only in school.”

    The above is probably the case in the US it certainly is not in Scotland. No-one is interested in religion and if they are they keep it to themselves. In the workplace it’s only ex-Jehovah Atheists like myself who talk about religion. On main stream television thanks to David Attenborough, Prof Brian Cox, Prof Alice Roberts & Prof Iain Stewart we get wonderful educational science programmes constantly reinforcing a secular origin for life, the universe and everything.

    So don’t fret Jerry, religion has no chance of making a comeback in despite any UK government dictats.

  26. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Another thought

    How will experiments work in a course on religion? (We all know). And woukd that delineate such a course from others?

    History is not experimental, but we wouldn’t expect experiments to be done anyways. Religion would be different but I don’t know how.

  27. Zado
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I used to agree with PCC, but nowadays I’m more inclined towards Dennett’s view on the subject. We rarely talk candidly about religion in this country–it’s practically a taboo subject–and part of the reason is that we’ve kept it cloistered in the home and the church. That is as it should be, politically, but as far as education goes, I think this state of affairs is holding us back.

    I took an introductory comparative religions course in college, and it was quite eye opening. We covered the Eastern religions–those of India, namely Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and then Confucianism in China–and I got a lot out of it (even though, for lack of time, we barely scratched the surface of these traditions). I think a required course like this towards the end of high school would be immensely beneficial, so long as the teacher works with the same attitude my professor did. As he reiterated, he was in the business of describing the ideas and truth claims of religions, not critically evaluating them.

    Admittedly, this would be more difficult in a sister course covering the religions of the West, what with all the monotheists we have who’d prefer to keep their traditions private and esoteric. But I think it could be done. Even if it wasn’t, an Eastern religions course would grant some measure of worldly objectivity and erode the provincialism that defines so much of our religious discourse. It’s difficult to take the Bible as seriously once you learn about the Bhagavad Gita. So I think we should.

    • Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      I was also going to mention Dennett and his view that the objective study of religions would have a variety of good effects.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Also relevant here is Dennett’s Clergy Project, which offers support to pastors who emerged from divinity school as atheists. As secularists, why wouldn’t we want to make that same sort of faith-eroding educational experience available to all students?

  28. Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Many thoughtful, interesting comments.

    I am a proponent of teaching mythologies, history of religions and comparative religions. I would want the whole spectrum covered, from the most “primitive” to the most “civilized”. Mythologies of the world must be included, not just Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies. (How many people know the many “flood” myths or the different creation myths of the world?) Except for sciences, mathematics and courses intended to teach work-related skills, an in-depth awareness of the history and basic elements/attributes of religions is critical to an understanding of history, literature, art, music, architecture, etc. Much of the language and symbolism we encounter on a daily basis originated in and developed further from a religious origin. It is useful to have an understanding of the changes over time of such symbols and words. Otherwise, much meaning would be stripped from our daily communications.

    I agree with the emphasis on teaching all students science, rationality, logic, etc. However, not to the extreme reduction or total elimination of liberal arts and social sciences. I’m of the opinion that music, art, languages, and story-telling preceded maths and sciences in human development and are critical ways of human knowing.

    I also agree that no tax dollars should be used for private/charter schools or any proselytizing or instruction of particular religions.

  29. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    When I was an undergrad at University of Pennsylvania (majoring in History), the religion department required both an entire semester of writers expressing skepticism of religion (Hume, Freud, Nietzsche etc.) and also an entire semester of writers broadly sympathetic to religion (Mircea Eliade, Kierkegaard, etc.)
    The study of religion was largely focused on religious writers who had had a significant impact on the history of Western thought outside the boundaries of their own church body.
    For example, Kierkegaard has had a significant influence on secular psychoanalysis, so one he could get a lot of attention. (This meant of course that Mormonism got short shrift since there are no Mormon thinkers with a significant influence on Western thought beyond Mormonism. You needed to take the right courses in the history or sociology departments to learn anything about Mormonism.)

    However, by contrast, the religion department at Princeton was essentially a mini-seminary, a teaching of Christian doctrine.

    In high school, I took an English lit elective called “Religion in Literature” in which we read works as diverse as “Paradise Lost” and Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” (and Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ”- about 15 years before it was made into a movie loathed by American evangelicals.)

    Some grounding in religion is clearly necessary to understand some great works of Western literature including works that are fairly critical of religion, such as “Moby Dick”, which has abundant Biblical allusions, but is not friendly to classical Christianity at all. Similarly, one of the classic coming-of-age lesbian novels “Oranges are not the Only Fruit” consists of eight chapters with the same names as the first eight books of the Bible- these are chosen for a reason, albeit an ironic one. And surely some basic knowledge of Catholicism is necessary to understand James Joyce!!

    If fundamentalist religious people can’t handle a curriculum that teaches both Thomas Aquinas and Nietzsche, well tough beans!

    I am personally far more wary of Abrahamic monotheism than I am of some other positions (such as deism or pantheism or Sikhism) and both my religion background as well as a good grounding in science and history has helped me articulate why.

    Full disclosure- my father was head of the religion department at Penn when I was an undergrad there. I never took a course from him. (

  30. Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    I grew up in an atheistic regime (communist Bulgaria). Our constitution, while stating freedom of religion, cynically required parents to raise their kids as atheists. Dec. 25 was a working day, and Muslim names got banned. My family didn’t suffer from all this, because my parents were atheists anyway. Nevertheless, when I started studying history and reading old books and looking at pictures, I realized that I had a major hole in my culture. I filled it gradually, but I think it would be better if I had got some religious background in school. The most ridiculous thing was how we studied old Bulgarian literature in 9th grade; the medieval authors had of course written the G word all across their writing, and the teacher duly tried to convince us that the writers “had a religious worldview but were not religious” (!).

    Today’s system, to my opinion, is better. Youngest school students study about holidays of the Orthodox Christians, the group that used to be majority, and have creative activities associated with Christian holidays. My Muslim co-worker was proud that his son won a prize in a contest for painting Easter eggs. Children study also about holidays of different minorities, both religious and ethnic. By grade 4, the history curriculum introduces Christianity (in mostly positive light) and Islam (in somewhat negative light). In grade 5, literature curriculum is devoted to mythology and folklore, starting with Greek myths, then a surviving Armenian pagan song, then the Genesis story (including questions such as, “Do you think Adam and Eve’s punishment was just?”) etc. In high school, major religions are examined in more depth in history and philosophy, and atheism in philosophy. Our national literature has a weak Christian inclination and a strong atheistic tendency, so this maybe also counts.

  31. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Put me in the camp of those who think that a full understanding of history, art, literature, and contemporary politics requires an understanding of the religious beliefs that motivate much of them. If we want students to arrive at a sound understanding, it seems best to give them some formal preparation and guidance, rather than just dropping them in at the deep end of a contentiously religious society and hoping they turn out OK.

    As an experiment, try substituting sex education for religious education in some of your counterarguments and see which ones you’d still endorse.

  32. Steve Pollard
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Many thanks for the thoughtful comments above. My own position is that some degree of religious understanding is essential to be able to make sense not only of history, art and culture in general, but also of many aspects of contemporary politics.

    The problem in too many UK primary schools is that this is just not on the table. All CofE schools are subject to the scrutiny of the System of Inspection in Anglican and Methodist Schools (SIAMS), which strongly discourages the presentation of anything outside the main religious faiths; non-religious belief systems are particularly frowned on. The CofE is currently mounting a major campaign to get control of the next generation of so-called “free” schools.

    The good news is that there is also an increasing push-back against this threat, led by the NSS and the British Humanists. I think it will come to a head quite soon. As an often-beleaguered School Governor, I can only say: bring it on!

  33. Posted August 2, 2016 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    I had RE, too, and it was a hodge-podge of public education, comparative religion and ethics.

    Topic were such things as overviews what people believe, I recall we looked at major religions, not every flavour; why taking drugs is bad and leads to crime and prostitution; 3rd world poverty, consumerism, fair trade and such; or why astrology is bunk, where our teacher replicated the Forer test with us to demonstrate it.

    It was also the first avenue where I was a strident atheist, and could be. I always had good grades, but it was generally considered a light subject, too. Having a “C” or worse in RE was a joke.

    Germany has two state churches, one called Evangelical and the other Catholic. The Evangelical are not like American Evangelicals, but are actually Lutheran Protestants proper. US style Evangelicals are called “Free Churches”, are fringe, and seen as cults or sects, because they tend to be serious with their convictions, whereas Lutherans tend to be near-deists, perhaps comparable to Anglicans.

    Catholics, down in Bavaria, tend to be more authoritarian and overbearing with their education and they think highly of their fancy rituals — though ultimately, its about cultural identity and going through the practice, because one just does, rather than actually believing.

    It’s complicated matter: having religions embedded in the state seems to force them to the ground, where they are tamed and it keeps them in a somewhat publically agreeable state — whereas the “free churches” or US versions seem to unhitch easily and float into complete kookland.

    On the flipside, having religious embedded in this way gets them free support, and unearned respect as moral authorities. And the taming also makes them agreeable, which is nice in the short term, but then you cannot get rid of them as easily in the long run (whereas draconian, overbearing religions are bad short-term, but can be shaked off for good).

    On balance, it worked for the UK, Scandinavia and Germany well enough, wheras it doesn’t in the USA — despite its secular headstart. There are some other factors worth considering (US attracted very pious and fire and brimstone believers), but it can’t written off entirely that maybe some state-moderated religion works better overall. However, US folk tend to be extremely religious so opening the gate might be disastrous.

  34. Posted August 2, 2016 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Gregory Kusnick kinda said this already (Aug 2 at 1:51pm), but I disagree with PCC’s statement

    The tenets of religion are fictional… That’s … the one thing that no religious education curriculum will teach.

    It pretty much does, though. When studying 10 religions that all disagree, one is promptly forced to recognize that at least 9 of 10 religions are fictional. It doesn’t take a whole heap of intelligence to then notice that a simple and elegant hypothesis is that 10 of 10 are fictional. That’s before you even get into the internal contradictions in a single faith, that Gregory is talking about.

    • grumpy
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      I attended a church school in Australia – the preaching was minimal, and we did study all of the major religions in Year 10 (15-16 years old). This in no small part helped me to realise they were all rubbish. I think of it as the Outsider’s Test of Faith incorporated into my education.

  35. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    The thing that sounds peculiar to me is “religious literacy”. That sounds like one of those terms designed to appeal to exactly the people who are against religion. For instance I like the term “scientific literacy” to express more than a superficial awareness of science for the student who is not expected to make science their career. Literacy sounds good – religious literacy too … details matter though.

    I wonder if they really mean “current religion”, which really means Islam and Christianity? So such a student can look at the news and … ???

  36. Posted August 2, 2016 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    I think the relevant parts of religion can be learned via other subjects such as history, art and philosophy. There’s no point wasting time opining on whether salvation is obtained via faith or works or the cracker transforms into a demigod.

    As for the conflict that teaching religion in school would cause, Jerry nails it. I didn’t even attend Sunday School as a child because my conservative parents felt that I wouldn’t receive proper training from the teachers at the church and instead taught me the curriculum at home. That’s a conflict within a single denomination, I can only imagine the havoc that teaching this to kids of multiple faiths would wreak. Then again, maybe the discord would lead more kids away from religion once they discover there’s no way to objectively resolve these conflicts.

  37. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    While RE might be malignant in the hyper-religious US, it was pretty innocuous in the generally unbelieving UK. (As I recall, in my last class it was taken by the biology teacher, who presumably had drawn the short straw).

    I found it far less objectionable than PE, which put me off all forms of physical exercise for life. Unfortunately that included walking anywhere I didn’t have to, for at least half my life, till I fortuitously rediscovered walking (I still recall the initial caution with which I approached any excursion that took me more than three miles from a road). So I can comfortably say that PE did me far more harm than RE ever did.


  38. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted August 3, 2016 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    I love the topic, and the two articles of Jerry and NSS are very interesting!

    My quick analysis:

    Education and its content should be based in the Human Rights. I quote:

    Article 26.

    (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

    (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

    (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

    [ ; the preamble also has a bit that includes “… that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms …”.]

    Being able to choose kind of education does not mean providing homeschooling or education in superstitions (“fictions” re Jerry).

    But education should include an orientation on superstitions and what they are, since they are ubiquitous and problematic.

    Such orientation could be provided as a preamble to classes on science, specifically its history. And perception errors and other biological quirks are part of it, as Jerry often describe.

    But the orientation could perhaps better be taught in media classes on how to remove the chaff from the wheat?

  39. Mike
    Posted August 3, 2016 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    I think RE should be taught in Schools , if only to show how ridiculous it is, and the arrant nonsense it is based upon.

  40. Robert Bray
    Posted August 3, 2016 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    As Rowena Kitchen observed, ‘many thoughtful, interesting comments.’ But many of them not practicable from the standpoint of a primary or a middle school curriculum. Curricula must build an educated person, and, from my experience as a liberal arts university professor, that candidate for educated person is still quite unfinished by the time she reaches college. Besides the oft-lamented STEM weaknesses, many, many entering college students are ignorant of history, ‘civics’ and linguistics.

    What I am suggesting is that the process of education requires teaching/learning the right things at the right times in childhood development. And subjects are less important in the pipeline than skills. Literacy and numeracy first; then rhetoric and mathematics. Only then research, discourse and subject mastery.

    Where does the study of religion as a human cultural invention fit in? With the intermixture of all the memes and their history, with pedagogical guidance that includes an artificial but not fallacious hierarchy of cultural value.

    • Posted August 3, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      When I suggested we should teach integrated religious history, I didn’t mean to suggest one necessarily should isolate history or anything else as a *subject*. Your mentioning of teaching “skills” seems appropriate in this context. A useful skill, for example, is to figure out why someone might believe or act in a certain way, and that can be done in part through studying psychology, linguistics (and the other mixed sciences) and the social sciences (including history). Would you be of the opinion we should radically reorient our teaching?

      (I’m not sure myself, I don’t know what things would look like afterwards, or what skills should be on the list off hand.)

      • Robert Bray
        Posted August 3, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for your comment, Mr. Douglas. Indeed, I would favor just such a radical reorientation of public education in the U. S. As I view our society right now, we are caught in a maelstrom of ignorance that may well suck the democratic republic down into ruin. If I’m right in my pessimism, I lay the root of the blame at a colossal failure of education, especially in the arts of thinking and expression.

        As early in their schooling as possible, students need to work long and hard at problem-solving of all kinds. The various contexts of the problems to be solved need to be tightly controlled–subject knowledge will not be the point; rather, ways and means of getting through mental difficulties (verbal, social, numerical, and so on) will be paramount. For it is only after such skills are honed that expanded subject matters can be studied with authority.

        A rote recitation of the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address is worse than meaningless educationally: it is regressive. But to examine in depth what, say, ‘all men are created equal’ means and implies is learning for life.

        Most curricula I have seen over the decades emphasize breadth–a shoreless, formless lake good only for wading. I’d prefer a smallish swimming pool, with a shallow and a deep end, the one for training students to welcome the water, the other for diving down deep.

  41. Posted August 3, 2016 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking post. I would suggest that it is sometimes necessary to have a good understanding of what, e.g., the belief systems of particular religions are, for instance when studying certain historical events and the factors leading up to them. It is probably impossible in some cases to properly understand certain key historical figures/movements without understanding the belief system(s) involved: as we know, religious belief can and does motivate actions, and it is only by having a firm handle on this (as well as whatever other factors are involved) that we can properly account for certain events. While a great deal of this information is undoubtedly in the public sphere, I would suspect plenty of it isn’t.

  42. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 3, 2016 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how a public library – with its children’s departments – would factor into the notion of education. Usually I see a neutral approach to title choices purchased. …

  43. Posted August 4, 2016 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    I don’t yet have a firm opinion on whether RE should be taught in state schools, but I wanted to share a personal story. I went to a Catholic school. RE was mandatory but was not well organized nor did it count for anything. A lot of the time I was able to slink off to the back of the room and secretly do my math homework. But nearing the end of my school days, the state (this was in New Zealand) began an overhaul of the qualifications system, getting rid of the all-or-nothing in the end of year exam model and replacing it with a more full year, assignment-based and small regular test-based, system. It meant, among other things, RE was offered as a subject the state could set a curriculum for. It put schools like mine in a bind – on one hand they could offer RE as a real subject with a real qualification attached, on the other they had to follow the state curriculum which meant teaching about other religions. For the first time I paid attention in RE, learning about other religions and hence other cultures was fascinating. It also played a not-insignificant role in my journey towards atheism. Where Jerry had his Sgt Pepper’s moment (it was Sgt Pepper’s wasn’t it?), I had my RE teacher explaining in a Catholic school that religion probably arose from ignorance of the workings of the natural world, fear of death, and a desire to control people by inventing divinely ordained rules.

  44. Posted August 5, 2016 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    Another comment, based on something I was reminded of by justjase79. Growing up in the UK, I had RE from day 1 of primary school. At the particular school I was at from ages 8-11, there was quite a mix of people, as the neighbourhood was populated both by “natives” (i.e., other white British people) like me, as well as various families from mainly Pakistan, but also Bangladesh and India. As such, there was quite a mix of religions being practiced in the neighbourhood, and so RE was sort of useful: by having us learn about the various religions of the world, many of which were adhered to right there on our doorstep, and understand aspects of these different religions, we were taught to adopt tolerance and healthy curiosity of those who were from different backgrounds, rather than a mistrust for the “others” in our midst that some kids would no doubt have obtained from their families. Given that there were certain tensions arising from this mix of people, I suspect such an approach had serious benefits both for us as kids and the community as a whole.

    RE also helped me look beyond Christianity (the only religion to which I’d ever been exposed prior to starting at this school), which I’d always just taken to be true because of the way it was taught at schools I’d attended previously and reinforced by my dad (who is still somewhat religious). Realising there were other religions and being forced to examine their various claims and practices, coupled with my early science classes in which the importance of evidence, repeatability, etc., seems to be exactly what led me to atheism from the age of 8, though I never realised there was such a word for just not believing in a proposition (God etc., in this cast) until much later. Had it not been for my religious education, I almost certainly would have arrived at atheism in the end, but I certainly got there much earlier because of those early introductions to various religions.

  45. Posted August 6, 2016 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    (1) We might hope that the government’s stance on teaching humanism (not atheism, per se) in RE changes with the exit of Nick Morgan. It’s not clear where her successor, Justine Greening, stands on this, but it’s encouraging that Greening is the first openly gay British cabinet minister.

    (2) RE should be taught (even without humanism) for the reasons that Zibeeb alluded to in their comment on the “explain why you’re an atheist” thread:

    I was taught 8 different religions at school and they all contradicted each other, which made clear they are all nonsense


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