Church of England claims lack of RE is creating a ‘moral vacuum’ that fuels radicalisation

Reverend Nigel Genders says Religious Education is being ‘watered down’

Chief education officer of the Church of England, Reverend Nigel Genders, has been reported in The Telegraph as saying that because RE isn’t a statutory subject, that teachers don’t see it as important, and the standards of teaching it suffer.

“Rabbi Johnathon Sack’s book Not in God’s Name [talks] about the increasing secularisation that we’re living within [which] is actually the thing that is fuelling the surge in extremist behaviour and radicalisation,” says Genders. “Young people are looking for some sort of religious identity, and they’re finding just a moral vacuum because religion has been sidelined or its been treated as a subject that you can actually water down to be something about values or something about citizenship.”

The idea that morality stems from religion has been refuted by many, from famous atheist thinkers such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, to Albert Einstein, as far back as Socrates, Plato and beyond. Einstein stated that “A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.” While the ever-outspoken Hitchens said: “We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instils morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”

Reverend Genders believes that the answer to tackling extremism at school, is to be “more rigorous” and give children “a deeper and richer understanding of religion rather than dilute it and downgrade it”, perhaps something both sides could agree upon, even if they take slightly different meanings from it.

Ed Pawson, chairman of the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education echoes this belief that young people’s religious literacy would help to make them less vulnerable to radicalisation. Stating that “Good religious education has never been more needed”, but that students will miss out unless the shortage of good-quality RE teachers is addressed.

A 2013 NATRE survey of teachers shows that nearly 50 per cent of the 700 people involved said they had only received three hours’ training in RE, while nearly 25 per cent had received no training at all.

So, what is the solution? One that has gained momentum recently is that rather than scrapping the subject altogether, or pushing something else aside to fit it into the curriculum, is to give include it in a larger subject that’s more relevant to today’s world. Recent news that Welsh Minister for Education and Skills, Huw Lewis, wants to see a transformation of the way in which RE is taught in Wales has created an interesting talking point. He would see the subject renamed, with religious education incorporated into ‘Religion, Philosophy and Ethics’.

In a piece for The Telegraph in November 2014, teacher Maxine Beech wrote about findings from her research that have transformed her teachings, saying that many students find it hard to engage with religious studies because they are unable to relate to the content, and that humanism is one answer to this:

“The starting point for my research was my students. 77 per cent of them, almost 300 young people aged 11-18, identify themselves as ‘not religious’ (when defined as “not believing in god”). They don’t automatically identify themselves as “humanists”, but then many had never heard of the word before I taught them. They did not know their views and beliefs were represented by anyone. Since the inclusion of humanism in our schemes of work, interest in taking RE at GCSE and A-level has grown – our atheist and agnostic students finally see there is something in RE that represents them. This means that they spend more time learning about religious beliefs as well as some time learning about non-religious world views.”