As a child I was educated in Catholic schools. An abiding memory for me was R.I. or religious instruction which was devised to ensure I understood the tenets of Catholicism. That was then, this is now. Today, religious education does what it says on the tin. Its primary purpose is to educate young people about all faiths, to encourage tolerance and understanding; to enable our young people to understand diversity and views very different from their own. Self-evidently, some form of religious education should be an integral part of the curriculum in any school – maintained or independent.
The government appears to be sending out a contrary signal on the importance of this intellectual discipline. The proposed new leaving certificate, the EBacc, will accredit only two humanities omitting religious education. On one level, why should this matter? As qualifications history and geography are clearly valid and important in their own right. However, given the times in which we live I find this proposal quite extraordinary.
Virtually every part of our fragile world is, has been or will be convulsed by some kind of disorder related to religious belief. Of course every conflict is far more complicated than this but an understanding of religion and how it may impact on ethnic identity is essential if we are truly to understand our world. Religious understanding is also an essential part of our Britishness. This nation has experienced its own religious convulsions in centuries past and is now a complex web of people of various faiths/beliefs and of none. As a civilised country with a reputation for tolerance, the importance of religious understanding in maintaining this cannot be underestimated. Fissures of difference are always there – we must guard against these differences becoming flash points for conflict.
And there is the purely intellectual argument to be made. In my school, like so many others, religious education is linked with philosophy. At key stage 4 all our students engage in a critical thinking course where they are encouraged to challenge accepted verities, debate complex topical issues, assert their views in a reasoned way. This tradition of thinking has its roots in the ancient world – as Socrates observed “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Sadly for this government it would appear that the examined life is a narrow set of qualifications which has no place for “the unexamined life”. Our young people deserve better.