“I believe”: Ofsted, religious education and public debate

Dr John Parkinson

Today’s news about a critical Ofsted report into the state of religious education in England got me thinking about the role of “belief” in modern politics and policy.

My starting point is the thought that the religious emphasis on belief and faith is the opposite of the scientific emphasis on doubt, questioning, evidence, and so on. Most thoughtful religious people accept that — if the spiritual life relies on faith and personal experience of spiritual realms then appealing to evidence massively misses the point. Likewise, an honest quest for evidence requires us to leave our beliefs outside – they colour our search for evidence too much (leading to long-understood mistakes like confirmation bias) and blind us to alternatives.

But this reveals a fascinating tension in the Ofsted report and the whole idea of Religious Education. Let me quote from the executive summary of the report. The very first paragraph reads as follows:

Religious education (RE) should make a major contribution to the education of children and young people. At its best, it is intellectually challenging and personally enriching. It helps young people develop beliefs and values, and promotes the virtues of respect and empathy, which are important in our diverse society. It fosters civilised debate and reasoned argument, and helps pupils to understand the place of religion and belief in the modern world.

Religious education: realising the potential, p.4

Throughout the report we get the view that children are not being given enough opportunity to engage their critical faculties. There is the complaint that teachers leap too quickly to “personal response” before giving students the chance to reflect about it properly (eg, at page 10). But that is what religions emphasise. They tell us to respond personally, they tell us to suspend disbelief.

What is more, the wider political environment has come to embrace this too. How many times do we hear politicians, activists, group leaders and persuaders tell us what they believe instead of what theythink or what they know based on evidence? I hear it in classes all the time: students telling me what they believe instead of what they have found out or what they think to be true based on logic, experience, cogitation, argumentation, and so on.

No wonder Ofsted found confusion about aims and poor performance. Religious Education is pursuing mutually incompatible goals. It wants students to both understand religion and the religious experience, but in a way that deepens their own beliefs. They can’t have both.

I blame Tony Blair. For Blair, evidence was weak, ineffective stuff when it came to motivating people in modern politics — the power of one’s convictions, of passion, of belief, was much more significant. And thus he “believes”, even “passionately believes” that it was right to go to war in Iraq. And now we can’t have a debate in public life unless the protagonists also get passionate, rant and rave about what they believe.

I don’t want policy to be based on passionately held belief alone.  Beliefs are not “public reasons” — reasons which reasonable people, regardless of belief, can agree to — simply because they are not appeals to joint interests and common goals. They are, at the end of the day, appeals to what goes on inside one’s own head, and that’s not good enough in a democracy. That is what is disrespectful of other citizens, not the failure to “respect” belief itself. Ofsted is getting this backwards.

Readers familiar with Richard Dawkins will recognise echoes of his The God Delusion in some of this. I buy a lot of Dawkins’ argument — which boils down to the idea that the things we try to explain via religion can be much, much better explained in other ways — but I think he uses tools which are often ineffective in a world dominated by “conviction”. An alternative, and perhaps more effective approach comes from Derren Brown whose ‘Miracles for Sale’ series, for one, is fascinating. Just watch it.

This post originally appeared on 6 October 2013 on John Parkinson’s Boggler Blog.

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