Religious education or indoctrination: an evening of lively discussion

By Timothy Fitzgerald
November 24, 2014

[Picking up on the debate at Stirling University on 23.10.14, the introductory blog to this topic by Alison Jasper and John I’Anson, the contribution by Sarah Clark, and the first comment piece by Russell Hunter, Tim Fitzgerald here offers our final piece on this specific event. We hope you have found all of these contributions helpful in thinking about the wider debate on RE in schools, and not just in the Scottish context. – Michael Marten, Editor]

The organisers should be thanked and praised as far as the idea of the forum is concerned. Clearly it was a legitimate forum for local teachers, parents, theology professors and Liberal Christian ministers to express their feelings and ideas about the goods and the bads of RE in school. The forum rightly included a representative of secular humanism. The problem for me is that secular humanists talk the binary reverse of what the religionists talk, and thus challenge nothing, because the circularity of the discourse is maintained. This binary discourse centred around ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ ensures the circular rehashing of the same persistent, un-deconstructed discourse whose deadening ubiquity stops us all thinking new thoughts.

Our very own Sarah Clark had something powerful and original to say, but the chair and the other speakers failed to pick it up. Sarah referred to the ‘cognitive dissonance’ she experienced between teaching RE in school and studying critical religion at Stirling University. This led her to make a career change. This significant content seemed to be of no interest to the chairperson or to any of the other speakers, despite the lavish praise and the mutual love-in and prize-winning ceremony at the end.

True, I am more on the academic side of the topic of ‘religion’, but, as a result of the urging of others, I imagined that this might be a forum where I could learn something and perhaps also make some useful connections between what we do in critical religion at Stirling and ideas about how RE in schools might be rethought to give it critical relevance. However I cannot in all honesty say that anything at all was advanced by this event – from my own perspective at least – and indeed it may have done some damage. I feel disappointed at the way this debate was staged and conducted.

Sarah received loud applause when she went to the podium to speak, yet none of the organisers or other speakers seemed alerted by this that a sizeable number of undergraduates, and several postgraduates and lecturers were present, or that we might have anything worthy to contribute. Two lecturers in particular – Alison Jasper and John I’Anson, have published interesting contributions to the topic of RE, but these do not seem to have been mentioned.

You cannot have everyone on a panel, and the organisers have the right to choose who they want to be there. Yet neither Alison nor John were acknowledged from the platform and nor were the rest of us from the Stirling religion subject area. The many religion students and lecturers in the audience seemed to be invisible and inaudible to those up on the platform and to those of the organisers who were sitting in the front row. I felt that I was intruding into someone else’s private assembly, and I began to wonder why my wife and I were there, and why I had urged my students and postgraduates to attend – some coming from as far away as St Andrews and Edinburgh.

Some people may now want to organise a counter-debate, preferable led by a combination of current RE teachers in schools and critical religion students at Stirling, especially those who, like Sarah, intend – or intended – to teach RE in school. Yes, we need all the constituencies to participate. It seems potentially more creative to try to bring the academic subject area and the school curriculum into some kind of direct, creative tension. After all, that is exactly what Sarah Clark was talking about: the dissonance between the two.

I believe and hope that what we do successfully in the religion subject area at Stirling is to deconstruct the empty and confused rhetoric around religion and secularity, and show how it serves wider power agendas that tend to remain half-hidden in the background. But I recognise the need for caution. I suspect that many teachers and parents, whose legitimate concerns are with the actualities of the school curriculum, will be puzzled by how we proceed, and slow to recognise the relevance of deconstructing discourses on religion. It would be unhelpful if the ‘lively discussion’ split into a false assumed dichotomy of realists and idealists – the idealists being those supposedly privileged academics like myself who live and teach abstractions that have no bearing on the supposed realities, and the realists being the teachers who do the immensely difficult job working within the externally imposed realities of the curriculum. This is, I believe, yet another of those either-or binaries that keep us stupefied and ensure that nothing new can be thought. I would not go cold into that forum. It needs to be prepared. A space could be made for what we do at Stirling, even if it is only trying to clear the conceptual rubble so evident that evening.

This article, with additional links, is available here

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© Timothy Fitzgerald is is Reader of Religion at the University of Sheffield


This article is one of a continuous series appearing on Ekklesia through our association with the Critical Religion Association (CRA), developed out of the University of Stirling Critical Religion Research Group. CRA is bringing together academics from a wide range of backgrounds to explore the way 'religion' is employed as a a marker, construct and category in public and intellectual discourse. You can also follow Critical Religion on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CriticoReligio (@CriticoReligio).

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