Religious Education in Schools Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Religious Education in Schools

Lord Parekh Excerpts
Thursday 18th January 2024

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Parekh Portrait Lord Parekh (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank my good friend the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for securing this debate and introducing it with characteristic eloquence. The three minutes I have do not really allow me to say anything significant so I will make three quick points of criticism of religious education as it is practised in our schools.

First, it is not properly thought through or carefully organised; it is taught by teachers who are not properly trained and who do not have sufficient time; and there is no careful planning or organic build-up from one year to the next. That is one simple criticism that I wanted to start with.

The two other criticisms are far more significant. It is not clear why we want to teach religious education. Is it to fill time? Is it to deal with undisciplined children? Is it to placate religious people? Why is religious education part of our curriculum? I do not think that many people who insisted on this have really given it thought.

We have not realised that it is not concerned with being a good citizen. A citizen has no religion; only human beings have. It is concerned with how to make somebody a decent human being so that his humanity inspires citizenship in all that he does and is. We want to teach religious education to give him a better grasp of civilisation, in the composition of which religion has played an important part; to make him a better human being and to get him to appreciate the countless advantages and disadvantages in being religious. Religion has been a force for evil as well as good. We have seen both. When it has been a force for good, it has been concerned with ecological issues, human brotherhood and emphasising human finitude—that human beings cannot be the lords of the universe. They are the sorts of things that religion should be teaching.

The third question is: what is taught? When you say we teach religious education, what is that? Is it teaching religions? What does that mean? Does it mean teaching the history, or the moral values? No, that is morality. What is distinctively religious about religious education? Here, many of us tend to lose sight of the fact that religion is ultimately concerned with spirituality, which is neither moral nor religious. I can be spiritual without having to believe in God—lots of people are. I can be deeply moral without being religious. In other words, spirituality has a distinct space in human life, and religious education should cultivate this and the ability to sensitively appreciate the spiritual aspect of life. Religious education, as we teach it, does not seem to do so.