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Teaching religious education

Watch humanist RE teacher Neil McKain explain why he thinks the subject is important
I find religion fascinating. So even though I’m not religious myself, I think it’s possibly the most interesting thing that you can learn about, think critically about, and understand. I enjoy teaching the sort of broad spectrum of the variety of religious faith that exists and has existed in the world but also the different perspectives that you can study those beliefs from, so the theologies and the philosophies and the ethics of various religions but equally the histories and how those histories have shaped our ways of thinking today in the modern world and also, sociologically, how religious diversity and the different religious narratives that exist across the world today, how they impact on global politics and people’s lives.
I think, whether you are religious or not, understanding religion is vital to be a good citizen in the 21st century. If we look at what’s going on in the world at the moment in terms of conflict in the Middle East or climate change or whatever the pressing issues might be, there are religious elements to all of those, all of those issues. And I think if you want to be a fully functioning, successful member of society, a global citizen, then you need to understand religion.
I think from from a humanist perspective good RE would be pluralistic, it would be critical, it would be dialogical, in that it would ask questions and it would discuss the responses to those questions. There are some facts that we that we have to teach; there are certain events that have happened in history that are factual. But a lot of the content that we study is surrounding belief, and I think some kind of dialogue that allows those beliefs to be explored critically is what makes good RE.
I think the steps that we need to take to make sure that RE is sort of fit for purpose in the in the 21st century, that is going to send young people out into the world as sort of global citizens who are religiously literate, is an RE that is pluralistic - that gives them knowledge - but also allows them to engage critically with the knowledge that they have, that allows them to not just learn the RE that their local community decide thanks to the vagaries of the of the law that governs the subjects, but a law that we can as experts and teachers agree upon that is national and that is outward looking in terms of its global face and therefore would allow those young people to go out and live and interact with people in the world and understands the plurality and the diversity of belief in the world.
I think humanism certainly has a place with within RE, I think the humanist sort of definition that this is a positive philosophy, a positive way of life and finding meaning in the universe without the need for the supernatural, without a need for for god. I think, if we look at the recent social attitudes data that’s come out recently I think it’s 74% of 17 to 24 year-olds identify as being non-religious. And to help those students who might not understand where their ideas have come from or who has shaped those sort of non-theistic ideas that they might be having, we need to have an education that gives them the mental historical, philosophical framework to position themselves.
I think those people who claim that religion has no place in schools and that religion shouldn’t be taught in schools are really not understanding the argument. Now there might be valid arguments to say that we shouldn’t have compulsory Christian collective worship in schools, for instance, and I would probably agree with that. But I think religion, to be studied critically, to be studied academically, alongside history, geography and art, and English, is a subject that enriches students lives, it enriches students understanding. Teachers do not take a a proselytising approach. Good RE teachers will take a critical and an objective approach to the teaching of the subject. And that’s why, I said, I
would say to that person who’s cynical about it: ‘Come and see good RE being taught in schools.’

Neil McKain is Head of Religious Studies at Pipers Corner School in Buckinghamshire. He is member of the Executive of the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE).

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Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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