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The Multifaith Society: problem or opportunity?
Derek Gillard
August 1991

copyright Derek Gillard 2001
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Does the presence of a variety of religions in a modern society present a problem or an opportunity for religious education? If we take Britain today to be 'a modern society', how do we perceive it in terms of its religious allegiances, beliefs and values? Edwin Cox was clear that:

in Britain, owing to immigration and cultural change, we have a multiplicity of religions and of non-religious faiths. Some are Christians in the old church-going style. Others have a kind of residual Christianity or folk faith ... In addition there are those who think all religious beliefs are non-scientific and superstitious and that we should all adopt more rationalist ideologies; these are the Humanists, the scientific determinists, the Communists and the like. A large part of the population, one suspects, does not belong to any of these categories, being agnostic ... To these we must add, to make the mixture abundant in its rich variety, those immigrant faiths which have come among us, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Baha'i, and others, and those fringe cults that attract the young for a while, forms of Zen, the Jesus cults, scientology, followers of Sun Myung Moon, astrology, the occasional mysticism and others similar. (Cox 1983:117)
There is no doubt, then, that Britain contains an enormous diversity of religious, sub-religious and non-religious stances. The situation, especially as it relates to religious education, is still more complex, however, because of the very different natures of these belief systems. So the problem for educators, in my view, is not that Britain contains a wide diversity of religious traditions, but that some aspects of those traditions preclude, or at least make more difficult, the possibility of dialogue.

This difficulty is even more pronounced if one includes nonreligious life stances in the picture. And it would be unfair not to do so, for there is little doubt that they represent the outlook of many in this country. Cox (and others) have spoken of our society as secular as well as pluralist. Empiricism and materialism rule OK!

Set against this almost infinitely broad backdrop of our society is the attitude of our government. Owen Cole argues that government ministers and employers support Christian religious education 'because they think it will preserve moral standards and traditional values' and that this effectively means that teachers 'are being invited to suggest that only Christians care, that Muslims or Jews are lazy, devious and unreliable ... that Sikhs or Hindus ... are lacking in moral fibre' (Cole 1983:167). This may be regarded as a rather extreme view, though there is little doubt that the thinking (what there is of it) behind the religious education clauses of the 1988 Act was that somehow, teaching pupils about Christianity would make for a more 'moral' society.

Given this societal background, what do we mean by 'religious education'? Just as its name has changed over the years, so has its rationale. It was inevitable that religious education should be seen at first as an opportunity to proselytise, given that most educational institutions were founded by the Church.

Every school subject is an expression of an intention on the part of the educating society. If the church is conceived of as having the right to educate, and as being the educating society, religious education is likely to take a form different from that which it will assume when it is granted that the State has the right to educate and that, in a democracy, society as a whole is the educator. (Hull 1982:95)
I have rehearsed the history of the changing aims of religious education elsewhere (Gillard 1991). For the purposes of this paper it will suffice it to note that the aim of the Cambridgeshire Syllabus of 1949 was 'to lead children to an experience of God, his Church, and his Word, an experience based on worship, fellowship and service' and that, as late as 1964, the Lincolnshire Syllabus could proclaim that it was 'deliberately designed as an evangelistic influence ... the aim is to lead pupils to a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ.' The first major change came in the mid-seventies and is demonstrated by the Birmingham Syllabus, whose aim was 'to enlarge pupils' understanding of religion by studying world religions and by exploring all those elements in human experience which raise questions about life's ultimate meaning and value.'

This fundamental change in the aims of religious education came about as the result of a whole series of causes, including research on child development (Piaget, Bruner etc), changing attitudes and philosophies in education generally (the Plowden Report etc), the work of Goldman, the 'new theology' of Honest to God, immigration, and a developing perception of the nature of society.

So how would one define 'religious education' today? As long ago as 1970 the Durham Report, The fourth R, commissioned by the Church of England Board of Education and the National Society, suggested that the religious education teacher should be 'seeking rather to initiate his pupils into knowledge which he encourages them to explore and appreciate, than into a system of belief which he requires them to accept' (Durham 1970:103). The Report did, however, take the view that RE should be based largely on Christianity.

Owen Cole regarded the traditional religious education lesson as 'an embarrassment to the humanist or agnostic teacher or pupil' and said that failure to include certain religions in a syllabus might 'prompt children to conclude that the religions neglected ... are not worth knowing about' (Cole 1983:86).

Edwin Cox has suggested that a 'religiously educated person' would demonstrate four principal characteristics:

  • s/he would have 'acquired certain information about religion';
  • would have 'some appreciation of the function of religion in the lives of individuals and in the ordering of society';
  • would be able 'to make informed and discriminating decisions, based on conscious criteria, about religious beliefs and religious practices';
  • would be 'conscious of what he himself believes, the reasons for those beliefs, and their effect on his choices and actions' (Cox 1983:119-120).
Such a person would have 'the capacity to understand and to judge critically, rather than an abundance of knowledge about, or an inclination to accept, beliefs' (Cox 1983:120).

For Cox, religious education is not to be thought of as 'giving pupils religious certainties but as helping them to act responsibly in an age of religious uncertainty' (Cox 1983:31).

The essential feature of most current Agreed Syllabuses is that they define religious education in terms 'of skills in understanding religions, of appreciating what different people believe and how their beliefs are expressed in their behaviour and life styles, of ability to use religious language and of awareness of one's own beliefs and commitments' (Cox 1983:38).

In the post-phenomenological era, then, religious education 'should be a struggle to enable an open communication between religious traditions and between these and non-religious traditions in classroom situations' (Hardy 1979:117).

Having looked at what we might mean by 'a modern society' and, having offered a summary of how religious education is currently being defined, I now turn to the question of whether the presence of a variety of religions is a problem or an opportunity. Clearly, if one were to accept earlier definitions of religious education, the answer would most certainly be 'a problem', but, given that the above is a reasonable summary of what religious education is about today, I think the answer has to be that it can be both, though I should prefer the word 'challenge' rather than 'problem'.

The first challenge is one I have already mentioned, that the different traditions have elements within them which can make dialogue difficult:

In one way, the presence of non-Christian religions in Britain has brought a new problem for religious education. Whereas the Christian denominations had ceased to view the teaching of religion in schools as an attempt to convert children to their particular point of view ... certain immigrant communities see it as teaching their faith to their children. (Cox 1983:25)
Furthermore, the western religions 'tend to have a strong authoritarian element. Their doctrines are frequently claimed to be derived, not from reflections on experience, but from a revelation from a deity, which is self-authenticating and does not need to be verified empirically' (Cox 1983:17). This sets these religions apart from some others and poses problems for teachers committed to an inductive theory of education:
These skills and attitudes (fairmindedness, willingness to observe non-judgementally, respect etc) may be particularly difficult for people from semitic cultural backgrounds to acquire. They seem to have an inbuilt inclination to regard things as right or wrong, good or bad, whereas those from Indian backgrounds seem more prepared to acknowledge the validity of beliefs and practices other than their own. (Cole 1983:82)
Newbigin suggests that 'to include the Qu'ran as simply one among the many religious books of mankind is to deny Islam' (Newbigin 1977:98) and Lawrence Stenhouse sums up this challenge in discussing a shared culture:
we face difficulties in applying the concept of culture to our society because it is pluralist, that is to say, it contains many different and often logically incompatible traditions. (Stenhouse 1975:7)
There was an interesting example of this in Ealing while I was working there: a school in Southall, which was very committed to working towards good equal opportunities practice, was trapped between its commitment to promoting the rights of girls and its equal commitment to cultural and religious groups. These included a large number of Muslims who did not approve of the former commitment.

Edwin Cox is rather pessimistic, it seems to me, when he writes that:

it is of the essence of a pluralist society that it has a wide variety of beliefs, some of them conflicting ... it is difficult to define the belief system of a pluralist society (apart from saying that it believes in pluralism) or to see how it can influence the curriculum of schools in that society. (Cox 1986:90)
He goes on to ask:
'can we do more than encourage pupils to explore the multiplicity of faiths extant and to be critical of them? Will such study lead to anything more than relativism and cynicism about all beliefs?' (Cox 1986:90)
The answer to these questions is 'Yes': relativism and cynicism were charges levelled at the phenomenological approach, the so-called 'Cook's Tour' of world religions. Religious education today is about more than this, as we have seen. And it must be so, for, as Denis Lawton has pointed out:
it is precisely because there are differences within the society between families and other social groups that there needs to be a common system of beliefs worked out which can be transmitted on a consensus basis via the school curriculum. (Lawton 1983:60)
The challenge here is that, 'in a complex and contradictory society such as England, education needs very careful planning if it is to help society survive' (Lawton 1983:52).

Further challenges are posed by the presence of secular and humanist philosophies. But again, as we have seen, an adequate rationale for religious education will take account of these stances. More problematic, perhaps, is the nature of the twentieth-century mind in terms of empiricism and materialism. Edwin Cox has suggested that:

'the twentieth century mind, with its preoccupation with an empirical and materialistic world view, has reservations about "spiritual" ideas and difficulties in grasping what religions say about them. These reservations and difficulties are not removed by examining many religions rather than one' (Cox 1983:24)
The 'scientific method' appears to be almost universally accepted in our day as being capable of revealing 'a superior kind of truth ... most of us feel more secure when thinking in terms of the testable and the demonstrable' (Cox 1983:74).

An important practical challenge is that of the teacher's understanding of faiths other than his/her own. 'Any religion is deeply embedded in the culture from which it springs and an understanding of it requires an equivalent understanding of that culture' (Cox 1983:24). Not just to know about, but to understand, a number of major religions is asking a lot of any teacher. To expect an equivalent understanding of the cultures which gave birth to those religions is asking considerably more.

Furthermore, there is 'the difficulty of teaching about a religion with which one is only externally acquainted' (Cox 1983:24). As a Report of the British Council of Churches' Education Department in the West Riding put it in 1969: 'Many teachers, quite apart from personal convictions, consider themselves ill-equipped for such a demanding task.' Is it too optimistic to suggest that, nearly a quarter of a century later, this situation is being tackled by the colleges of education and other teacher trainers?

The mention of personal conviction leads us on to another challenge. The practice of using Christianity as a stick with which to beat other faiths is, hopefully, a thing of the past, but there is no doubt that:

it is difficult to avoid unconsciously assessing a religion one does not hold by the criterion of its approximation to one's own and to prevent this assessment influencing one's presentation of it. (Cox 1983:24)
Many teachers of religious education are - hopefully - people with an interest in the subject. In the past, 'the majority of them were probably inspired by evangelising zeal' (Cox 1983:54). However, with more recent developments in the aims and content of religious education, with 'its study of many world faiths and its phobias about indoctrination and about lack of respect for pupils' autonomy, there has been a tendency to think evangelising zeal not only unnecessary, but a distinct handicap' (Cox 1983:54).

On the other hand, if understanding a religion requires experience of it, then 'genuine religious commitment at some time is a prerequisite for the religious education teacher' (Cox 1983:55). There is clearly a dilemma here: on the one hand, the teacher

has to be acquainted with a religion, and know the meaning of faith and the feeling of belonging to a religious body; on the other hand he has to teach with an openness which too firm an attachment to religion can make difficult. (Cox 1983:55)
Lawrence Stenhouse's view is that 'Prophets may teach private wisdom: teachers must deal in public knowledge' (Stenhouse 1975:6).

This challenge of the teacher's personal commitment leads us on to another important consideration for multifaith religious education, and that is how it presents the variety of religions. As Owen Cole puts it:

'Open-ended RE would seem to imply that all faiths are equally valid. Can the Christian teacher really accept such an implication, or must he insist on the uniqueness (and superiority) of Christianity? If Christianity is not the truth then why does he remain a Christian?' (Cole 1983:98)
Cole goes on to suggest that, unless s/he 'is prepared to accept with Toynbee "that in some measure all the higher religions are also revelations of what is true and right; they also come from God and each presents some facet of God's truth" then the Christian teacher is in real difficulty' (Cole 1983:98). On the other hand, Daniel Hardy warns of the danger of turning 'religious truth into a religious truth-claim (Hardy 1979:110).

A possible answer to this problem may be found in the writings of William Ernest Hocking, an American Methodist layman, who suggested that there were three approaches to other faiths. He called the first 'radical displacement', which stated simply that one religion was right and the others wrong; and the second 'synthesis' which involved watering down a faith until it was virtually unrecognisable. The only acceptable approach, he suggested, was 'reconception', which he defined as:

a process by which every religion understands itself at a deeper level through contact with other religions, conserving what is best in them and developing into a deeper and wider conception of religion. (quoted in Cole 1983:99)
Whatever happens, we must recognise 'the crucial role that evaluating religious beliefs and values plays in any process directed towards encouraging pupils to use religious insights in the interpretation of their own experiences' (Grimmitt 1987:224-5). There is an important distinction to be drawn between learning about religions and learning from them.

In the end, the fact is that no one can be totally uncommitted and no syllabus can be totally neutral. The teacher

should not be asked to pretend that he is above all commitments, that he has a stance above all stances from which he can "critically" assess them all. What will ultimately be communicated to the pupils is the commitment of the teacher, and therefore this must be open and explicit. Only so will it be open for criticism and revision in the light of rational discussion. (Newbigin 1977:108)
And a syllabus which claims to be neutral is, in fact, taking a stance of its own. 'All knowing is an activity which is part of a commitment to some way of valuing things' (Newbigin 1977:102).

Many of these challenges offer opportunities for religious education in a society containing a variety of religious traditions. But there are other opportunities, too.

Edwin Cox suggests that religious education can bridge 'the chasm between pupils' experiences and questions about commitment and the way in which religions are normally expressed and taught' (Cox 1983:53). Education 'involves helping pupils to cope with the environment in which they live and in a pluralistic situation that means helping them to cope with religions and belief systems other than their own' (Cox 1983:119).

Owen Cole recommends a multifaith approach as a way of avoiding 'triumphalist Christian missionary approaches' (Cole 1983:87). And Jo Cairns argues that, in the years following the 1944 Act, 'the education system failed the newly emerging culture by not allowing its values to become conscious and to be expressed and celebrated. Had those opportunities been taken there might have arisen an educated post-Christian democracy' (Cox and Cairns 1989:12).

To those who fear that the multifaith approach diminishes Christianity, John Hull suggests that 'Christianity is often being tackled in a much richer and fuller way in the context of world religions than in the days when ... it was mainly confined to the study of Christian origins without much reference to Christian faith today' (Hull 1982:96).

The ultimate opportunity for religious education in a multifaith society, it seems to me, is its potential for helping people to live together: 'The aim of living together harmoniously requires that we do not see the proximity of different cultures as a threat to the identity of either, but as an opportunity for the enrichment of our horizons and experience' (Lahnemann 1985:123).

Perhaps the real question to be asked is, should state schools provide religious education at all? But that is a subject for another day ...

  • For a more recent account of my views on religious education see my article Time to Rethink Religious Education? (2000).

    References

    Cole WO (ed) (1983) Religion in the multi-faith school Amersham: Hulton Educational

    Cox E (1983) Problems and possibilities for religious education London: Hodder and Stoughton

    Cox E (1986) 'The belief system' in D Lawton (ed) (1986) School curriculum planning London: Hodder and Stoughton 87-98

    Cox E and Cairns JM (1989) Reforming religious education London: Bedford Way Papers/Kogan Page

    Durham (1970) The fourth R The Report of the Commission on Religious Education in Schools London: National Society/SPCK

    Gillard D (1991) Agreed Syllabuses 1944-1988: Changing aims - changing content?

    Grimmitt M (1987) Religious education and human development Great Wakering: McCrimmons

    Hardy D (1979) 'Truth in religious education: further reflections on the implications of pluralism' in J Hull (ed) (1982) New directions in religious education London: The Falmer Press 109-118

    Hull J (ed) (1982) New directions in religious education London: The Falmer Press

    Lahnemann J (1985) 'On acknowledging religious pluralism in education' in MC Felderhof (ed) (1985) Religious education in a pluralistic society London: Hodder and Stoughton 121-136

    Lawton D (1983) Curriculum studies and educational planning London: Hodder and Stoughton

    Lawton D (ed) (1986) School curriculum planning London: Hodder and Stoughton

    Newbigin L (1977) 'Teaching religion in a secular, plural society' Learning for Living 17(2), reprinted in J Hull (ed) (1982) New directions in religious education London: The Falmer Press 97-107

    Stenhouse (1975) An introduction to curriculum research and development London: Heinemann

  • This article is a modified version of an essay submitted in August 1991 as part of my MA in Religious Education course at the University of London Institute of Education.