Schools mustn’t stop teaching other religions

With talk in the air that the new education secretary will deregulate faith schools, Charlotte Avery makes her plea for the place of comparative religion

It was suggested this week that the new education secretary Damian Hinds plans to remove the 50-per-cent cap on pupils of the same religion being admitted to faith schools.

This comes hot on the heels of a revelation by Schools Week that increasing numbers of pupils are being entered for the iGCSE in religious studies, which allows them to learn just one religion – in spite of government rules that require RS GCSEs to include two religions.

The danger here is that an increasing number of faith schools will choose to teach only one religion – as has already been reported. You would think that religious communities would be perfectly placed to understand first-hand why it is beneficial for others to have a basic understanding of their beliefs, practices and wider cultural norms, for the sake of living peacefully side by side.

Schools need to uphold an attitude of learning about and respecting other people’s cultures, if they are to expect or assume the same treatment in return.

Learning about multiple religions can only be a positive experience for young people

Most religious people believe that their religion has something positive to offer, and recognise that this is a two-way street.

In the UK we are perhaps more likely to hear the Christian narrative than others, so if anything, Christian schools should be conscious of teaching their students about the other major world religions as they are less likely to be understood by osmosis.

Beyond the three Abrahamic religions, there is yet more to learn.

Buddhists believe they must “not to do any evil, cultivate good, purify one’s heart”, and Buddha told his followers not to believe without questioning – definitely an attitude to be encouraged. Hindus believe that every action has an effect, and there is a cause for everything, and Sikhs believe that everyone is equal before God, and that a good life is lived as part of a community, through service of others and living honestly.

While I don’t advocate that an individual can sincerely take on a number of different religions, what I do believe is that people who wholeheartedly subscribe to any major religion do it because something has struck a chord – whether it makes logical sense to them, or it simply feels right.

Regardless, there are so many positive takeaways from each that even as a personal pursuit, learning about multiple religions can only be a positive experience for young people as they consider pertinent questions about life.

Learning about the “other” is important because it removes potential barriers in society.

Various projects encouraging inter-religious dialogue in the UK over the past couple of decades have found that, while discussing different theologies and traditions is important, the real gift of interfaith encounter comes when different communities join together in a common response to community, charitable, social, or political needs. This was seen powerfully recently in the joint response of religious community groups to the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

It should go without saying that I do, of course, recognise that there are also many wise and selfless individuals who don’t have a personal faith, and who still have much to share with us all about how to live well. Equally there are many individuals who don’t live up to the ideals of their faith traditions.

Studying religion lets students to explore what it means to be human, their place in the world, how to live a good and happy life, how to contribute to society positively.

It fosters respect for other people and encourages them to think more deeply, behave morally and develop good judgement. I think it should be a priority for all of us in 2018 to support the government’s ruling that all children should have the opportunity to learn about at least two religions, so that as a society we become better informed about our neighbours’ cultural practices and ideologies, which are so often entwined with their religious beliefs.

Charlotte Avery is headmistress of St Mary’s School in Cambridge

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