At the end of Cinderella, her sisters attempt to fit their feet into their stepsister’s shoe – in order to pass as her and marry the Prince. Obviously, not being as beautiful as Cinderella, their feet, as per the beauty standards of the time, were larger. So, one cut of her toe and the other sliced a part of her heel off. Each one fits and fools the Prince for a moment before the blood gives their game away. Much the same way, the Commission on Religious Education has fit RE into the shoe of contemporary British society. Some are happy that the shoe fits, while others can see signs of bleeding.
A two-year investigation into the state of Religious Education (RE) in British schools has finally concluded its findings and, not surprisingly, it is recommending a reduced amount of Religion in order for the subject to fit into a world rich with “belief diversity”. Religious studies must become Religion and Worldviews, hereby equating all institutional worldviews such as atheism and humanism; the study of religion must change as the world changes.
The study seems to claim that the point of RE is to prepare students to tackle with controversial issues that are so prominent around them, to equip them to navigate those. To help students understand the role of religion in human lives. The Commission’s report is also for the most part focused on conflict, controversy and politics. There seems to be no real difference between the new Religion and Worldviews and that of say Sociology.
Nevertheless, this is all great and could be worthwhile within a larger subject of Religious Education where children are taught to understand the potential role of Religion in their own daily lives, and the role it plays in others’ lives. But as a central part of the reasoning behind the study of RE it seems misleading.
The primary aim of religion is to link human lives to the Eternal, to Being itself, to the sphere beyond the worldly. This is why understanding ‘religion’ as something that fits fully within the German word “weltanschauung” as the report claims, is to cut it off from its most fundamental aspect: revelation.
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth spoke about the relationship between Christianity and a world view directly, warning of a specific link between a particular Weltanschauung and Christian faith. In his Dogmatics in Outline, he writes,
“It is not the business of Holy Scripture or of Christian faith…to represent a definite world-picture. The Christian faith is bound neither to an old nor to a modern world-picture […] The Church must beware of establishing itself on the basis of any sort of Weltanschauung.”
The issue goes beyond simple semantics. A relationship with the divine as a direction of life is fundamentally a spiritual one, non-worldly, extra-human – as we strive towards that which is eternal. Worldviews change, as Barth learned in Germany in the 1930s, and religion must be above all of it. It must do so by definition, to remain a bridge to the divine, but also because he saw the dangers of a religion attempting to conform to societal trends in Germany at the time.
The revelatory aspect of religion, its fundamental role as a bridge between the worldly and the divine, is therefore only understood as a detail of some worldviews. In this way, within the Islamic or Jewish worldview, the laws of our lives on earth are set by divine revelation. As it all takes place within the Weltanschauung concept, any revelatory law is a limitation. The humanist lives in an open worldview, roaming freely as she decides on where to go and what to do, only limited by societal norms. The religious person is on the contrary never free, as their worldview is limited within the scope of their chosen religious “worldview”.
It isn’t, as it should be, taught that the humanist worldview is one where the central issue is the bridge between the human and the world, namely desire. Desire and want is how we link to the world around us. The religious view is here a liberated one, at least if we conceptualise it as I have here, where we hold on to the Rope of God, Love, Being itself, while we navigate through the world of desire towards a higher goal. We work on ourselves to become free from desire, not centre our lives around it.
The Commission’s recommendations are therefore false, essentially bound in the idea that religion is in its essence a way to understand our lives on earth – and therefore it must include all major ways to understand our lives on earth. From the outset, the understanding of religion limits it to fit into the mould of Humanism/Atheism. This is why the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BDBJ) stated that the report was “fundamentally flawed’. It isn’t because the recommendations are not going far enough, or that there are better ways to move RE forwards to make it more meaningful – but that the very essence of the report, the way it characterises religion is false. “Faith Literacy” as BDBJ calls it, is indeed seriously deficient in our society today, and any serious faith based organisation must make a similar statement against it.
It isn’t just that this is yet another opportunity lost, an opportunity to provide direction for children, to allow them to ask difficult questions about the meaning of life, the relationship between all things, the source if existence itself. The biggest danger here is that Religion and Worldviews consolidates a view of religion already prevalent in the media and society at large – that all things are equal, there is no absolute Truth, there is only diversity – everything is God to someone. La illaha illallah, the first proclamation by a Muslim, means that there is no God but God, that there is no real being but Being itself: there is no diversity, only Unity. All major religions share in this view – and the report’s recommendations reverse that statement. Religion and Worldviews might therefore seem as a move towards a more pluralistic understanding of RE, but is instead one which cuts off vital organs to fit in with contemporary trends: and those who see the bleeding must say so.