Even RE teachers who acknowledge the relativistic bias of their subject are often happy to defend it.
Some say that first, the students are not interested in learning about religious traditions in their own right, and second, they consider such teaching to be tantamount to preaching – which is, of course, a dirty word. After all, who might dare to tell them what to think, when they have been told from the outset that they themselves as individuals are the sole arbiters of truth? The fact that they accept this teaching without question or criticism goes unremarked.
So, I am told, they switch off.
Yet, we might ask: how many teenagers are really interested in Shakespeare, photosynthesis, trigonometry or the Second World War?
We persist in teaching them nonetheless. In subject areas other than Religious Studies and PSHE, it would be unthinkable to define the syllabus purely according to student interest. The way in which we choose to teach any subject and the content we choose to include in it are both subject to value judgments.
Even the belief in objectivity and neutrality is itself a truth-claim with a particular, value-laden tradition being it:
The belief that there are objective values on which any rational being can agree, is itself rooted in a particular tradition – the tradition of European, and particularly British Liberalism. Instead of searching for an objective set of virtues beyond any one religious or moral system, we could begin from the particularity of religious and moral systems. – The Fruit of the Spirit, Church of England Education Office, p.12
The objection that teaching religious doctrine is tantamount to preaching is a delusion because relativism is itself a position which is being preached at the pupils both by word and example, especially when Religious Studies teachers feign agnosticism as a supposedly neutral position. When we teach religions in dribs and drabs, with no overarching narratives behind them, and posit them as arbitrary and relative truth-claims, we are making a surreptitious truth-claim of our own: that we inhabit a vantage point from which we can objectively view and judge those religions.
The dogma of tolerance, enshrined in the vacuous litany of British Values, dictates that all positions must be respected regardless of their intellectual merit. That this is itself an arbitrary position, enforced not by persuasion but by coercion, is unacknowledged. And this is the one and only intellectual tradition which cannot be challenged – because it is not even acknowledged as an intellectual tradition. It is simply to be accepted, dogmatically, as the one incontrovertible truth.
Part of the problem of Religious Studies which leads teachers into this sort of quandary is methodological. The sociological study of religions, as opposed to the intra-traditional study of theology, is based on the assumption of a secular orthodoxy by which religions are judged and from which they are ultimately condemned as deviations, arbitrary personal decisions not to conform: or, to use the familiar Greek word for ‘choices,’ heresies.
Yet in strictly historical terms, the opposite is true. From ancient Judaism sprung the sect we now call Christianity, and six centuries later, Jewish and heterodox Christian movements were midwives to Islam. From the perspectives of their sire, both Christianity and Islam are heresies. Each of these titanic offspring ultimately outgrew and overthrew their parents, establishing their own orthodoxies within their geographical domains. And yet, in historical terms, each are “heresies” from what came before.
Secularism did not come from nowhere. It most certainly did not pre-exist religions, and whilst it seems intent on patricide – or at least shuffling its embarrassing parents off to a rest home where they can rave at one another and be forgotten by the young – it too must own up to its place in the genealogy of ideas. And the fact is that it was born not in Arabia or China or Africa, but in Europe: Christian, post-Reformation Europe, at that. In the history of ideas, secularism is a “heresy” from Christianity.
I am not using the word “heresy” to make a value judgment here. An orthodox Christian is, in a sense, a Jewish heretic. Yet it seems to me that there is something of a rapprochement nowadays between Jews and Christians, more of a sense of filial piety developing as Christians discover hidden depths of their own faith in that of their parent. It has, admittedly, taken the horror of the Holocaust for Christians to admit our culpability and seek understanding.
And yet, despite the horrors of the French Revolution and of systematic state atheism imposed under Communist regimes, the tens of millions executed for dissent (many of them for daring to cling to the Christian faith), secular modernism has made little attempt even to acknowledge, let alone understand, its sire.
For the Church and its schools, it is important to recognise that the very secularist assumptions on which so much Religious Studies teaching is based are not merely indifferent, and certainly not neutral, but actively hostile to any religious orthodoxy.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.