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No such thing as a view from nowhere: how ‘worldviews’ can revitalise RE for another generation

No such thing as a view from nowhere: how ‘worldviews’ can revitalise RE for another generation

In this blog Elizabeth Oldfield introduces our latest report ‘Worldviews in Religious Education’. 21/10/2020

There is no such thing as a view from nowhere, a completely neutral and objective way of understanding the world. Across the cognitive sciences, education research and religious and non–religious belief systems there is a surprising amount of agreement on this. We are not data crunching reason machines, but experience the world through the lens of our past, our communities, and our deep values. The idea of ‘worldview’ seeks to encapsulate this and is welcomed by a range of perspectives, from Christian apologists to secular humanist thinkers as a way of navigating our differences.

A new report released by Theos this week argues that understanding our own and others’ worldviews can help build empathy, self–awareness and understanding in our increasingly diverse societies. It concludes that putting worldview at the heart of Religious Education in schools is an effective way to embed this practice in society, as well as being good for the subject itself.

Because RE is in trouble. Despite pockets of real excellence and a motivated and informed teaching community, it is less popular with pupils than other subjects according to pupil surveys, and has often been overlooked by government. It could be one of the most compelling and socially meaningful segments of the school day, helping pupils grow as citizens equipped for the world as it is now – and in many schools, it already is. But sadly it has more often been side–lined, not least as a result of various different policy shifts, including its exclusion from the English Baccalaureate (a school performance indicator) which has led to many schools treating it as insignificant. The subject needs reform to help it retain, or regain, its relevance and better serve pupils (and, through them, wider society). There is growing consensus among many in the RE community that this requires a shift from the current “world religions” information–based paradigm to a focus on worldviews, which means a more nuanced study of the lived experiences of people of different religions and beliefs. 

This report was prepared for us by three experts in RE, Trevor Cooling, Robert Bowie and Farid Panjwani. It builds on the work of the Commission on RE, a landmark initiative which made major recommendations for reforming the subject in 2018, including refocusing on worldviews.

The report responds to three particular criticisms of the proposed paradigm change: 

1. That changing the focus to worldviews introduces non–religious subject matter, diluting the proper attention that should be given to religions;

2. That the concept of worldviews is confused and unhelpful;

3. That a focus on worldview means the moments of spiritual opportunity for pupils will be lost. 

In response to these objections, the report authors argue:

1. That the worldview proposal should not be seen as a focus on the content to be taught, but as a way of framing how that content is introduced to the students. Greater knowledge of religions would still be a key aim of the subject;

2. That in order to understand the worldviews being taught, the focus should not be so much on the institutional version as on the lived experience of adherents;

3. That the notion of personal worldview, with its emphasis on the heart as well as the head, needs to be central to this new approach to RE, and would equip students with a richer and more accurate understanding of how humans work. 

We at Theos have long argued that there is no such thing as a neutral perspective on society, or a neutral education (see our previous report, Doing God in Education, 2010). For too long religious beliefs have been seen as the exception, a strange set of values that make you see the world askew. The developing understanding that everyone (whether religious or not) has a personal worldview, and many also have an organised worldview, justly levels the ground, opening up space for healthier conversations across difference. Young people need to learn to interrogate the default secular assumptions of society as much as the assumptions of religious traditions, and the worldview approach would encourage this. We believe this proposed change in the subject is not something to be feared by religious communities afraid of “losing space” on the curriculum, but welcomed as a better way forward for us all.

You can download ‘Worldviews in Religious Education’ here.


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 Image: Juriah Mosin/shutterstock.com

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is Theos’ Director. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

Posted 21 October 2020

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