Why religious education has an important role to play in our society

Opinion: ‘The suggestion that time might be taken from RE in order to increase the focus on literacy, numeracy, science or IT is educationally inappropriate’

‘At primary level, RE provides a place in the younger child’s day to reflect on belonging and being cherished within a community of religious faith or other belief system.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘At primary level, RE provides a place in the younger child’s day to reflect on belonging and being cherished within a community of religious faith or other belief system.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 00:01

The current critique of denominational education, and of denominational religious education in particular, risks undermining the place of this core subject in all schools, just at a moment when deeper reflection on religion, belief, spirituality and ethics could contribute enormously to the emergence of a society that seeks to embrace difference and is comfortable to celebrate the presence of a variety of religious and other belief systems.

This, of course, means respecting the beliefs of those of the majority religious tradition, too, and seeking to contribute to the religious and spiritual literacy of all young people and of adults.

Some recent commentary appears to indicate a lack of knowledge of, or perhaps interest in, the transformation of religious education (RE) after the renewal of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and since. It has changed from a wholly content-focused subject to a student-focused one; from learning off questions and answers to discussion of personal experience and response; and from difference being defined denominationally within the Christian tradition, to an acknowledgment of the variety of people in Irish society today and respect for the diversity of their religions and beliefs.

RE in schools contributes not only to the personal reflection and development of young people, but should also heighten respect for the beliefs of the other and help build a diverse but cohesive society. To neglect RE is to neglect the future.

The suggestion that time might be taken from RE in order to increase the focus on literacy, numeracy, science or IT is educationally inappropriate. The debate in the 1990s, during the preparation of the Education Act, 1998, emphasised in the first instance the importance of preparing young people for the jobs market and for strengthening the nation’s economy.

Reflection on this important but limited understanding of the person led to confirmation of the need for a holistic approach to education that values and seeks to educate the whole person “. . . for personal and home life, for working life, for living in the community and for leisure” (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment: general definition of education).

Freedom of conscience

RE contributes significantly, indeed uniquely, to the education of the whole person. Defined in a way that is appropriate for the young person’s age and stage of development, good RE honours the freedom of conscience of the young person while revering their family faith and/or belief traditions and expectations. This requires a high level of training among teachers.

At primary level, RE provides a place in the younger child’s day to reflect on belonging and being cherished within a community of religious faith or other belief system.

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