It’s not the state’s job to encourage critical scrutiny of religion, argues Melissa Lane
What should religious education (RE) aim to do? Consider the following proposition: that the RE syllabus should “focus … on learning how to make informed, rational judgements on the truth or falsity of religious propositions.” I will argue that such an approach to RE is anachronistic, parochial, and dangerous. It misconceives both religion and its place in the state.
The proposal – from a 2004 report by the ippr (Institute for Public Policy Research), What is Religious Education For? – is anachronistic in embodying Enlightenment polemic against early modern states in which religious tests were required and religious power of various kinds enforced. In that past world, in which public power and coercion were used to penalise nonconformity, philosophers and polemicists who challenged people to question the grounds for the orthodoxies which had been intrusively imposed upon them played an important role. They made the culture safe for religious criticism.
Today, however, despite the continued establishment of the Anglican Church, public power in the UK is not used coercively to enforce either orthodoxy or orthopraxy. No religion here enjoys anything like the sweeping civic influence and control of, say, the eighteenth century Scottish Presbyterians, which Hume sought to counter by his skeptical arguments, or of the eighteenth century French Catholic Church which Voltaire sought to undermine by his. Indeed, not even Voltaire and Hume proposed to use state power to impose that sort of challenge on the religious. Their contention was not that the state should teach the questioning of religious beliefs, but rather that state power should be used neither to promote them nor to suppress their being questioned. A proposal of the kind quoted above would distort the Enlightenment heritage in the very act of appropriating it: turning the demand for freedom of religious criticism into a demand for the imposition of religious criticism.
It might be objected that although there is no public religious coercion, private religious coercion remains: children are born into families in which they are indoctrinated into religious beliefs, and so someone has to free them from such indoctrination by teaching them critical assessment of religious claims. Perhaps one should go further, in viewing such freeing as essential if they are to become mature and responsible citizens.
This raises two questions. First, what the nature of religious identification among children (and indeed adults) actually is; second, whether it is the state’s role to challenge such identification. The answers to these two questions constitute also my next two overall points: to suggest that the understanding of religion as belief-indoctrination is parochial; and to argue that the claim that the state should challenge such religious identification among children (however understood) is, in a liberal society, dangerous.
The view of religion as resting on belief in “the truth or falsity of religious propositions”, and on rationally assessable evidence justifying such belief, is indeed parochial, deriving from a narrow self-misunderstanding of the very religion (paradigmatically Protestant Christianity) which it would criticise. It is a misunderstanding, because religion is not belief alone but the complex of belief, practice, and community. These together constitute religious identity in a way which is holistic and constitutive rather than dependent on single pieces of evidence assessable in isolation. To imagine that religious identity rests on isolable pieces of evidence that can be judged true or false is to be blind to the phenomenon of religious belonging.
Admittedly, the primacy of belief and evidence may be not only a misunderstanding of the nature of religion, but also one which is shared by certain forms of religions themselves. A rough generalisation would be that Christianity and Islam are more likely to treat belief as the fundamental basis of religious identity, whereas progressive and even orthodox forms of Judaism, alongside Hinduism, are more likely to treat belonging and observance as primary.
Yet in all these religions, religious identity and identification go in practice beyond and sometimes apart from belief. There are Catholics who reject the belief in the sacredness of all life so as to support abortion, and those who reject the belief in the supremacy and infallibility of the Pope. Conversely, those who abandon orthodoxy or religion altogether will as often do so for moral reasons – they simply cannot accept what they take to be the implications of the religion any longer – as for reasons of a change in their assessment of “evidence” for the truth of the religion itself. The lively debates in religious journals and synods (or their equivalent) demonstrate the recognition that evidence and belief do not exhaust – and may not underpin – the varying and specific forms of religious identity which people choose to espouse.
Even the most self-proclaimed orthodox of any faith divide among themselves as to what that faith requires them to believe and to do: they make some holidays more important than others; they worry about translating certain requirements of their text into practice but not others. And there are also many belongers who are not believers, or are not sure whether or not they are believers, or are selective believers, or selective practitioners, but whose affiliation nevertheless outstrips and outlasts these facts.
Crucially, the religions have always been broad churches in this respect, arenas in which some advocate the primacy of belief while others (perhaps the majority) get on with a wide range of believing, not-believing, practising and not-practising. Contra Karen Armstrong’s recent argument in The Case for God – that the elevation of belief in religion (paradigmatically in Christianity) was due not to the religions themselves but to the fatal effects of the scientific revolution in setting new standards for belief — I would suggest that the tension between elevating belief and elevating practice is intrinsic to the life of religions. This complex relationship is traduced by reducing it to a single univocal test of the rationality of belief.
Even if religions are considered in light of belief alone, the idea that there is a single rational test of that belief based on a simple scrutiny of evidence is mistaken. In light of what the American political philosopher John Rawls called the “burdens of judgment”, we should think it unreasonable to expect that any particular piece of evidence would tip believers or unbelievers out of their established religious (non-)identification and into another.
Rawls asked in Political Liberalism: “Why should free institutions lead to reasonable pluralism? Why does not our conscientious attempt to reason with one another lead to reasonable agreement? It seems to do so in natural science, at least in the long run.” His answer is that in the case of religion and philosophical debates about the ultimate good, our judgment is burdened by a number of factors, which he went on to describe as follows (this is a close paraphrase): The evidence is conflicting and complex, and we may disagree about how to weight it; We must rely on judgements and interpretations about all concepts; Experience matters for the assessment of such claims; It is hard to assess varying kinds of normative associations; Any system of social institutions is a limited social and value space – it is hard to set priorities and make decisions.
Because of these burdens, it is unreasonable to expect that pluralism will end – or that there could be any killer argument to end it. Instead the task of the liberal society is to respect pluralism in these matters consistent with reaching a common core of principles of justice.
This brings me to my third point: that the proposition with which we began would endanger the ideal of citizenship in conditions of pluralism. Consider a further recommendation in the ippr report: “Pupils would be actively encouraged to question the religious beliefs they bring with them into the classroom, not so that they are better able to defend or rationalise them, but so that they are genuinely free to adopt whatever position on religious matters they judge to be best supported by the evidence.”
This suggests that the state’s goal is freedom from religion. Yet is the goal of the state in a multifaith classroom and society, not rather freedom of religion? Freedom of religion certainly includes the freedom to have no religion. And the general critical thinking skills taught in schools may well be used by pupils to this effect as an inevitable outcome of their general education. Yet this is quite different from the state itself actively and directly seeking to train pupils to question their religious beliefs. This is at once misguided, since as argued above such beliefs may not be best conceived as grounded in rational evidence in any case, and an inappropriate role even for an impeccably liberal state.
Even if some children are born into religiously dogmatic families and communities, so that one might argue that they need to be released from the prison of such dogma in order to become intellectually mature citizens, this does not justify the state’s directly and deliberately undertaking such a role. RE is only one part of the curriculum: children will receive a full training in critical thinking skills elsewhere in the curriculum, and nothing will stop them from applying them on their own to religious matters. Likewise, school is part of a generally open public culture, in which children will also inevitably be exposed to challenges to their religious identities and other ways of life.
What is beyond the pale of a pluralist society, however, is a state-directed frontal attack on the evidence for religious beliefs considered as such (as grounds for religious identity, rather than considered as grounds for scientific argument, for example). Religious commitment is not something which pupils should be expected to defend in terms of generally acceptable reasons for belief. Indeed, the whole point of the burdens of judgment is that it is unreasonable to expect convergence or common assessment of such issues, in addition to the fact that much religious commitment is not based primarily on belief at all. To demand such reasons and such evidence is to embarrass religious pupils with a demand which they cannot reasonably be expected to meet. Insofar as the state respects the existence of diverse religious communities, therefore, it should also respect children’s identities as members of them.
What is the alternative? In the light of a pluralistic culture in which we celebrate freedom of religion as including the freedom to have no religion, an education in religion cannot be the education in a prescribed religion which it once was. But neither should it be an education out of religion, or in whether or not to be religious. Rather it must be reconceived as an education about religion. This would involve studying the varying histories of religious groups, paying attention not only to their beliefs, but to how their doctrines evolve and change in relation to practice and to the broader culture. The notion of variability and sensitivity of belief to a wide range of circumstances, including social, scientific, and intra- and inter-communal political relations, will inevitably emerge from such an historical approach. Such an approach will also explain the way in which debates about the interpretation of principles and practices are understood within various religions themselves.
This study of the history of religion will necessarily take a sociological or anthropological perspective, but this need not be an alienating one from the perspective of faith, and it should certainly not be deliberately alienating. It will enable pupils to put questions of belief into living contexts, that is, the contexts where they in fact live. Its effects on religious identification are unpredictable, as they should be: education should be an immersion leading to independent ideas, not a tract directing one to a set of binary choices.
There are two other aspects to the RE which I would advocate examining. The first is the question of its relation to moral education (and of course RE is now part of a broader course in RMPE – religious, moral and philosophical education). The second is the question of the relation between religion and the state.
On moral education, we can again begin by criticizing the ippr position. Objecting to the “moral justification” for teaching religion, its report observed, “One only has reason to submit to the moral teachings of a religion if one holds that religion to be true … in the absence of such a belief, there is no reason at all to regard religious texts or institutions as morally authoritative. On the contrary, one has good reason to regard their moral teachings with suspicion, since they are predicated on beliefs one does not share.”
Is this the appropriate attitude even of a humanist non-believer to the great repositories of moral experience and inquiry that are found in the world religious traditions? The evolution of morality even considered as a secular subject cannot be divorced from its roots in religion. But neither are those roots determinative of whether or not moral values arising in religion can be accepted more widely. If we have any confidence in canons of moral argument, those canons can be applied to moral claims rooted in the world’s religions, and that application will be the more sensitive the more it is informed by a full appreciation of the religion’s history. Moral education would appear to be a prime case of the potential value of religious education which is not seeking religious inculcation, yet one which an overly intellectualised idea of religion mistakenly disparages.
Finally, let us consider the question of the relation between religion and the state. To what sort of political theory does the view I have advanced of RE belong? Although I have drawn on the Rawlsian idea of the burdens of judgment, my overall view diverges from Rawls in considering religions not on the belief model but rather on the model of an identity resting on a complex of belief, practice and community. It seems to me that such a re-envisioning of the nature of religion can help with a problem in the Rawlsian theory of political liberalism, namely, its unwillingness to require religions to make any change in their own outlook in order to accommodate a shared political conception of justice.
Rawls’ political liberalism is held hostage to the circumstance of whether or not religions happen to have the ability to endorse political liberalism or not, taking them just as they are, and failing to justify any requirement on them to change. In my view, in contrast, religions can be expected to change to accommodate the publicly shared principles of justice. This will happen in diverse ways among the whole spectrum of believers and belongers, each finding a new way of understanding and living the religion’s demands and ideals in light of its place in a changing public sphere. Such religious adaptation would only be impeded by instructing teachers to challenge the religious beliefs of pupils. If the state were to get religion so wrong, the religions would be less, not more, likely to learn to accommodate themselves to the liberal principles of the state.
Melissa Lane is professor of politics at Princeton University