The Relationship between Religious Studies and Religious Education



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The Relationship between Religious Studies and Religious Education.
Professor Frank Whaling
This is a complex topic that really requires a book! It raises varied questions, among others: what is Religious Education?, what is Religious Studies?, what is the relationship, or otherwise, between Religious Studies and Theology? In a short piece there is no room to get into these themes in any detail and I will concentrate upon Religious Education in the mainly British school situation and Religious Studies in the sense of the academic study of all religious traditions.
Religious Studies in this latter sense arose during the middle of the nineteenth century. In this scholar's view it went through four stages: from 1850-1900, from 1900- 1950, from 1950- 1995, and from 1995 onwards. Its relationship with Religious Education was very minimal from 1850 to 1900, slight from 1900 to 1950, reasonably close from 1950 to 1995, and changing from 1995 onwards.
The background to Religious Education in Britain (and in most western countries) in 1850 was that of European Christendom. During the period from the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE virtually up to 1850, or in some ways even up to 1950, Europe was basically a Christian continent. Of the other three great civilisations, the Middle East was mainly Muslim, India was mainly Hindu, and China was mainly Confucian, Daoist and Mahayana Buddhist. In the Christendom situation Religious Education was overwhelmingly Christian Education either owned by or superintended by the church at a time when Europe was mainly cut off from the rest of the world.
By 1850 trade, empire, Christian missions, the Enlightenment, and the European Romantic movement had conspired to introduce more knowledge of other religious traditions and cultures into Europe. Religious Studies essentially began with Max Muller(1823-1900), a German who settled in Oxford. His epoch-making SACRED BOOKS OF THE EAST provided critical translations of the main sacred books of the eastern traditions. Scholars of Hinduism and Buddhism, and indeed other traditions, were interested in beginnings. Thus the Vedas in the Hindu tradition, the Pali Canon in Theravada Buddhism, and the Koran within Islam were seen as the 'big bang' for those traditions. Moreover the early anthropologists and sociologists, such as Spencer, Tylor, Frazer and Durkheim, sought for the beginnings of religion itself in magic, animism, totemism, fetishism, and so on. Unlike most theologians of their day, they espoused Darwin's theory of evolution and applied it to the study of the beginnings and the evolution of religion, albeit their sources deriving .from travellers, traders, missionaries and administrators tended to be amateurish. Most of this world of the mind was foreign to Christian Education from 1850 to 1900. The school, even after the Forster Education Act of 1870, was seen as a kind of extension of the church wherein Religious Education was focussed on Bible stories, selective church history, ethical precepts, and basic doctrines.

The era from 1900 to 1950 experienced the trauma of two world wars, the second of which was a global war. Religious Studies extended their sphere of interest beyond the main world religions into studies of the Sikhs, the new Baha'is, the Parsis, ancient near eastern religions, Shinto, various indigenous religions in Africa, Latin America and Australasia, and heterodox forms of Christianity. Field work became more common as travel eased. Liberal Christians such as J N Farquhar and J Estlin Carpenter introduced a more relaxed view of other religions and began to encourage their study. Some social scientists such as Freud, Marx and Durkheim emphasised the role of psychology, sociology and economics in the study of religion at what they saw to be a functional level. Jung gathered round him every year from 1933 in Zurich a galaxy of scholars from around the world to study religion in a more gathered way. Their names form a galaxy of talent of the time including Buber, Eliade, Heiler, James, van der Leeuw, van der Post, Scholem, Suzuki, Tillich and Zaehner. By now fuller histories of the major religions were becoming available. More critical and philosophical insights into Christianity were also becoming available.


However relatively little of this work in Religious Studies percolated down into Religious Education in the schools. Religious Education was still in the main under the aegis of the church and, perhaps more importantly, there were few people from other religious traditions living in Britain. Religious Education with few exceptions remained Christian Education, and refinements were limited mainly to more critical and innovative insights into the Christian tradition. Even in Religious Studies the whole process of concern, ethos and interest remained ineluctably western.
From 1950 to 1995 there occurred a noticeable coming together of Religious Studies and Religious Education. There were many reasons for this: the effects of World War Two which had painfully brought the world closer together; the entry of black West Indians, and later Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists into a formerly white Christian country; religious renaissance in the ‘new’ nations such as India, Pakistan, Japan, Israel, Indonesia, Malaysia, and so on whereby other religions became known globally; the rise of Marxism around the world and a more obvious secularism in Europe; the decline of the influence of the church through secularization and the sense that Religious Education should be education and not indoctrination. The rapidly changing situation in the world was accompanied by an evolving sense of the meaning and end of Religious Studies and Religious Education. Religious Studies grew tremendously so that more advanced studies of the major religions, the minor religions, dead religions, indigenous religions, new religious movements and new-age type religions began to proliferate. Different approaches developed, in bewildering varieties, through psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, phenomenology, theology, history, area studies, and so on. Scholars flew out of Heathrow, Paris, New York, et alia, to do fieldwork study of religions from the Sahara to Alaska, from Australasia to the heart of Asia. The possibility of a global history of religion and a global theology of religion emerged in Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s work while at the same time detailed studies of minute areas appeared elsewhere. Religious Studies as an academic discipline grew and began to make its mark upon wider scholarship as many universities set up departments in Arts, Social Sciences, Divinity, and other faculties around the world.
Alongside all this Religious Education was changing as well. Its proper sphere was seen to be in education as well as, or instead of, within the church. Christian Education could be, and should be, delivered within the church where it was appropriate and necessary. Religious Education had a wider remit in terms of giving children a sense of the wider religious field which took into account immigrants from other religions and also the world religious situation.
Co-operation grew between the field of Religious Studies and the field of Religious Education. A good example of this was the interest in models of religion which were developed within Religious Studies and taken on board by Religious Education. In England Ninian Smart’s model suggested that religions are different but they can also be understood as organisms containing six dimensions, namely doctrines, myths, ethical teachings, rituals, and social institutions animated by religious experiences of various kinds. The six dimensions interact and inter-relate and they are present in unique but also comparable ways within separate religions. In Scotland Frank Whaling’s model suggested that lying behind each religion there was a transcendent focus which was made available to human beings through a mediating symbol and within each religion there could be seen eight elements, namely religious community, rituals, ethics, social involvement, scripture/myth, concepts, aesthetics and spirituality. These models gave a structure by means of which students could make sense of separate religions and by means of which they could study basic themes comparatively across religions. They also gave scope for research at the Religious Studies end, and imaginative teaching at the school end. They were applied in schools to the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh traditions. Lying behind them was the phenomenological approach. According to this students could use epoche, putting their own views into brackets in order to understand another religion or worldview, and Einfuhlung, empathy for other religions or worldviews by trying to see them from within. Thus an agnostic could have access towards an understanding of different religions, and a student belonging to one religion could have access towards an understanding of other religions. Collaboration between university professors, college teachers and administrators, RE inspectors and advisers, school heads and teachers (including those from different religious traditions) became more commonplace so that different levels of people within Religious Studies and Religious Education could grow in meaningful dialogue and understanding across their separate boundaries.
Other examples could be given of the intellectual and pragmatic interaction between the RS and RE enterprises from 1950 to 1995 but time and space impel us to move on to the contemporary situation. Since about 1995 a new phase may well have begun in the relationship between Religious Studies and Religious Education. In the first place the world has changed. It has come together globally at the level of economics, finance, trade and multi-national corporations, but the need is seen for greater collaboration at the cultural, religious and civilisational global level. This is especially the case after the Khomeini revolution in Iran, the Middle Eastern crisis, September 11 2001 and the present London explosions. The clash of civilizations thesis is being countered by the collaboration of civilizations thesis wherein governmental initiatives towards inter-faith collaboration, understanding and dialogue are increasingly common. While Religious Education is clearly relevant here, on the other hand factors such as the need for Moral Education and education in citizenship and values are tending to dilute the role of Religious Education in its own right. The decline of the mainstream churches, especially at the level of younger peoples’ interest, raises questions about the role of religion in school assemblies, and a ‘time of reflection’ has replaced traditional Christian prayers in places such as the Scottish Parliament and Edinburgh University, as well as some schools.
Secondly Religious Studies is changing. Feminist, post-colonial, liberationist and other inputs have challenged some of the traditionally established data as being the construction of ‘power elites’, and the post-modern phase has eschewed great theories in favour of more detailed and alternative studies. The increasing role of the Social Sciences, with their assumption of methodological atheism, has stressed the role of religion as a social phenomenon thus underplaying its transcendental role, while at the popular level themes such as spirituality, New Age, new religious movements and

civil religion have achieved greater prominence. At national and international conferences on Religious Studies a bewildering variety of topics appears on the agenda. However in a more secular Europe the growth of the major religious traditions around the world tends to be underplayed as an aberration whereas it can also be persuasively argued that Europe’s religious situation may be an aberration. Whereas the 1950 to 1995 period saw a helpful and meaningful co-operation between Religious Studies and Religious Education their relationship has now become less clear due to developments on both sides.


There are signs that the post-modern phase in Religious Studies is now passing, or has passed. The time is ripe for a return to substance from an inward-looking concern for methodology. The time is ripe too for the return to contemporary relevance in Religious Studies to coalesce with the desire for contemporary relevance in Religious Education. There are signs that this is happening for educational reasons as well as for the political and cultural need for a greater mutual understanding of religions and between religions in present-day Britain and in our contemporary world.


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