The ISRSA Report - a personal response
The Independent Schools Religious Studies Association Report Religion and Worldviews (Weltanschauung) June 2022
To: the ISRSA Patron and Council
From: Dr Wendy Dossett, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Chester
(This was first posted on Reforming RE 2nd July 2022)
The Independent Schools Religious Studies Association Report Religion and Worldviews (Weltanschauung) (henceforth, the ISRSA Report) is a position statement, published in June 2022, on the proposals advanced in the Final Report of the Commission on Religious Education: Religion and Worldviews : the Way Forward. A National Plan for RE 2018 (henceforth, the CoRE Report). The CoRE Report offered a vision for a National Entitlement, for every child, to high quality education in Religion and Worldviews, irrespective of their type of school. It remains the single most significant encapsulation of a vision for the subject since the 1988 Education Reform Act. The ISRSA Report was prepared for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education. In this personal response to the ISRSA Report, I set out some difficulties I perceive in its characterisation of the Commission’s proposals (which, to date, remain proposals only), its assessment of the stakes in the debate, and its anxiety about a possible detrimental effect on Higher Education Theology and Religious Studies recruitment, should the proposals be realised.
I write as member of a University Department of Theology and Religious Studies. I’m aligned with one of the groupings of disciplines in this multidisciplinary field: namely, Religious Studies/Study of Religions. However, I am, for the most part, ‘at home’ in a department of Theology and Religious Studies. Theology and Religious Studies operate with often (but not always) different, and sometimes clashing orientations, agendas and methodologies, but both have a right to operate in a pluralistic, reflexive, and dialogic academic culture. Both Theology and Religious Studies, along with the adjacent fields of Philosophy and Ethics, have a legitimate interest in the shape of RE in schools. For the sake of transparency, I’d add that as a former Secretary of the Shap Working Party for World Religions in Education (as it was then known), I’m an advocate of the kind of pluralistic, accurate and critical RE that Shap championed in the 1980s and beyond, the spirit of which is developed in more contemporary and theoretically-informed terms, in the CoRE report. While I was not involved in the work of the Commission, I gave evidence to it. I welcomed the publication of the Final Report and recommended it to my Subject Associations. I’ve since been involved in projects aligned with its aims.
In June 2022, the ISRSA report was sent to several members of my Department and University, accompanied by an email alerting us to ‘the proposal to change the name and nature of Religious Education in the UK, which could negatively impact upon [our] department’s ability to recruit suitable candidates in the future.’
There is no doubt that we face challenges with recruitment right now. This is especially the case for TRS departments like ours in Post-92 universities, but also for departments who, unlike us, benefit from the current cap arrangements. The ISRSA is right to be concerned about recruitment. It is also right to consider the quality of RE in schools as critical for recruitment, as well as profoundly significant in its own right. However, the ISRSA’s strategy of forwarding its specific agenda by appealing to the sector-wide anxieties about recruitment and departmental/unit survival, is troubling. This is especially so because the report is a lobbying statement, rather than an invitation to a discussion.
The position forwarded in the ISRSA report is twofold; firstly that ‘Worldview’ is not a properly delineated term, and secondly, that its inclusion represents a capitulation to a secular default.
Why the ISRSA centres ‘Weltanschauung’ in the title of its report is unclear, since the Commission does not centre it at all. However, its claim that ‘worldview’ is an imperfect concept cannot be denied. For example, it risks prioritising ‘sight’ and ‘cognition’ over other elements such as ‘habitus’ or ‘lifeworld’. However, terms do jobs, and this term does an imperfect, but crucially important, job of indicating the change of focus and orientation that the subject desperately needs. We are faced with a public who question the relevance of the subject based on the sustained decline in religious affiliation. Subject specialists rightly point to the far reach of religion in culture, indeed, as foundational to culture, but this is unlikely to be appreciated in a crowded curriculum, driven by a particular set of economic and employability values. A new acquaintance, unaware of my profession, recently (and in many ways understandably, given the cost-of-living crisis) remarked to me that they wished their school-age child was being ‘taught how to manage a budget rather than doing pointless subjects like RE.’ This widespread view must be acknowledged, and responded to effectively, if the subject is to survive and thrive.
The ISRSA is right that ‘worldview’ is a contested concept. However, so is religion, a term accepted in the ISRSA report. Furthermore, while worldview may be contested, it is hardly recondite. Ironically, the ISRSA’s own list of possible definitions in Section One of the report fill it out richly and effectively. Yes, worldview is ‘an individual cultural viewpoint’ AND ‘a shared set of customs and traditions.’ It is ‘about the way the world looks to you’ AND ‘the way your world looks to outsiders.’ It is ‘the way you see yourself in relation to those around you’ AND ‘the way you see yourself in relation to everything (i.e. the universal claims you make about the structure if reality,’ if you make such claims, and if you don’t, that may be part of your worldview too). It is about ‘ethos and morality, your style of life’ AND ‘the distinctive answers you give to existential questions.’ The basis upon which the ISRSA argues this multivalence is problematic is unclear. Is the above not simply a statement of precisely the balance between focus and nuance we seek?
The fourth point in the ISRSA’s list of confusions about the term worldview is less productive. Certainly, it's a term that can be deployed negatively, to highlight difference. So too can religion. One of the benefits of the term worldview in this educational context is that it does exactly the opposite of what the ISRSA suggests it does here. It builds bridges. Whether the term ‘religion’ speaks to one’s experience or not, everyone lives their life from a particular location and perspective. We might say everyone has a worldview, even if it is not explicit or expressed. The verb ‘has’ may bear some deeper reflection, but at the same time, we can at least answer critics with the honest claim that this subject now aspires to be, genuinely, about everybody.
The ISRSA asks the reader not to take the points made in Section Two as an encomium but offers no justification for this request. The first point made in Section Two is that a worldviews approach uncovers the ways the religious and the secular co-construct each other, thus undermining the current tendency to consider the secular as normative. Exactly! This, for me, is one of the most important shifts engendered by a worldviews approach. It encourages an epistemological reflexivity hitherto not well known in Religious Education. This is high praise for a worldviews approach, and I’m not sure why, given its desire for proper reflexivity regarding secular normativity, the ISRSA doesn’t welcome it more wholeheartedly. The second point highlights the dynamic inter-relationships between different spheres of knowledge. Yes, indeed, we do want students to grasp the history of ideas! The third point suggests that a worldviews approach may help ‘students who think they are non-religious to reflect on their own assumptions, moral formation and moral life.’ I find the casting of non-religious students (or more specifically students framed, patronisingly, as those who ‘think they are’ non-religious) as having special needs in this regard as rather tendentious. All students need this sort of space created for them. The implication that religious students don’t have assumptions, or that their commitments exempt them from reflection on moral formation, merely informs the reader about the vested interests of the ISRSA.
There are eight reservations listed in Section Three. I respond to them briefly in turn.
a) The first point frames the CoRE report as proposing ‘religion’ sits inside the ‘secular’ category of worldview. I can’t see any justification for any element of this claim. The proposal is for ‘Religion and Worldviews.’ There is an argument in favour of the subject being simply ‘Worldviews’. Had that argument prevailed, then it would be reasonable to say that religion was figured as a subcategory of worldviews. But it didn’t prevail. It is also unclear why the term worldview is taken as ‘secular.’ A claim is made that ‘the worldviews proposal is driven by a maximally secular agenda which sees all ideas as equal but in which secular is the most equal.’ This is an odd claim. Nowhere does the CoRE report say all ideas are ‘equal’. Rather, it frequently calls for informed critical engagement with ideas. Equally worthy of critical engagement does not mean equally valid nor equally good. This objection seems to assume (wrongly) that RE is (somehow!) about persuading students of all the competing claims they encounter in the subject!
b) This point argues that religions will no longer be taught in their own right, but will be subsumed under a term they themselves don’t recognise. This ignores the fact that many traditions represented in the current curriculum would eschew the term ‘religion,’ and that includes some iterations of Christianity. It also ignores the fact that religion is still given a place of privilege in the proposed new title of the subject. The point claims, with justification, that the use of worldviews is colonial. It is of course no more colonial than the term religion. A decolonial approach would subject all of our terms to aetiological analysis, and students educated in this subject would be able to demonstrate critical, perspectival awareness of the power embedded in labelling practices, and their contested nature. Worldviews must not be protected from that critique, but neither must religion.
Nowhere does the CoRE report commit itself to a Feuerbachian epistemology. Students may be invited to engage in an informed and critical way with that epistemology where appropriate, but it does not underpin the curriculum.
c) This point claims that it is impossible to understand the social reality of another. Understanding the social reality of another is indeed one of the most difficult intellectual and emotional challenges of being human. Its potential impossibility does not in any way undermine the endeavour; nor does it compromise the real possibility of moving from a worse to a better understanding. That an objection of this kind appears in a Religious Studies report is, frankly, baffling.
d) This point says there are too many disciplines, it is too complicated, and some of those disciplines are secular and therefore threatening to religion. RE has been multidisciplinary for a very long time! So, too has the HE context. This proposal which promises to align school RE much more closely with the ethos of multidisciplinary HE departments is warmly welcomed by many HE colleagues. The idea that sociology and psychology of religion are ‘at heart’ secular disciplines is unsupportable. These are multivalent fields, some iterations of which involve secular assumptions, assumptions we need to empower students to value, situate, and critique, just as we empower them to value, situate and critique religious interpretations of the world. On my reading, the CoRE report would not claim that a lesson on, to use the example here, ‘the living of a life received and offered as a gift’ was successful had it failed to convey the deep, transformative and emotional power of that experience.
This point raises the important concern that a worldviews approach might reinforce a student’s worldview, turn them into an expert and thus undo the effect of education. This anxiety disregards the tremendous (and new) emphasis in the CoRE report on reflexivity as a feature of personal worldview development. Of course, there may be bad teaching which underplays reflexivity, but this cannot be blamed on a curriculum orientation that explicitly commends it.
e) This point argues that Christianity deserves a privileged place in the curriculum because it helps promote a sense of British Values, common purpose, community resilience and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good, and that a worldviews approach threatens this. The law currently preserves Christianity’s privileged place on the curriculum. It is not under threat. I personally hope that students would be empowered to both appreciate and engage critically with the assumptions at work in the special-pleading for Christianity (and for ‘British’ values) in these terms.
f) Why this point starts with an anxiety about wars of religion is unclear. The point appears to be that secular normativity requires us to work harder to persuade students of the value of religion, and that this would be easier if we taught humanism/atheism as a critique of religion. But humanism/atheism is a multi-faceted phenomenon. It sometimes manifests as a critique of religion, but often it does not. I would rather we introduced the complexity.
g) There is no evidence that the worldviews approach recommended in the CoRE report is secularising in its agenda. It is not built on a critique of metaphysics. It is built on an invitation to explore metaphysics.
h) I object to the statement here that ‘University colleagues have voiced particular concern over progression paths from school to HE should a worldviews approach be adopted.’ I have no doubt that some have. Many others of us, however, are deeply frustrated at the slowness of the move to make RE relevant to all the children in our classrooms and to secure a National Entitlement in the spirit of the CoRE report. We are also concerned that students come to us with a training only in a particular style of Western Philosophy and Ethics, and without any introduction to the broader disciplinary remit of the study of religions and worldviews that they will encounter at University.
The ISRSA report concludes with some recommendations. The perusal of other possible names seems a reasonable suggestion. The name is important because it needs to signal a change of direction and ethos. The status quo is unsustainable. I do not agree that worldviews should be ‘avoided’ any more than any other imperfect term. The crucial thing is the new vision.
The second recommendation, to gather evidence across all types of school to substantiate the claim that the ‘world religions’ approach is 'mainstream' seems unnecessary. The law made it mainstream in 1988. Evidence from schools about it being problematic might be valuable if it focused on views of children (such as is recommended in Benoit, C., Hutchings, T. & Shillitoe, R. (2020) Worldview: A Multidisciplinary Report) but there is already a strong intellectual case that it is problematic (Masuzawa, 2005; Owen 2011; Cotter & Robertson, 2016).
Finally, the review identifies factors that have impacted negatively on the subject; namely, a high percentage of non-specialist teachers, the exclusion of short course GCSE from performance measures, the omission of RS from the Ebacc, the rejection of RS as a facilitating subject by the Russell Group and the impact of the AS and A-Level reforms. These are issues upon which the whole sector is campaigning, and it is hugely helpful to have an organisation like the ISRSA voicing them too.
I hope that the ISRSA will continue to voice these concerns. I also hope they will engage more closely and carefully with the vision set out in the CoRE report, and with the extensive academic and policy debate that has been generated by it.
Cotter, C. & Robertson, D. eds. 2016. After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. London: Routledge.
Masuzawa, T. 2005. The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Owen, S. 2011. ‘The World Religions Paradigm Time for a Change’. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 10(3):253–68.
Dr Wendy Dossett is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Chester. She has more than two decades of experience as a Senior Principal A-level Religious Studies Examiner. She was Secretary of the Shap Working Party for World Religions in Education (2004-2012) and she represented TRS-UK on the Religious Education Council for England and Wales (2015-2020). She leads on schools engagement work for the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester.