Should religious education prepare people to choose between faiths?

Which religion fits you? Religion thumbprints via SunnySideUp/

Religious education has been compulsory in British schools since 1944. Today it must be provided to all pupils in state-maintained schools between the ages of five and 18, unless withdrawn by their parents. But what’s the point of it? Back in the 1940s, religious education was about making children into good Christian citizens, about inculcating the Christian beliefs and values thought to underpin the British way of life. That aim has long since been abandoned. But nothing very clear has emerged to take its place.

One possible aim for religious education, recently defended by the US-based philosopher Harry Brighouse, is this. In liberal societies people are free to choose their own goals, commitments and ways of life. A primary function of education is to equip people to make these choices. Careers education should help them match up their talents and interests with employment options and qualification routes. Sex and relationships education should help them match up their emotional needs and sexual preferences with different kinds of intimate relationship. And religious education should help them match up their dispositions and values with religious and non-religious belief systems.

This proposal has been around for a while, but tends not to get a sympathetic hearing from religious education theorists and teachers. The usual reason for dismissing it is that it reduces religion to a matter of taste. In the words of educationist Robert Jackson, it invites people to choose religious beliefs “in the manner of selecting cans of beans or fruit from the shelves of a supermarket”.

In the film [Hannah and Her Sisters](Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen expertly satirises this consumerist approach to religion. Allen’s character, Mickey, is plagued by hypochondria and existential angst and decides to try out some different religions in the hope of alleviating his discomfort. He begins, to the horror of his Jewish parents, with Roman Catholicism, selected for its beauty and structure – or, at least, the beauty and structure of its “against-school-prayer, pro-abortion, anti-nuclear wing”. When Catholicism fails to satisfy him, he turns his attention to the Hare Krishna movement and quizzes a Krishna leader on the likelihood of his being reincarnated “as a moose or an aardvark or something”.

Not like choosing food in a supermarket

The point is clear: to choose between religions as one might choose between restaurants is to trivialise and misunderstand religious belief. That is surely right. But it’s a poor reason for rejecting the religious choice rationale for religious education, because not all choices are made on the basis of taste. When choosing between tinned peaches and tinned pears in the supermarket, I know that nothing of importance turns on my decision and I allow myself to be guided by whim. But I should not dream of relying on whim if I were choosing a career or a spouse.

And the proposal under consideration sees religious choice as similar to career choice and relationship choice, not similar to decisions made in the weekly food shop. It’s precisely because such decisions are not trivial, because they demand sustained and searching deliberation about the fit between oneself and one’s options, that education in these areas looks worthwhile.

Still, there is a problem with the religious choice proposal, and it’s a serious one. In one very important respect, religions are quite unlike careers and relationships. At the core of what it is to have a religion is the holding of certain beliefs – about the transcendent, the supernatural or the spiritual, about the beginning or the end of the world, about gods, avatars, angels or demons, about the immortality, incarnation or liberation of the soul, about sin, sacrifice, salvation or redemption.

Can beliefs be chosen?

The differences between the followers of different religions, and between the religious and the non-religious, are fundamentally differences of belief. That is not the case with people who work in different fields or form different types of intimate relationship. What distinguishes a barrister from a barista, or a physician from a physicist, is not adherence to a creed; nor is this what distinguishes people in same-sex and opposite-sex relationships, or in open and closed ones.

The core cognitive dimension of religion is problematic for the religious choice proposal because there is something awry with the notion of choosing beliefs. It assumes we can exercise direct control over what we believe. But our beliefs are not so much things we do as things that happen to us – they are one of the ways in which the world impresses itself upon us, not one of the ways in which we impress ourselves upon the world.

The philosopher William Alston lays down a challenge to anyone inclined to doubt this. Suppose you were offered a very large sum of money to start believing that the United States is still a colony of Great Britain, and that the money interests you much more than the truth. Could you do it? You could not, says Alston, because that just isn’t how people are wired.

So, in the end, I think we do have to reject preparation for religious choice as the aim of religious education in schools. Choice is not inherently trivialising, but it is the wrong orientation to the questions of truth with which religion confronts us.