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20 January 2011

Doing God in education

A research project 1undertaken by colleagues at my university gave empirical support to something that I have known to be true from experience and anecdote for many years: Christian teachers feel that their faith is a problem when it comes to maintaining their professionalism. The research involved interviewing two groups of student teachers of religious education; those who self-identified as Christians and those who self-identified as atheists or agnostics. The Christians were hesitant about drawing on their faith in lessons because they thought it was unprofessional to do so. The atheists, in stark contrast, were happy to share their beliefs, thinking this made a positive contribution to lessons. They apparently felt that atheist beliefs, being secular, were objective. How have we got into this situation? Education is characterised by vigorous public debate about the role of religion in publicly-funded schools and colleges. For example, there is a well-organized campaign by the British Humanist Association seeking to ban faith schools. There is also a widespread perception in the media that religion is somehow a problem when it comes to education. It is not for nothing that people invariably mention sectarianism in Northern Ireland when faith schools are discussed. Where has this attitude come from?

Probably the most significant underlying influence on these perceptions is a view of knowledge and its relation to religious belief that seems to be taken as normative in public policy debates on education. This is epitomised in a metaphor used by the humanist philosopher Richard Norman who describes religious belief as "clutter" 2

This metaphor encapsulates the secular view that knowledge is entirely independent of religious belief and that what really matters in education is the objective knowledge which all humans know to be true and the shared values which all reasonable humans hold. The consequence of this epistemology in populist debates about education is the perception that religious belief is either irrelevant, something to be relegated to people's private lives, or toxic, something to be feared. Hence there is widespread unease with the idea that, for example, teachers' religious faith might influence their professional work or that church schools might be distinctively Christian. The net result is that religious faith is perceived as a problem when it comes to education whereas secular views are seen as objective.

How should Christians respond to this?

Firstly, it is essential to challenge this secular view of knowledge. Religious (or indeed non-religious) faith is not a piece of clutter, an "add-on" to objective, rational ideas. Rather, it is the foundation from which humans interpret the knowledge and information which human beings share. Our worldview is the store from which we draw in making sense of the meaning and significance of what we know. To give an example, Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins are both eminent biologists who share a common subject discipline, but as an atheist and a Christian respectively they make very different judgments as to the meaning and significance of that science. Education worthy of the name should be helping students to grapple with this debate between Dawkins and Collins about meaning and not just to regurgitate the science they share.

Secondly, we should offer models that show the relevance of Christian faith. The story of the modern languages teacher David Smith is an example. David became frustrated with what seemed to him to be the focus of school Modern Foreign Languages teaching on producing good tourists, people who were equipped for such tasks as buying bus tickets and asking for directions. As a Christian he wanted to teach the subject for reasons that reflected a Christian understanding of the world. He therefore proposed that the biblical injunction to offer hospitality to the stranger would be a better inspiration and reshaped his teaching methods with a view emphasizing this as the purpose of his teaching.

Thirdly, we have to demonstrate that allowing Christian faith to shape education policy is not based on tribal motivations, but arises out of a concern for the common good. People will rightly fear Christian involvement in education if we simply seek to gain political advantage for our views. We must be able to show how a distinctive Christian contribution benefits all students. For example, David Smith's approach to languages produced a more worthwhile approach to the subject which any teacher can embrace even though it was based on a biblical idea.

Fourthly, we must be able to show how we can work in coalition with others who do not share our Christian convictions in the cause of educating British children given the diversity of communities that exist in the country. This will require us to exercise what I call "courageous restraint" in that we may have to accept working with limited goals when our ideal would be to pursue explicitly Christian goals.

And finally, by our words and our actions we must convey the message that Christian faith is a resource that will benefit society through its contribution to education, not a problem to be marginalised.

Trevor Cooling is Professor of Christian Education at Canterbury Christ Church University.

  1. Lynn Revell & Rosemary Walters, Christian student RE teachers: professionalism and objectivity, Canterbury Christ Church University, 2010.
  2. Richard Norman, On Humanism, Routledge, 2004, p. 114