We live in “interesting times” – but this is an old Chinese curse! We are in a time of a new beginning and I’m in favour of the hung parliament because I hope it will lead to better consideration of policy and less concentration of power. I feel that the current sense of disillusionment is going to change in this new era but it will be a very challenging time. In your RE community, SACREs are a model of consensus: it is the practice of our local committees made up of people who treat one another with respect and listen to each other that leads to better decisions because there is space for challenge, reflection and discussion. I believe that secularisation, bureaucracy and heavy handed management have squashed creativity at the coal face of education. In the face of this, SACREs have pioneered a different way of proceeding and proved the value of religious cohesion, with their work of understanding diversity of faith in Britain today. Where I grew up in Birmingham in the late 50s and early 60s, as a Catholic girl of Irish descent we would point at the local Anglican Parish Church and refer to it as the church that was stolen from us. The sense of division was deep. At the same time migration from the Caribbean and the Indian sub- continent exposed some deep racism, and a 15% National Front Vote. They were nasty times and we have come a long way since then.
RE teaching has played an important role in shifting the attitudes of people in Britain and in educating people to understand a diversity of faith. Learning about diversity in schools has meant the liberation of people’s stories. It is not just about avoiding discrimination: we are all bigger people when we learn from others. RE teaching is leading our society through education to be one where we can appreciate each other’s rich histories. It is not the same in other European countries, where silos of difference are often the model. We have done well and RE teachers should be proud. RE teaching has massively shifted our communities, has taken Britain by the hand and led the country into a more open and understanding community life. The work of RE teachers and of SACREs has been key to taking Britain on this enormously valuable journey. Things are not perfect in Britain but we have done better than many other countries and we should take pride in this because RE has been at the core of this journey.
So what challenges now face us? We are rich in Britain – but not happy – so what is the meaning of life? This is a new question RE needs to address. Richard Layard’s work suggests that whilst increased growth in wealth in a society which is poor can increase happiness, after a point increased economic growth does not increase human happiness. We have grown rich beyond belief, as a society, but we are not happy. In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett conclude that the more unequal societies with high crime, high prison populations, many teenage pregnancies, wide abuse of alcohol and drugs are also unhappy societies. Britain comes high up the list. Our kind of society is rich beyond belief but not happy in significant or deep ways. Instead hedonistic culture leaves people little or no time for the people they love; it’s a consuming, trample-on-others society. The research suggests that the more altruistic people tend to be, the happier they are. Children need access to discussion about and reflection on these ideas. The endless pursuit of increased material wealth is not sustainable worldwide : there will be increased strain and conflict over resources such as oil and food and the technologies that could solve these problems are not being applied and shared as they should be. Unless we learn to live on “sufficient” and not on “more”, then division and conflict only grows. RE need to nurture the qualities of sufficiency and the values of equality as it explores big questions of faith and belief. Religious leaders and moral philosophers have dreamt of a situation which would challenge us to create a fairer society. Here it comes in that it is no longer simply a moral preference but crucial to human survival.
Are young people seeking the “meaning of life”? There are no decent answers to the question without love and care. In Britain we spend £2 billion a year treating asylum seekers badly. The Geneva Convention asserts that anyone fleeing home for reasons of political or religious persecution should be accepted in the first country they come to; but we allow criminal gangs of people smugglers to control who is able to travel to seek sanctuary in countries like our own and then treat them very badly when they arrive. It’s yet another example of the fact that global co-operation is an essential requirement for our shared future, and throws up many questions. Was the BNP’s increased vote this spring driven by a reaction to certain kinds of anti Muslim rhetoric? Is it too big a task to challenge the inequalities that governments sustain? Though the language of religion is certainly used one way by fundamentalists of all backgrounds, can it also heal?
Obviously religious traditions can be misused and the results can be ugly: it’s not acceptable for RE to gloss over this, but the temptation for the teacher of RE is sometimes to concentrate on commonalities and not divisions. I think there needs to be more discussion of the misuse of our religious traditions with greater honesty. Identities are now significantly linked with religion, and all religious traditions contain ugliness and can be and has been used for bad ends and for division. We need to share insights into this ugliness with children through education. This is an enormous challenge for us, with implications for curriculum and resources.
If you and I believe that the justice principles of religious education are good, then we must refine the RE curriculum to explore the dangers of division. I am worried that in the current season of cutbacks, there is a danger that unsavoury groups such as the BNP could flourish by exploiting the differences of religious identity and people who feel themselves under attack will retreat into separate communities. People are looking for something different from and finer than the current hedonistic mode of our national life. Either generosity and altruism will rise or dangerous nastiness will prevail. We have the job of taking the next generation through these difficulties. RE should be a force that holds on to generous values. RE can be a force for good. It is needed more now than ever before if we are to take the next generation by the hand into a better future.