TT429: Rules of Serious Engagement

Two major recent initiatives in the subject, Understanding Christianity, a teaching and learning approach developed by the Church of England, and The Commission on RE (CoRE), which reported its findings on September 12th, 2018, are shaping current thinking about RE. Both call for a renewed focus on depth of understanding and academic rigour, in short, ‘serious engagement’, as Understanding Christianity puts it, with the subject matter.

In recent years, rigorous and academically stretching RE has often been associated with the critical realist approach, which treats RE as a quest for ‘ultimate truth’, competing claimants in a debate in the ultimate nature of reality. I aim to show that challenging, stretching RE does not depend on the truth in this way, and argue that Critical Realism in fact has caused a skewing in the teaching of religion over recent years. A sophisticated picture of religion is more complex than this, and we should have the ‘the complex, rich and troubling histories and myths at the heart of religious traditions’ (c.f. Strhan, 2010) in mind when we teach.

One of most challenging questions at the heart of RE is ‘what do we do about disagreement?’ L Philip Barnes criticises the RE community for not sufficiently accounting for the discord amongst religious believers, and says that we can skew what it means to be religious by portraying all religions as getting on harmoniously. Disagreement leads us back to the question of what part truth plays in the subject. Drawing on the work of Buber, Alexander, Aldridge and Stern, I examine the role of dialogue in rigorous and challenging RE, and model how this works in lessons, with ideas for specific activities.