By Rob James
The question of whether philosophy should be taught as part of religious education arguably comes down to a decision between teaching either on their own merits, or whether ongoing threats to religious education in schools can be best dealt with by making the subject more relevant for students. The recent introduction of an English Baccalaureate controversially removed RE as one of the core subjects, in contrast to its use within the GCSE as a short course and full option. In effect, students no longer require some form of RE as an important part of their secondary education.
Other claims have been made that philosophy can help with general critical thinking for new syllabi, and should include a general program of religious and philosophical discussion from primary school onwards. Practical issues for combining the two can also be addressed through the current structure of PGCE qualifications, while some caution over letting debates over what either or both subject can achieve should also be considered.
1 – Making a Priority – One or the Other?
Religious education has long been a part of primary and secondary curricula, with the aim of fostering a general understanding of different religious groups and practices. However, the case for religious studies as a compulsory subject to aged 14, and as a valuable GCSE and Baccalaureate option has come under question, particularly for state schools and comprehensives that are being encouraged by the Government to offer more fact and practical-based subjects.
Arguments for religious education as a standalone subject with a lot to offer in terms of social empathy and critical insights are similar to those made for making philosophy, much more marginal traditionally in terms of being a school subject, into its own course. Arguments for philosophy as a subject point to the need for students to engage with a humanist tradition for philosophical thought, one that shouldn’t necessarily be tied to religious arguments as the basis for discussing ethics.
2 – Philosophy and Religion
The argument for having both subjects as individual options is complicated by the fact that philosophy and ethics have long been a part of general RE subjects, with the philosophy of religion and more general theories being used as part of a blanket subject. Having a single taught subject means that a GCSE is able to cover a broader number of areas, and is compatible with trends in higher education. Many universities, including Lancaster and Glasgow, offer degrees in theology and philosophy, while Liverpool John Hope University provide a PGCE in the philosophy of religion.
3 – Primary School Development
There are clearly, then, precedents and systems in place to support the idea that philosophy and religion can work together as one subject that applies ethics and theories to religious contexts. While there is a case that religion should not be the context, as opposed to social affairs or politics, bringing the two together as part of a philosophy of religion is, in some ways, a clearer option for primary schools.
Using children’s familiarity with Bible stories or festive events to get them thinking critically about different beliefs is one way to develop critical skills. Getting a creative discussion going from an early age through important issues like religion could, therefore, be a way of making the subject more accessible for many students.
4 – Caution
Whether the two subjects should be reconciled into one covering both areas individually and together is a hard decision for schools already pushed to make cuts. Having a single subject that is broad enough to include philosophical theories and debates is, at the very least, a working option for making sure that critical engagement is happening in schools.
Rob James is a teacher who has often filled GSL English teaching job vacancies and has experience in teaching English and Humanities. Having studied philosophy at university he highly recommends teaching philosophy to younger generations.