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Religion and Worldviews: A Conversation
I remember a colleague remarking recently that the RE Community would not be thriving if it was not debating and questioning. The recent discussions, including virtual gatherings, exploring a shift to a worldviews paradigm therefore demonstrate to me that the community is very much alive and flourishing. We all have questions, and this is healthy.
A paradigm is a way of looking at something, in this case religious education. It is usually a distinct set of concepts and ideas which explain how a subject is understood. When we talk about a paradigm shift, we are changing the way we think about something. A world religions paradigm is a way of classifying religious traditions. It is frequently associated with the ‘Big Six’(i.e. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism) and Humanism, although in recent years some new religious movements and indigenous traditions have been included. There is often a weighting towards religious traditions which have texts, places and founders. In contrast, a worldviews paradigm reflects the complex, diverse and plural nature of religious and non-religious worldviews. It builds on the prior knowledge and experience of all pupils. It recognises diversity within and between organised worldview traditions, as well as influences upon personal worldviews. It explores the significance of doctrine and practice, as well as lived experience, and involves a multi-disciplinary approach to study. A key point made in the Commission on RE (2018) is that everyone has a worldview.
As Chair of the RE Council Education Committee, I suggested that we discuss in one of our meetings both our enthusiasm and reservations about such a shift in emphasis. We agreed to do a SWOT analysis of both a world religions paradigm, and a worldviews paradigm. For those not familiar with ‘SWOT’ it requires you to analyse strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The summary below outlines openly the questions and themes that we are grappling with together as an Education Committee. We acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and that there may be different answers to some of these questions.
We felt that a world religions paradigm had many positive elements. We had all grown up with this approach and felt there was much we could learn from it. Clear curriculum frameworks have been produced to organise content based on this approach and many teachers are confident in this way of thinking about the subject. Politicians and the public understand the subject in these terms, particularly when we talk about the importance of religious literacy. In many ways it has served the RE community well up until this point, so if we change, what can we learn from this?
However, we felt there were also serious issues with a world religions approach. Content selection has become unmanageable and is often prone to essentialism. This is the belief that religions have a set of fixed characteristics which make them what they are. This might include a doctrinal or textual basis for example. There is a tendency to present a canonical or ‘normalised’ view of some worldviews, thus not giving enough appreciation to diversity, divergence, and change. In addition, the emphasis has been on which worldviews to cover and a sense of ‘competition’ has developed about how much time is spent on different ones. Alongside this, the world religions approach was developed during the late Victorian era and is based on a largely Western Christian colonial understanding of religion. There is often reference to ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ religions, potentially reinforcing stereotypes. So how can we address these issues? Does a worldviews paradigm help?
For many in the Education Committee, the strengths of a worldviews paradigm is its emphasis on lived experience, internal diversity and complexity of worldviews. It places an emphasis on interpreting information rather than simply acquiring it. It enables children and young people to engage more deeply with the motivation of others. It also provides a real opportunity to move away from a colonial framework. The committee acknowledged that elements of this shifting approach were already taking place across the RE community. An important way forward in shaping this new approach is the proposed National Entitlement (Commission on RE 2018). This would reframe content quite differently to the way it is done now. There are many questions arising from this. Who reframes it? How do you reframe it? Do we need to have a shared understanding of ‘worldviews’ first? What might this mean for syllabus writers? What would it look like in the classroom? How does this fit with the increasing conversations about multi-disciplinary approaches? How do we produce resources for this? How do we induct teachers into this new approach? Who pays for professional development? These were all questions raised by the committee, and we had no definitive answers. However, most importantly the committee felt we needed to grapple with these questions, to engage with them, to work through them, but that this would take time. Therefore, the committee have engaged with Amira Tharani’s Worldview Project Discussion Papers. These provide clear evidence for the need for change, discussion of the concept of worldview as well as potential disciplinary approaches and discourse about de-colonising of the curriculum.
For me, the shift to a worldviews paradigm is a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-imagine our vital curriculum subject if we are to empower children and young people to navigate the complex world in which we live. Therefore, for me, it is crucial that everyone engages in the conversation.
Dr Kathryn Wright
Chair, RE Council Education Committee
Commission on Religious Education. (2018) Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward. A National Plan for RE. 2018 Religious Education Council of England and Wales. Available to download: https://www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Final-Report-of-the-Commission-on-RE.pdf
Freathy, R and John, H. (2019) ‘Worldviews and Big Ideas: A way forward for Religious Education’, Journal of Humanities and Social Science Education Nordidactica, 2019 (4), pp1-27.
Owen, S. (2011) ‘The World Religions paradigm Time for a change’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 10(3), pp. 253–268.
Tharani, A. (2020) The Worldview Project Discussion Papers, 2020 Religious Education Council. Available to download: https://www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-Worldview-Project.pdf