How far have we travelled along the yellow brick road?

Everyone knows the enchanting story of Dorothy travelling along the yellow brick road to seek out the wisdom of the Wizard of Oz.  On her journey, she is befriended by three new companions. It is a wonderful story in its own right, of course, but I want to use some of the elements of this story to illustrate some important points of my own. In an earlier time, perhaps, I would have used John Bunyan’s story of the pilgrim ‘Christian’ going in search of the Celestial City. Alas, religious literacy being what it is today, few would know what I was talking about. In Religious Education we have seen a profound change in the direction of travel. We have journeyed far along a new yellow brick road in terms of religious education, far in to the enchanted forest and to turn round now would be sheer folly; but we are, perhaps, at a significant cross roads.

Many of us involved in a lifetime of religious education know that education has become one of many pawns in a political chess game and it seems that everyone has an opinion. As a classroom teacher of religious education, with thirty-five years experience at the’ chalk face’ so to speak, I do believe I have earned the right to make a serious comment about the direction of travel on which we as a subject now seem to be embarking.

There is little doubt today the United Kingdom is on the one hand an increasingly secular society where the beliefs and practices of religion seem increasingly irrelevant to many and  at the same time a religiously pluralist society. Within this often contradictory setting of a changing religious landscape, it is within this arena religious education must take its place if it is to survive and indeed continue to thrive as a subject with value on the school curriculum.

Who were the three companions on my road? Of course my own faith. I never set out on the road to convert children to my own religious faith but I was on the road because I have a deep personal faith.  This is an important part of who I am and  which inspired me to want to teach children well and share my passion for religion with them. There is no hidden agenda. I am not, nor ever have been, simply a spectator in this journey. I believe passionately in the value of excellent religious education and of its importance both for individuals and society. Indeed, for myself, teaching has always been a vocation. Although I am a highly experienced teacher, to use the words of Yoda in Star Wars, ‘much to learn I still have’; I have embraced, and continue to do so, with enthusiasm and positivity any opportunities to make my chosen subject interesting and relevant to young people. But, and it is a significant but, I trained as a teacher of religious education and that is all I ever wanted to teach.

The crossroads moment then. I have never taught a pupil who told me that he or she was a humanist. I have taught young people who claimed to be atheist, agnostic, pagan, but never a humanist. I have taught the curious, the dim, the enthusiastic, the indifferent, the intelligent, the interested, the polite, the rude and those downright hostile to religious education but never anyone who claimed to be an humanist. At the heart of all that I have done is the unshakeable belief that I was teaching a subject which I still think has enormous value and worth and relevance for all people. And we need to get real. Humanists do not accept the value of religious belief or practice – why would they? In the humanist world religion – all religion is false and I am puzzled that so much credence is given to this point of view by religious education teachers and others. I welcome a diversity of viewpoints in the classroom but I am there to actually teach about religion. We forget this at our peril. We become a little like the scarecrow – filling our important limited curriculum time with straw bales.

My other companion has been a good deal of common sense – I am a realist. I know that not all share my belief in the value of  religion. In my view humanism lays no value on either the belief or practice of religion. The humanist agenda is an attempt to hijack religious education for its own subtle ends. At the heart of humanism is an agenda which seeks to set people free of any religious belief or practice and ultimately the abolition of all religion; an emerald celestial city in which nobody has a sense of the celestial.  Humanism, in my view, is not a religion. Of course it is a valid worldview for many, but a religion? No way.  And in my view, as teachers of religious education, we diminish the worth of our subject if we do not challenge the view that it is. Like the tin man we need to look at the heart of what we are about and surely we should be about teaching about religion.

My other companion was a sense of perspective. I think all of us involved in religious education need a stiff dose of perspective. The young people in our care are at the beginning of a life journey and they will, in their own lives, make up their own minds about the value of religion probably much later in their lives. For many in the early part of this journey, their life experiences so far means they have little knowledge and understanding of religion or have any spiritual dimension to their lives.  For many young people,  this experience is almost non-existent.  As religious education teachers we have a duty to teach  knowledge and  understanding about religion to help young people try and make sense of what it means to belong to a religion. We have a duty to help young people develop some sense of awe and wonder.  And at the same time give them the life skills and tools to develop an enquiring and tolerant mind for the future. If and when we stop doing this, then why we would want to teach religious education at all?  We are, after all, teachers and we are the gatekeepers of this important yellow brick  road to religious knowledge and ultimately a deeper understanding of life. I have always regarded this as an essential part of my work; to try and impart some knowledge and some understanding both of religion and the spiritual dimension.  I feel no need to apologise for this and seek no medal for it – unlike the lion.

At the end of the story we learn Dorothy’s journey has actually been a dream.  For me it has been an absolute privilege to be a religious education teacher – my dream job. For the new generation of religious education teachers I hope it does not turn out to be a nightmare.

Now where is my copy of Pilgrim’s Progress?

Christopher Owens