OVER the past five decades, there has been an amazing increase
in opportunities for women, but equality with men has not yet been
achieved. UNESCO statistics on literacy suggest that two-thirds of
the world's illiterate people are women; and the proportion of
women editors of UK national newspapers, which was 17 per cent in
2006, dropped to five per cent last year. In the field of theology
and religious studies, the same is true: only 16 per cent of chairs
are held by women.
The most recent national guidance for RE in England attempts to
do something about the disparity. It suggests that students should
"consider why so many sources of wisdom and authority in religions
and world-views are men, and so few are women". But RE can engage
with debates with feminist theologies of religion, with feminist
challenges to our methods of study, and to questions such as the
full ordination of women in some forms of Buddhism.
Increasingly, over the past 50 years, feminist thinkers have
tended to reject religion as being irredeemably patriarchal, or to
try to reform their religion from within. Some have attempted to
create new forms of religion, such as Goddess spirituality. They
have reinterpreted old texts, disinterred the neglected women in
religious history (my own favourite is St Hilda of Whitby, who
presided over a co-educational monastery and taught theology to
bishops), and focused on the unnamed women who financially
Goddess theology does not just change the gender of the deity,
but advances a new, more immanent concept of the divine. Feminists
question the idea of "objective" study, because all perspectives
are shaped by context; and they point out that some teachings and
practices are simply unethical.
THE authority of experience is an important insight, especially
where all leaders and authors of text are male. Religion should be
studied through contemporary ethnography, as well as ancient texts,
if we are to hear the voices of women and children. We should also
be brave enough to give our students the confidence to trust the
authority of their own experience, especially where it clashes with
that of priest, teacher, or textbook.
Progress in equality in relation to sexuality is more recent.
There are still five countries in which homosexuality means the
death penalty, and 70 in which it leads to imprisonment. RE must
explicitly acknowledge that there are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and
transgendered people in all religions. Some reject religion as
being inherently homophobic; others campaign for reform; and
others, feminists, turn to new forms of spirituality.
Young LGBT people have, my research suggests, found Paganism
more welcoming than traditional religions. RE can explore how
religions have traditionally been used to justify the persecution
of homosexuals, and have supported using socially constructed
labels to divide people into categories.
There are two other less acknowledged "isms" that affect
religious education in particular. One of these is "religionism", a
term coined by John Hull, formerly of Birmingham University. It
leads to unequal treatment for various faiths in RE. It may be
right to give more time to Christianity, since it is the religion
that has had the biggest influence on British history and culture.
But this need not mean that it is unquestionably superior.
Also divided are the Big Six -Christianity, Islam, Judaism,
Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism - and smaller or newer traditions,
National guidance suggests also teaching about the Baha'i faith,
Jainism, and Zoroastrianism (I would add Paganism, and the
"Spiritual"). But, in practice, these rarely feature.
IN SPITE of the current debate about whether it is legal to
include non-religious views in RE, national and international
guidance explicitly includes "secular philosophies" such as
Humanism, and this seems justified in terms of equality and
inclusion, because "non-religious" is the second largest
self-identification in England, and may represent the majority in
My final "ism" is "subjectism", of which RE is a victim. Report
after report shows that, in the curriculum, RE is an oppressed
minority. It has the least funding, the most unqualified teachers,
and too little space in the timetable. Yet RE can contribute much
to the struggle for equality, as well as to social cohesion and
interfaith dialogue. It needs equal treatment, and much more
Dr Denise Cush is Professor of RE and Education at Bath Spa
University, and a member of the RE Council of England and Wales.
This article is a summary of the keynote address she gave at the
conference of the International Seminar on Religious Education and
Values (ISREV), at York St John University, in July.