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EDUCATION: Cleaning ‘isms’ out of RE

19 September 2014

Denise Cush considers issues of gender, sexuality, and 'religionism' in religion, and in the experience of RE


Valuable lessons: school pupils visit the Buddhapadipa Temple, in Wimbledon

Valuable lessons: school pupils visit the Buddhapadipa Temple, in Wimbledon

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 supported Jesus.


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 some classrooms.

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 government support.


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.

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