Open Religious Education and its Enemies 2015

by John Baxter

(This is a revised and updated version of a paper first written in 2003 entitled Religious Education and the Fundamentalist Threat.  Since it is 9,857 words long you are advised to print it off rather than wade through it on screen)

Summary This paper argues that the uniquely open and scholarly education in Religion that has developed in Britain in our universities and initially in maintained schools, has a vital role to play in promoting the tolerant, rational and open culture which all forms of fundamentalism seek to subvert.


It also shows how the growth and presence of Islamic jihadi fundamentalism within our society makes it essential that the importance of good open  education in religion needs to be recognised, promoted and far more positively supported by government, the political parties and the faith communities.



Open Education in Religion. A Unique British Achievement. In England, Wales and Scotland, (sadly less so in Northern Ireland,) we have developed something – primarily in our maintained schools – which is little celebrated and greatly undervalued. It is an educational achievement virtually unique in the world, that is the teaching of what I will refer to as Open Religious Education.

A Definition Open Religious Education, as opposed to a closed, dogmatic or indoctrinatory approach which pre-supposes the truth of one particular tradition, does not pre-judge the truth or falsity of any specific religion or tradition, but encourages awareness and understanding of the varieties of religion as part of the quest by students to understand each other and to work out their own beliefs and values in a sensitive, rational and consistent way.

There are a range of reasons and pressures for undervaluing Open RE. These rate from the exclusive claims made by some religious traditions to attitudes regarding the examination of issues regarding race, gender, sexual orientation and other contentious moral choices, but probably the most important reason is that few if any of the movers and shakers in our society went to schools where they would have been able to experience good open RE. This is because it has really only been widely and significantly established and available over the last twenty or so years. (i.e. since the introduction of OFSTED in1992)

The Religious Studies Examination Explosion Rather to the surprise of many who hoped and expected that RE in maintained mainland schools was something which would simply wither away as secularisation proceeded, exam courses in Religious Studies since 92 proved to be increasingly popular with pupils being entered for them and opting for them in huge numbers.  By 2005 out of the 600,000 pupils who took GCSE exams 141,000 took a full course and 240,000 a short course. In the 6th Form 21,000 took the AS course and 16,000 a full A level. In all cases these figures showed a substantial year on year rise, a rise which continued to grow overall by 8% in 2006 and another 4% in 2007. The total taking a full A level in RS in 2008 rose to 20,134.  Such a rate of growth is I think quite unprecedented in any subject. This too has had a knock on effect as students wished to go further and across the country departments of Religious Studies or of Theology and Religion had more and more students applying for their courses. Sadly since the Coalition took power in 2010 with Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education, this growth has been checked.

The sour knee-jerk reaction to this expansion was to suggest that students must be choosing the subject because they see it as an easy option.  All professionals in the field have denied this, arguing that great care has been taken to make sure the course is rigorously academic and challenging.

The Study of Religion in the Universities This approach has gone alongside work in our universities following the lead of Professor Ninian Smart in setting up at Lancaster in 1967 the first Department of Religious Studies in the country. As a result in our universities faculties of Christian Theology have developed into departments of Theology and Religious Studies. (currently offered by 40 institutions) Even Oxford has recently changed from a Department of Theology to a Department of Religion and Theology. These faculties now examine through academic study a variety of religious traditions and the phenomenon of religion itself in an open, questioning, and intellectually rigorous way.  (Such an open approach at university level is institutionally quite rare as both in Europe and the USA Theology and Religion faculties have been organised denominationally, even if their practice is broader.)

Religion, Politicians and the Enemies of Open RE As far as British politicians have been concerned, religion in education has often been seen as a very hot potato and one best treated with “benign neglect” in the hope that the controversies and fierce emotions sections of the media (read Telegraph and Daily Mail) have been only too ready to whip up, will simply fade away.  This situation has certainly been exacerbated when ideological political polarisation was strong as in the eighties. Then left wing Labourites and NUT members influenced by Marxism and anti-religious atheistic humanists saw all religion as simply superstition and false consciousness. Their wish was, and in some cases still is, that all positive reference to religion in schools should be removed or the subject ignored.  (For years that was NUT policy. Not true however of Tony Benn or Shirley Williams who both actively backed RE)  . For example it is now forgotten that those who first advocated an emphasis on “multiculturalism” in education tried to edit out and de-emphasise the role of religion in teaching about different cultures!

On the other side religious right wing Conservatives hankered after an imposed indoctrinatory approach which saw “teaching children Christianity” (Lady Olga Maitland, Baroness Young and the Jesuit educated John Patten Secretary of State for Education 92-94 in the Thatcher Government) as a way of reasserting a British identity which defined us as members of  “a Christian Nation.”  Not only was such a view grossly discriminatory towards non-Christians and immigrants, but given the largely secular and plural way British society has grown, such an approach was and is simply unrealistic.

Almost everywhere else in the world, certainly until very recently, where religion is taught in schools, the aim is the perpetuation of a single religious tradition which is then – be it Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jewish – taught as if it were “the one true faith.”  We can still see this approach in Northern Ireland where the state funded but religiously segregated school system remains almost entirely under ecclesiastical control.  This is generally recognised outside the province as being the biggest single reason for the perpetuation of a poisonous political-cultural-religious divide.

In contrast to such state-funded religiosity, Open RE as set out in all the various county agreed syllabuses in England, Wales, and in Scotland, aims to introduce pupils to the teachings and practices of Christianity certainly, but also to the teachings and practices of the other major religions to be found in the UK (currently the list usually is given as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism – unfortunately several still provide no place for the examination of a secular alternative belief system – Humanism (as promoted by the British Humanist Association)

The Danger we now face. An Alienated Minority of  Three million (estimated to grow to 5.5 million by 2030. Pew Research) In 2003 I wrote, “As every headline screams we now live and are likely to continue to live in an atmosphere where fear and suspicion of anyone with a brown skin or a Muslim background is just below the surface. In such an atmosphere open, tolerant, rational attitudes and behaviour can easily be lost.” That was written after 9-11 but before IS was even heard of. Things are much worse now. When tolerance is lost members of minority religions and cultures are likely to retreat into ghettos feeling increasingly alienated. Of course this is most likely to happen to Muslims, but Hindus and Sikhs can also be affected and jihadi Muslim attacks on Jews exacerbated by the behaviour of Israel and its policies towards Palestinians is added to the mix.   A vicious cycle can set in, one which can lead to distrust, crude stereotyping, and the loathing or hatred of those who are different.  If this happens the police and security lead fight against terrorism will be greatly hampered and the jihadists and those influenced by Al-Qaida will be obtaining their objective of separating our three million Muslim citizens from feeling part of this society.

In a sense this is not a totally new phenomenon. In Northern Ireland we have seen what happens when trust breaks down between political/religious communities and the “hard men” take over.  Surely it is no exaggeration to say, that if we are not careful, relations could get as bad here with isolated Muslim enclaves perceived as dangerous in almost every town.  What has happened in Ireland should remind us.

The Irish example is however significantly different. The great majority of Irish immigrants slip relatively easily into British society despite identifying with Ireland North and Republican. Islam by contrast, as both a belief and cultural system makes “integration” into British society much more difficult and the creation of parallel but socially separate communities (like those of the Orthodox Charedi Jews) almost normative. This presents us with a long-term problem.

The challenge we face is that tolerant, open, culturally and racially inclusive yet religiously diverse democratic societies do not just happen. They are fragile. They have to be worked for, protected, planned and educated for. If this does not happen a society can polarise and disintegrate into factions.

Religious Fundamentalism We are then in for the long haul, which is where education comes in. As Karen Armstrong described in The Battle for God a year before the Twin Towers came crashing down, the ideology of jihadi Islam was developed by the Sunni Muslim scholar and member of the Muslim Brotherhood Sayyid Qutb and published in his book Milestones in 1964.  That was two years before his execution by Nasser and after he had been sentenced to fifteen years hard labour.  A well educated and prolific author who had spent time teaching in the US, he came to reject Western society, secular Arab nationalism and the corrupt and oppressive “traditional” Arab regimes as having betrayed Islam. He was also virulently anti-Jewish and anti Israel. It is his thinking that violent jihad should be waged against these forces, the US, the infidel West, the “sell-out” Muslims and the Jews which has been taken up and developed by the Saudi Wahabi, Osama Bin Laden.

In  1945 Carl Popper’s  work The Open Society and Its Enemies was published. In it he exposed the errors and irrationality of the great secular ideologies of his day which then threatened liberal, open, democratic societies.  These were what he described as the “vulgar Marxism” of Soviet directed Communism and the   “National Socialism,” of the fascists.  Now the threats we are faced with are not from secular ideologies, but ideologies that are fundamentalist perversions or versions of the three great related monotheistic religions, Judaism Christianity and Islam.  All in their extreme oversimplified forms are susceptible to being pushed further to provide apocalyptic pseudo-justifications for acts of murder and terror which go far beyond the righting of real and perceived injustices.

What all these forms of religious fundamentalism have in common (and there are more forms of fundamentalism than the three mentioned) is that they treat their scriptures in a very literalistic way and they promote in their adherents the belief that they alone see their correct meaning and correctly represent the wishes of their version of God. Fundamentalists are always inclined to claim that they alone are right, and that everyone else is wrong, damned, evil. “So what,” some may say.  “Let people believe any stupid thing they want to. It’s a free country and people can believe what they like.”

Unfortunately, fundamentalist thinking feeds intolerance and breaks down any sense of our being part of a common humanity, replacing it with an allegiance to some very restricted group. It then easily encourages some to be prepared to impose their convictions on others by force, so its claims need to be exposed and countered. (Some examples: violently attacking abortion clinics and murdering those who terminate unwanted pregnancies in the name of the rights of the unborn child, setting off bombs in pubs and in the streets of Omagh, Belfast and London in the name of a united (and Catholic) Ireland, invading Palestinian land by force and shooting Palestinians who fight back while claiming God covenanted the land of Israel to the Jews alone, the destruction of synagogues, mosques, churches and temples all in the name of the same deity but refered to as Allah, resorting to suicide “martyr” bombings targeted against uninvolved civilians in New York, Bali, Madrid, Jerusalem, London and Baghdad (as we saw with Al Qaida) and now of course the even more horrible decapitations of Yasedi, Sunnis and Christians carried out by IS..  All these actions are then justified as expressions of an heroic and justified “faith” in the deity.

Transforming Fundamentalism through Open RE What all forms of fundamentalism show is the way they oversimplify both reality and the tradition they claim to support by creating an ideology, a circular set of arguments, slogans and black and white prescriptions which admit to no possibility that they could be wrong or disproved, and as Popper showed, when an ideology, secular or religious, admits no possible appeal to reason or evidence against it, it reveals itself to be irrational and immoral.

What erodes and can transform all forms of religious fundamentalism and crude secular ideologies into something more rational, moral, sensitive and open, is questioning, critical thinking as experienced in dialogue, sustained study, reasoned debate, friendship across divides and opportunities for reflection. When this happens participants can experience that there is more than one reasonable and honest way of looking at “life, the universe and everything,” and that there is more that unites us as human beings than divides us.  Getting to such a point is often a gradual, transforming process, and it can only take place in settings where there is an atmosphere which encourages people to feel valued and able to express themselves openly and honestly.  Given such a setting it is amazing what can be achieved – which is why the enemies of openness always try to close such opportunities down.

At its best it is a powerful tool in breaking down religious and cultural prejudice and the growth of fundamentalist thinking in a context where young people left to themselves or exposed to only one “story” can easily become prejudiced and intolerant.

The practice of teaching good Open RE is not simply dryly didactic, but from the primary level up, involves exploring the stories, ceremonies, symbols and customs of the major religions not as if they are true or false, but as something to learn from by engaging the imagination,  using music, art, drama and costume and visits to places of worship and visitors coming into the schools.  On that is built the discussion and examination of key teachings and a look at moral rules and approaches to behaviour.  Wherever possible a process of sharing is encouraged so no-one is left feeling peculiar.  Diversity is celebrated and shared, values noted and a good RE teacher will see to it that no-one in the class is looked down on because they come from a minority community or have been brought up in a minority faith. (and this includes Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.)  It then becomes possible at secondary level for pupils to explore important and controversial ethical issues in an informed and thoughtful way.   It also has to be said that this approach is not a commendation of moral relativism, but an education based on respect for persons and a reason based morality.

How Open RE Came About. The story of how open RE was established is interesting for as far as the main British politicians are concerned it was one of unintended consequences.   As Secretary of State for Education in the Thatcher Government, Kenneth Baker was responsible for the Education Act of 1996. This act introduced a National Curriculum and a new system of “privatised” regular school inspections (OFSTED).  Baker pointedly ignored putting RE in the National Curriculum, only to discover late in the legislative process that he had actually no choice but to recognise that the earlier Butler Act had decreed RE part of the “basic curriculum.”  What was worse for him was that the law stated syllabuses for RE were not for the Secretary of State to determine, but were under the control of the Local Authorities, the County Councils.  They in turn under pressure from HMI, RE teachers, County RE Advisers, academics in the universities and some bishops in the Church of England, (particularly Bishop Leonard when Bishop of London) set up Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs) which, starting with Birmingham, (with the encouragement of Professor John Hull) set about drawing up a series of ground-breaking Open RE syllabuses for maintained schools which were passed by county councils and became legally binding.

The Subversion of Open RE Faced with the SACREs Baker knew it would be difficult to change the law again, however he and the Cabinet were not happy. Open RE was not quite the Thatcher style, and under his successor John Patten the directives of the first SACREs that all pupils should be able to gain knowledge and understanding of several religions as well as Christianity was objected to but not overturned for it was beyond the minister’s legal powers to do so. However plans to reflect religious diversity in examinations for Religious Studies at GCSE and A level were blocked by Patten and the details of subject content subjected to unprecedented direct political interference by him. His aim was to allow schools that wanted to – both Independent and the Voluntary Aided and Controlled  (VA, that is state funded schools with a religious foundation) to get away with an all Christianity (or all Catholic or in the case of Jewish schools an all Judaism) GCSE and A level syllabus. This HMI, the RE professionals and County RE Advisers all considered to be too narrow, but they were overridden.  In addition it was declared by the Cabinet that the writ of the SACRE’s would not apply to schools in the independent sector at all (They were also excused from complying with the National Curriculum and OFSTED inspections) or to the Anglican, Catholic and Jewish Voluntary (VA) schools. Finally, when Baker’s big idea, state/business funded City Technology Colleges came into existence, they were freed from all local authority control and from the writ of the SACREs as regards RE.

These anti-Open RE policies were born both of a political fear of upsetting  C of E, Catholic and Jewish  “faith communities” in maintaining  control of their state funded Voluntary Aided religious schools, and a failure to accept the reality of growing cultural, racial and religious diversity.  Surprisingly these policies were largely also maintained by the devout Tony Blair and his New Labour. This has presumably been as a result of a worry that the issue could stir up a hornets nest in the media (read Daily Mail) as was done by Lady Olga Maitland and Baroness Young in the years after ’96 when they argued that the young would be confused if presented with a “multi-religious mish-mash”.  However, as a result of complaints to Jack Straw when he was Home Secretary from a small number of Muslim independent schools who could not get state funding and VA status like Anglican, Catholic and Jewish schools could, New Labour agreed that all religions could apply to set up VA schools (but NOT Humanists).  Since the Voluntary Aided schools,  Christian and Jewish were however able to impose their own denominational and sectarian worship and RE syllabuses, the new Muslim VA schools were also free to impose a narrow sectarian (Wahhbi) version of religous teaching. (and of Islam)  The problem of opt outs from Open RE however came back to haunt the traditional Catholic Ruth Kelly when she was Secretary of State for Education in 2005.  Aware of the danger of fundamentalist Muslim thinking growing in some 120 impoverished privately funded and very narrow schools, she offered them VA or Controlled school status and funding if they accepted OFSTED.inspection.

RE, the City Academies and the Labour and Conservative Academy Programme Kenneth Baker’s City Technology Colleges initiative was taken up and re-labelled by New Labour as their City Academy programme.  Initially there were 17 of these, but under Lord Andrew Adonis who was appointed Schools Minister by Tony Blair, their number increased to around 200. These schools were showered with extra resources denied to mainstream maintained schools, and wealthy businessmen  encouraged to govern and sponsor them.  They were also able to recruit and pay staff , manage and set up curricula outside the demands of the National Curriculum and outside LEA control. (but not outside OFSTED inspection, which they  have to undergo.) As far as RE is concerned, they were free to do as their governors wished. One had a strongly Evangelical Christian ethos with Darwin rejected and pseudo “Creation Science” commended. The reason for allowing these anti-open RE moves has never been spelt out.

These policies have been taken up in a big way under the Coalition Government 2010-2015 and under Michael Gove an aggressive policy of turning as many schools into academies either as “faith” schools or chains of academies all free of LA control has progressed rapidly (3,444 by 2014). For good measure he has also set up at great cost many state maintained “free schools”. All of these are free to ignore the SACREs and again there have been problems with Muslim schools in Birmingham.

The Growing Recognition of the Value of Open RE The case though for open RE was in important ways strengthened in the New Labour years as the incredible growth in those choosing Religious Studies examination courses shows.  This was the result of OFSTED inspectors insisting RE teachers be fairly treated as regards time, training and status and  the result of the new Open RE syllabuses sanctioned and encouraged by the SACREs and new and engaging GCSE examination syllabuses which looked at moral issues and were taught by a new generation of dedicated RS graduate teachers. Although their influence is by no means universal, there has been much good and imaginative teaching – even in very tough situations. Freed from indoctrinatory “closed RE” teaching, many pupils find what they learn and discuss in RE fascinating and – dare one use the word – personally relevant.  In addition advisers and OFSTED inspectors have become increasingly aware of the considerable contribution that well taught open RE can make to the ethos and achievements of a school.  Certainly a new and positive appreciation of RE was shown at the highest level of Government.

Charles Clarke Launches a National Framework for RE In 2004 while Secretary of State for Education in the Blair Government, Charles Clarke introduced the publication of a document entitled The Non-statutory National Framework for RE Planned to supplement and inspire the work of the SACREs, this was the most overt and considered support by a government minister ever shown for Open RE and was welcomed unanimously by members of the National RE Council for England and Wales and by the Church of England. (The RE Council is an advisory body which has representatives on it of all the teacher associations and all the faith communities.)

This National Framework for RE was an amazing British achievement.   Frankly it is still hard to imagine it being produced by the government of any other country or of it getting such widespread support both from faith communities and educational bodies.  Well thought out and clearly expressed it states that Religious Education is there to support the curriculum by actively promoting “the values of truth, justice, respect for all and care for the environment.  It places specific emphasis on pupils valuing themselves and others, the role of the family and the community in religious belief and activity, the celebration of diversity in society through understanding similarities and differences, and sustainable development of the earth.” From these general principles it then goes on to spell out clearly just what is and should be good practice in Religious Education and what knowledge and skills should be taught at what stages. It is intended as an encouragement to the SACREs and to all involved in RE and in education, and in the introduction the minister declared that “it lies at the heart of (government) policies to raise standards in the learning and teaching of religious education.”   Described as non-statutory because it is there not to replace the statutory SACREs, but to supplement them, it was also intended to influence the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly who have statutory responsibility for education in their areas.

Unfortunately however, because as Charles Clarke acknowledged it is “such a hot potato”  the Framework accepted and does not question the pattern of opt outs which had so far developed.  This is a serious shortcoming made worse when Gove came to power in 2010 because of the Government’s declared policy of allowing almost all schools to “achieve” the special status and privileges of Academy and “Free School.” The result is that the recently revised Framework and the Open RE it still commends could be seen as applying to fewer and fewer schools. “Benign neglect” has come around again.

RE  is still a Cinderella Despite its comparative success in attracting examination pupils and the groundbreaking achievement of producing a National Framework for RE, RE remains a Cinderella subject with an ambiguous and uncertain future. This has been made worse by Gove who in his drive to improve basic standards introduced the EBac (English Baccalaureate) in the GCSE year. This six subject certificate requires  a Humanities choice, but Gove restricted the choice of Humanities subjects to Geography and History, Excluding Religious Studies. This will act as a disincentive to brighter pupils and immediately the numbers taking the subject have fallen.This means its vital role and its present and future potential for providing an education in tolerance and mutual understanding may be ignored or greatly undervalued.

Instead actively or by default, closed, indoctrinatory forms of religious teaching or poor and inadequate teaching could provoke or encourage ignorance, intolerance or extremism in our schools. (  In March 2007 the Religious Education Council issued their paper A National Strategy for RE) This spells out many of the same issues in great detail including a plea for Humanism as a non-religious world-view to be included )  Gove however, in addition to downgrading RS as an examination subject, removed all incentives to potential teachers to train as RE specialists by withdrawing the PGCE grant given to History and Geography teachers to cover tuition fees. He has in fact made it more likely that RE will be taught in reduced time by non-specialist and often unwilling teachers and that teachers will not see RE offering a good career path in teaching.  His successor, Nicky Morgan has yet to show her hand as regards RE.

Bearing all this in mind here is a list of actions and policies which I would like to suggest could, if sensitively and skilfully introduced, improve RE and have a significant effect in improving cross cultural understanding and counteracting the growth of Islamic Jihadism and all other forms of intolerant religious fundamentalism.


  1. Explore the Wahhabi Saudi influence on British Islam and develop the training of Imams. The British Muslim population is multi-racial and extremely varied with groups coming from all over the world and the Middle East. Most are however Sunni but there is a Shia minority. The largest numbers come from Pakistan and Bangladesh.  Most of these were not wealthy or educated when they came here though the educational performance of many of their children has been impressive, particularly in London.

Oil rich Saudis have however given generously towards the building and financing of mosques around Britain and around Pakistan.  They have also funded the production of Islamic literature and new English (and apparently narrow) translations of the Koran.  The Saudi’s though follow the Sunni sect of Muhammad ibn Abd Wahhab (1703-92CE) a fundamentalist reformer taken up by the ruling Saud family. This means that Wahhabi fundamentalism, historically a small Sunni sect, has become widely accepted as the norm amongst practicing Sunni Muslims both in Britain and in Pakistan and to a considerable extent world wide.

The Wahhabi approach is also accepted by Bin Laden and his followers and Al Qaida is exclusively a Wahhabi Sunni sub-group that remains close to the teaching of official Saudi scholars except for a rejection of the role of the Saud royal family as protectors of Islam and in its place the promotion of violent jihad to create a new caliphate. Currently most imams in Britain were taught in Pakistan in Wahhabi fundamentalist madrassas.  This means as several leading Muslim scholars have pointed out, that they have a decidedly narrow view as to what constitutes authentic Islam.

Historically, Islam like Christianity, is quite a “broad church” and has over the centuries produced a rich tradition of sophisticated philosophical speculation and a wide variety of schools of textual interpretation. This is something Abd Wahhab rejected entirely in favour of a “back to basics”  literalism without dialogue with those outside.  What the Wahhabi and the Jihadists who follow them do not like to be made aware of is how diverse, subtle and varied the conclusions and traditions within Islamic scholarship and legal practice in fact are. They are also totally opposed to an historical/critical study of Islam and of the Koran or of any questioning of its divine authority or the authority of Muhammad as expressed in it or the Hadith. 2.Promote and Encourage An Islamic Reformation. With Islam now so big in the country, there is a desperate need for providing imams, and actual and potential Muslim leaders with opportunities for acquiring an intellectually challenging, high quality and sophisticated education in Islamic Studies which goes beyond the narrow confines of the Wahhabi sect and is open and critical in approach.

They need to be able to explore Muslim history, culture and thought more deeply in an academically open setting and to contrast this with the teaching and practice of other religions and to recognise the challenge western philosophy and ethics and secular democratic society make to Islam.

The teaching of degrees in Islamic Studies which treat the Koran in the sort of historical/critical way the Jewish and Christian scriptures have been studied for a century or more is now ripe for development.  This is essential if the grossly intolerant ideology of jihadist political Islam – which encourages young Muslims to regard everyone and everything non-Islamic as kafir and evil and that it is their duty to aim for the overthrow of “infidel” society and the setting up of  the victory of an Islamic state through the practice of jihad– is to be counteracted.

I would thus suggest that grants are made from Government bodies to build up RS departments in the universities to facilitate this process, and the growing Muslim elite could also be encouraged to endow chairs, provide scholarships and give support to these moves.

The aim I suggest should be to produce a new generation of theologically self-confident and scholarly British trained imams, thinkers and leaders who could lead a renaissance in Islamic culture within our diverse democratic society based on open academic study, acceptance of human rights and the equality of the sexes.  Within a generation Britain could become and should aim to be a leading centre for authoritative, reputable, Islamic scholarship. Britain should be a place where Muslim leaders and students from around the world should want to come, to study and reflect on what it means to be a thoroughly contemporary well-educated Muslim. This is a goal worth aiming for and in the end the best way to defeat the poisonous narrowness of the jihadis.

At the same time steps should be carefully taken to dissuade British Muslims from training in Pakistani madrassas and to put off Pakistani trained imams from coming here. . The “integration” of some three million Muslims growing to over five million in fifteen years (from 2015) into British society is something which is seldom  thought or talked about.  It really should be.  On the basis of what has happened in other countries we need to recognise that many Muslims do not see their religion in the way that many Protestant Christians have seen theirs, that is as something that mainly concerns personal morality and private practice. Instead Islam is seen as a divinely inspired cultural system and a blue-print for a well-ordered society.  How then Muslims should live as a minority in a free, open, democratic, largely secular and religiously diverse society and what sort of “covenant” they need to have with this society, is a big issue. Certainly it would be foolish, wrong and unrealistic to expect British Muslims to lose their religious identity, but it is both dangerous and sad if they feel they need to withdraw into exclusive communities or to promote their identity in ways that reject basic human rights..

As with the Jews in this country, some Muslims will amend how they practice their religion and work out personal ways of accommodating with this culture. Some will drift away from Islam, intermarry and secularise – like many have done as regards Christianity and yes Judaism. Again however, as with religious Jews (a very much smaller community) and of course as with active young Christians, many young British born Muslims and some converts will turn to their religion with a fresh enthusiasm, and many will feel that Islam as a cultural system as well as a personal spiritual path has much, or key elements to be commended here.

Already Muslims, like the Jews before them, are rising to more and more positions of responsibility and influence in our society, not only in business, but in the professions, in academic life, in the media and in politics.  They will, like the Jews, not just be absorbed into British society, they will contribute creatively and increasingly influence it in ways we do not yet know.  The long term future of this country is certainly going to be one of greater cultural and religious diversity.  Our hope must be that this religiously and culturally varied British identity will be based upon a common acceptance of the English language, British citizenship and basic liberal British values (the rule of law, the acceptance of human rights, gender equality, religious freedom, tolerance and democracy.)

If as a result of jihadist terrorism and religious fundamentalism the Muslim population feels excluded or excludes itself from full participation, the result will be disaster for everyone. In influencing  how this develops I believe that departments of Religious Studies in our universities and good RE in schools could and should play an important role in helping students, whatever their religious or non-religious background,  understand themselves, each other, and the communities from which they come. 3. Recognise Where Interfaith Dialogue is Happening The “War on Terror” has resulted in a plethora of interfaith meetings, demos and talk of interfaith dialogue involving the great and the good. Some, like the meetings with Professor Hans Kung at Tubingen that involved Tony Blair. This is to be applauded.  No doubt it springs from a hope that more interfaith contact, mutual understanding and the exploration of shared values will reduce communal polarization.  Such top down contact can however be pretty superficial and limited in its effects.  What has not been acknowledged as far as I am aware is that the only place where such interfaith understanding is taught and dialogue practiced day in and day out is in those of our schools with good open RE where children and young people are encouraged to know and understand each other and in our universities with good Religion courses. My understanding then is that the “War on Terror” underlines just how important RE in schools and Religion and Theology in the universities is for the health of our society. 4.Teaching about Islam as part of RE needs to be improved As the second biggest religion in the UK, and with possibly as many active members as the Christian churches combined, we need more and better teaching about Islam, both for Muslims and non-Muslims in our schools, particularly if and when jihadist terrorist outrages take place – as we have to expect they will. This will of course, not be easy, but good RE teachers, like few others, see exploring controversial issues which divide people, as an important part of their role.  They do however require a great deal more support from school leaders and OFSTED if this is to happen. 5. Recruit more RE Teachers and Value Them More There is a desperate need to recruit more high quality religion and philosophy graduates to posts teaching RE.  Unfortunately the fact that the subject is not part of the National Curriculum does nothing for the esteem it is held in.  Faced with league tables and targets for literacy and numeracy, an already crowded curriculum and the uncomfortable awareness that RE deals with and can expose controversy, head teachers continue to discriminate against RE and RE teachers in their allocations of time and resources.  Nor does this encourage teachers to feel that RE teaching has a good long term future.  RE teachers continue to be placed under unreasonable pressures and given inadequate support, particularly as compared to their colleagues. (A one period per week allocation can easily mean an RE teacher being expected to teach 400 different children in a year and write reports, mark work and set exams for all of them.)

As we need to recruit more RE teachers, we should also encourage more RE teachers who come from a Muslim background, preferably with Religion degrees and an awareness of the breadth of the Islamic tradition. Properly trained these could also act as Imams and Heads of RE departments in Muslim VA schools.

Overall then there needs to be a significant recognition of the demanding and crucial nature of  RE teaching and the skills needed to handle inherently controversial material in a fair and balanced way.  In the same way that there are financial incentives to attract and retain Maths and Science teachers, there should be similar financial incentives for those prepared to take up teaching RE and for those who demonstrate teaching excellence. This would also signal to the world of education that the Department of Education had come to recognise that good open RE is as important for the development of pupils and our society as Maths or Science. 6. RE Should Become Part of the National Curriculum All this leads to the conclusion that the various Local Authority syllabuses should be replaced by a single national RE syllabus based on best open RE practice as set out in the National Framework.  This curriculum should then apply to all schools of whatever type, including in the Independent sector. It is now simply ridiculous that so popular and widely taught and examined a subject, should not be part of the National Curriculum. 7. Discourage Single Religion Exam Syllabuses in Schools “Christianity Only” , “Catholic Christianity Only” , “Judaism Only”, and “Islam Only” RS syllabuses are still allowed and are used in many independent, Voluntary Aided Church of England, in most if not all Catholic schools, Jewish schools and now Muslim schools..  Where these are the culmination of a syllabus lower down the school that never explores other religions, they go against the whole point of open RE and should be replaced by courses which “compare and contrast and learn from.”.It is absolutely vital in our society that all pupils in all schools receive accurate and sympathetic education about the teachings and practices of the major faiths.  We can no longer afford to be tolerant of those who teach intolerance or deliberately promote ignorance.
8.Discourage Single Religion Undergraduate Courses at University It is hard to justify as intellectually credible or honest undergraduate university courses that do not involve some study of the phenomenon of religion in general and the teachings and practices of more than one religion as a basis for the serious study of any religion. This of course should apply as much to degrees in Islamic Studies as to degrees in Christian Theology such as are offered at some top universities, including Oxford.  Sadly, ignorance, intolerance and intellectual tunnel vision can go hand in hand with high intelligence and linguistic skill.  Good courses in Religious Studies should discourage this from happening. The place for studying aspects of a single religion is surely at postgraduate level.

9.Licence and Inspect All Schools When Baker introduced OFSTED inspections, (Office for Standards in Education, a very valuable reform)  with what looked like breathtaking arrogance they were not introduced to monitor the performance of the independent schools favoured by the political and cultural elite. In the new world we live in though I would argue that tolerance and openness cannot be taken for granted and all schools should be licensed and subject to OFSTED inspection – and specifically no school – including some of the new Academies – should be allowed intentionally or by default to promote an atmosphere of intolerance or lack of respect or be allowed to ignore other religions.  This is vital as there is already a call for more Muslim state funded schools, but the law must be, and be seen to be, even handed, treating Evangelical Christians, Catholics, Jews, Sikhs and Anglicans in the same way as we treat Muslims.  What is more RE is often poor and seldom open in the prestigious public schools where chapel looms large and other religions are ignored.  This encourages the formation of an ignorant and prejudiced “elite.” 10. Encourage an Open and Tolerant Approach in Faith Based Schools Faith based schools, independent or state funded, be they Church of England, Roman Catholic, Jewish,  Muslim,  Sikh or Buddhist may have a real place to play in giving communities a sense of identity and self-confidence, and the evidence shows they stimulate study and educational achievement (together with covert selection). At their best they can give depth to the richness of our cultural diversity.  However, they are not all wonderful, and as literature shows many have written about how they have been scarred by the intolerance taught and practised in some of them.  Such church and faith based schools at their best can be admirable and can and should be encouraged, provided they are not allowed to become ghettos of  privilege or of prejudice looking out at  the wider community with ignorance or contempt.  One way this can be helped is by such schools taking 15-20% of its pupils from families with another religion or none, and if independent offering a good number of scholarships and bursaries.  Properly run with such a mix they can promote excellence in open RE and embody in microcosm an open and caring society.  They should all though be subject to OFSTED inspection to improve the RE they teach and the openness and tolerance of the ethos they offer.

It is to be much commended that in most dioceses the Church of England has adopted the Local Authority Agreed Syllabuses and teaches open RE sometimes with some supplementary teaching, particularly at primary level.  This is partly because many C of E schools are in inner city areas and have large ethnic and Muslim pupil bodies and recognize that if RE is to work at all the religions of the pupils must be given equality of esteem. It is also because many in the Anglican Church and many who teach in C of E schools accept that an Open RE approach is simply morally and intellectually the right thing to do.

11.“Charm” the Catholic Church into accepting and practicing Open RE When leading the Catholic Church in England Cardinal Cormack Murphy O’Conner certainly knew how to charm and spoke about how Catholics know what it feels like to be a distrusted minority and the need for Catholics to take a full part in British society.  Historically however the Catholic Church has demanded the hierarchy control religious teaching in its state funded schools and has expressed a rigid and exclusive dogmatism and has often fought against Open RE and has seen the aim of RE in Catholic Schools simply as being “to turn out good Catholics.” However a fear of a growth in Islamic fundamentalism if all faith schools are not treated in the same way may persuade the Catholic Church that the Irish model of rigid religious isolation in segregated schools is no longer appropriate and should not apply here.

Many British and Irish Catholics are increasingly open and tolerant of other religions and churches – and critical of much of the traditional teaching and clerical behaviour of their own church. The behaviour of the hierarchy in its treatment of priests involved with sexual abuse has massively undermined the authority of the Roman Catholic Church to speak on sexual moral issues as has just been demonstrated in the Irish referendum on gay marriage. The church however might be pleasantly surprised to discover there could be an increase in interest and commitment to many of its teachings and a return to their “spiritual home” if pupils are taught in an open rather than in an exclusive dogmatic way. What is more, many Catholics have shown themselves to be completely against racism and in favour of human and women’s rights, social justice and even gay marriage and abortion and Catholic social teaching has been earning respect in some unlikely places – like the Labour Party. 12. Keep RE in the Forefront of OFSTED Reports OFSTED reports have been the single biggest reason for the flowering of open RE in maintained schools because those reports uncovered the unfair conditions under which RE teachers were expected to work.  Given more curriculum time and more trained staffing, the subject blossomed.   It is however a delicate plant. The latest move with OFSTED has been to restrict the number of subjects to be comprehensively inspected and the frequency of inspections and RE has been downgraded..  Given the pressures placed upon the curriculum (often as a result of Government initiatives: (Health, Citizenship, Parenting, Drugs, Careers etc, all worthy ) this imperils RE, yet the continued quiet  flourishing of Open RE, year in year out, could be one of our most effective ways of countering  religious extremism and religiously motivated terrorism. 13. Would it be provocative to suggest a mandatory Core Curriculum for every single student in every school, regardless of ability consisting of  English, Maths, RE and Sport? This is not as mad as at first sight it might appear. A problem with attempts to draw up a National Curriculum have constantly been that far too much has been centrally imposed. Such a Core Curriculum could give heads and schools greater opportunities for diversity..

  1. End Compulsory Worship in non-faith schools. Despite the objections of all involved in RE, Baker’s Education Act imposed compulsory worship “of a broadly Christian character” on school assemblies in all maintained schools.  Despite requests from the National Association of Head Teachers and RE teachers to do away with this and reports on how difficult and frequently ignored it is by OFSTED inspectors, this has been maintained by Labour and Conservatives for reasons never made clear, but probably simply to avoid stirring up a hornets nest from “disgusted Tunbridge Wells”.  However public attitudes have moved on.   There is nothing illiberal in saying to all pupils that they must study religion in an open and questioning way.  It is quite different to say, “Let us pray.”  There is a case for attendance at worship in faith based schools being expected. (However true worship to be worship cannot be compulsory) To be corralled into being present at “Christian” or “non-denominational” worship invoking God is not acceptable to most Muslims, Jews, or Jehovah’s Witnesses (who have rights too!) and it is surely not acceptable to say “Let us Pray”, to the great majority of pupils who come from secularised atheist and agnostic homes where no religion is actively practised. All however can be asked to take part in an assembly where an experience of value is shared. 15. Open RE must allow Controversy, Criticisms of Religion, and expressions of the Secular Option Far too easily many in the “faith communities” see RE as being there either to commend their own religion – as is done overtly or covertly in the “faith schools,” or more generally as being there to promote “belief in God” and some sort of acceptance of the supernatural or at the very least to commend the adoption of almost any religion as being better than pupils or students ending up critical of all religions, and adopting a secular and atheistic point of view.

An honest and truly open approach to RE however, is not there to commend any particular religion or world view except I would argue, fundamental human rights, the rule of law and democratic values, ie it is NOT value free.

Open RE then is not there to commend “religion” as opposed to “secularism” for the focus must be on where the student or pupil actually is starting from.  The aim should be to develop an empathetic understanding of the religious or ethical issue they are asked to examine, as a step on the way to becoming more tolerant and appreciative of cultural and religious differences, more knowledgeable and more rational and self-critical in the way they work out their own beliefs and values.

What is more the starting point for Open RE has to be a recognition that we live in a country where only a small proportion of the population actively practice any religion – possibly around the same number as those who see no need for any religion and are extremely critical of the moral teachings, past behaviour and current practice of any or all of them.  Good RE teaching should not stifle such thinking, but challenge pupils to express their views in an ordered, thought through, evidence based, clearly argued way while also showing respect for the humanity and to an extent the sensitivities of those with whom they differ. (A position Richard Dawkins has supported in a Westminstaer Faith Debate)

Open RE should always be against sloppy and uncritical thinking, against superstition, intolerance and blind assertions.  Again the aim of open RE is not to make people more “religious” but more tolerant, knowledgeable, critical and thinking about the whole area of religion and ethics.  This is not pie in the sky, but what bright pupils and students expect of a good Religious Studies teacher.

This could mean in the context of a faith school, where the general ethos and worship provided is strong, that this should on occasion be subjected to some scrutiny in the RE class so the teachings, practices and ways of thinking the pupils may experience are allowed to be questioned.  If they are not, the school is not practicing Open RE.

  1. 16. Provide Open RE in Sixth Forms and in Further Education If pupils remain in school 6th Forms the “basic curriculum” including RE still applies to them.  In practice the shortage of RE specialists and the pressures still placed on RE teachers means that providing AS and A level courses in the 6th form is often very difficult, even though there is no shortage of demand from pupils keen to do such courses.  What of the Religious  Education of those who have not signed up for A level courses? Here an option can be to hold one or two day conferences with a range of speakers and activities to explore religious and ethical issues.  Such conferences can be excellent, but require funding and a strong steer from head teachers.

When it comes to FE colleges the situation is dire.  Almost no FE colleges now fund RS departments or provide A level, AS level or any other form of RE.  Since nearly one third of post 16 education takes place in FE colleges, this is a serious situation which needs to be addressed – and that means MONEY needs to be spent on something which is not some narrowly defined skill.  One possible way around this would be some GCSE syllabuses in History or English which could deliberately explore religious themes and ethical issues as part of developing literacy.  Basically though a narrow emphasis on acquiring skills seems to have meant that FE has given up on promoting those values which the National Framework has defined as so important if we are to build an open, tolerant society. 17. Open RE for Northern Ireland. A Step Too Far? Could not something be done to improve and open up the RE provided by the denominationally controlled schools of Northern Ireland as a step towards the breaking down of the great divide there? I am sure there is much good will there.  Again an inspection regime could encourage greater co-operation and the sharing of facilities, courses and activities between schools across the “divide.”

The Alternative.  No RE as in France and the US It is generally acknowledged now that Britain, despite serious pockets of prejudice, racism and social exclusion, is significantly more tolerant and inclusive in its acceptance of religious, cultural and racial diversity than the US, France or the rest of Europe.  No one can say for certain why this is so and there are probably many reasons, such as the relatively liberal and tolerant nature of the British Empire and Commonwealth, which despite its dark side took the lead in abolishing slavery and so often effectively exported and inspired (despite the intentions of some) the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, liberal values, critical thinking and the expectations of common citizenship these gave rise to.

One factor however, which is hardly ever acknowledged, must be the experience of millions of pupils across the country who in the last twenty or so years  have found themselves thinking about what it must be like to be brought up as a Muslim, Jew or Hindu as a result of their RE lessons.

Another factor is the way the broadcast media – BBC and commercial, have brought forward presenters from the ethnic minorities to an extent where their presence is not just taken for granted. Unthinkable in France of even Germany.

France France considers it pioneered secularism and 80% of secondary schools are state schools where any teaching of or about religion is strictly forbidden. The other 20% however, are called “private” which means Catholic (or in  a very few cases, Jewish) and state financed and all pupils in them receive Catholic religious instruction and pay only “nominal ” fees.

France has between five and six million Muslims, almost all Sunni and originally immigrants mainly from Algeria and North Africa. Most live socially segregated in huge barren housing estates on the edge of cities with high poverty and unemployment.  They attend state schools where  – as in all public buildings – the wearing of the head scarf is banned.  The introduction of open RE in French schools thus remains completely unthinkable.  Muslims have a hard time even to get planning permission to build mosques and they face discrimination in getting employment.

France has around 500,000 to 600,000 Jews, the largest population in Europe.  Because of anti-Jewish acts carried out mainly by Muslims there is increased immigration to Israel.  The Charlie Hebdo killings 2015 were the work of French jihadi Muslims.

The Land of the Free In the US their constitutional separation of religion from the state means there is no practice of or teaching about religion in state funded schools. This sounds liberal but has unintended consequences. The extremely powerful Jewish lobby screams “anti-semitism” at any political criticism of Israeli policy, and insists Christmas is called “the holiday season” lest non-Christians feel discriminated against.

Unlike the UK where church attendance continues to drop, (below 10%) Evangelical Christian Fundamentalism is strong amongst 30-40% of the population. It shows intolerance and ignorance of other religions, intolerance of liberal Christians, intolerance of secular society, intolerance of liberal values regarding women and gays, wishes to re-criminalise abortion and asserts weird irrational millenarian beliefs about Israel and the Second Coming which have dangerous political implications. (note many of these beliefs are very close to those promoted by Al-Qaida, Wahhabi and yes IS Muslims) In addition the teaching of science and evolution in school is coming under increasing religious threat from so-called Creation Science. (Evolution is also rejected by Wahhabi Muslims.)

The ultimate fear of openness and dialogue in the US is shown in the 2 million home schooled pupils of the “Joshua Generation” who are taught, like the Jihadists, to view  democracy as rule by the corrupt and sinful unbelievers.

These then are societies where we can see the disastrous consequences of banning open discussion about and examination of religion from the school curriculum and the universities.  The result is arrogant intolerance, mutual ignorance, religious obscurantism and social division.

So far we have avoided these paths. Arrogant extremism and intolerance of the faiths of others is not something commended by any of the major faith communities or by those of no religion in this country, instead we see attempts to express mutual support and understanding – and given our bloody past historically this is a great step forward.  The political parties also have all moved on towards accepting or even promoting greater tolerance of religious and cultural diversity.  In sport, in the media, in the professions, in academic life, in business, the arts, and in medicine, in all these and more we proclaim and take for granted that we are now a “rainbow nation” and there is no going back.  So with bombers amongst us – first Irish/Nationalist/Catholic and now Muslim/Jihadi, we need to work hard to continue to build and assert an open, just and liberal culture and a democratic society – for that proves time and again the best way to fight those who would tear us apart.

Obviously Open RE in schools is not on its own going to solve all our tensions, but in the medium and long term it is an important and precious tool to be developed further and used widely.

John Baxter studied Religion, Theology, Philosophy and Education at Rhodes, Oxford and Bristol universities (BA Rhodes, MA Oxon, MEd Bristol) and taught RE in schools for 25 years until 1994. He is a former member of the Devon SACRE and former member of the National RE Teachers Committee during the Thatcher, Major and Blair years.

E mail See more at

John Baxter. May 2015 9,857 words.