Philosophy and Ethics

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Tuesday, 28 May 2013

A dangerous view of Religious Education!

I was irritated by a report in the Birmingham Post of a lecture given recently at Birmingham University by Roshan Doug, a doctoral researcher. In it he argued that Religious Education should be removed from the National Curriculum. He's not the first person to take that view, of course, but what worries me - apart from the fact that he clearly has little idea of how Religious Education is taught these days - is the logic of his position.
According to the report, Mr Doug said: “Religion and faith are a private affair based on one’s subjective experience that cannot be explained by empirical knowledge. And so by its very nature it falls outside the realms of public education."
This is potentially a very dangerous view, not only of religious education but of religion itself. It is true, of course, that many of the metaphysical beliefs held by religious believers are not susceptible to empirical proof. I've argued that often enough in this blog. But religion itself is a human phenomenon which can and should be studied.
Those dealing this blog will not need reminding of the impact - for good or ill - or religion; some of humankind's greatest achievements and worst atrocities have been performed in its name. To be unaware of the world's religions is to be blind to much history and culture. 
But there is an additional and more insidious danger with the identification of religion with subjective experience. Everything we experience has both a subjective and objective component; nothing is free from our interpretation and evaluation. And it is exactly our experience, personally interpreted, that shapes our lives. Can you imagine anyone arguing that psychology and psychiatry should be banned from our education system on the grounds that mental disturbance was merely subjective? Or fiction banned because it could not be empirically verified? Or conceptual art? Or music - since its impact is largely emotional. If that which 'cannot be explained by empirical knowledge' were removed from public education, we'd all end up training to be accountants (Sorry, if you happen to be one, but you know what I mean!). Without vision or intuition, or the subjective sense of the value of pure knowledge, even the sciences would cease to appeal. 
Those who suggest that subjective elements in our experience can be discounted or ignored, risk being blind to some of the most powerful forces that shape our lives. As the old joke goes - 'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you!'  Just because there is a subjective element to your experience should not lead anyone to discount the reality you are experiencing or your attempt to express it.
If you argue that religion is just a matter of subjective experience and personal choice, you become open to its potential abuse. Only by keeping religious ideas and practices in the public sphere can they be properly debated and evaluated. I generally oppose the new atheists for their superficial criticism of religious beliefs, but at least their opposition to religion keeps the matter in debate.
And the curious irony of his position is that Roshan Doug is a POET! If ever there was a cultural form in which subjective experience blends with self expression to prove new insights into life, it is poetry. Indeed, I think a good case might be made for saying that religion is a kind of poetry of life.

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Constructive comments are always welcome, whether from a religious or secular point of view!