Proportional Education

As part of the comment discussion in Tim's weblog post "Disco-dancing with the scientists" a point was made about how religion is taught in UK schools (at least, Tim's experience of it anyway, I'm a little older than he is and I recall things being a little different). The idea is that different types of religion are given differing amounts of time and are taught in differing levels of detail based on how prevalent they are in the UK. Here's what Tim said on the matter:

Abrahamic religions got most of the time, and IIRC something like Hinduism and a few others got a couple of lessons each - sort of bogo-proportional-representation as per UK or something. No harm in giving it a blast in the US - the kids can only end up better-educated about folks they're likely to meet, after all.
The idea being, in the UK you're probably more likely to bump into a Christian than you are, say, a Hindu and so it would appear to make sense to teach Christianity in more detail.

It's not the first time I've seen this said and this approach has bothered me for some time but, oddly, I've never really been able to put my finger on what it was that concerned me. Having given it some thought last night the obvious concern came to me.

Assuming that Religious Education in the UK is about teaching children about religion in general and specific religions in particular it doesn't seem to make much sense to portion out the time and the detail based on number of followers (for want of a better word) that are found in the UK. If the idea is to educate children in the beliefs of the people they'll engage with over their lifetime why would it be that the more common religion requires greater detail? Why would it seem reasonable that a child knows more about the beliefs of someone who is a Christian than, say, someone who is a ­Bahá'í? If the idea is to equip children with details of religious beliefs why wouldn't it make more sense to equally teach them about all of the religions that appear in the UK?

The more I think about it the less I find the "portion out time and detail based on numbers of followers" idea credible. I don't know how RE works in UK schools these days (with a child heading off to school this year I'll be finding out soon enough) but if past experience suggests that one religion got more time than another the motivation can't have been "chances of encountering a follower" or, if it was, it seems like flawed reasoning to me.


  1. Yeah, I was deliberately hazy about that, partly in case I mis-remembered and partly because I wasn't looking to emphasize the P-R side of it as some ideal.

    While I tend to find "majorityism" in business obnoxious ("we'll start by supporting only the most popular web-browsers", yuck!), I'm not sure that you're ever going to avoid it completely.

    "Religion" in general seems to be an area of discussion increasing in popularity these days (a sign of a rise in securalism of society?), but I'm not entirely sure what's to be taught about it beyond "it happens" - and then get into as representative specifics as possible.

    Notably your national statistics page has a line for "other religion", showing that they drew a line somewhere.

  2. I certainly read not long ago in the MEN that RE in secular schools in the UK is only committed to teaching the so-called "big 5" (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Sikhism) which, given your statistics, seems a bit dodgy too, as Buddhism has a fair share there too.

    Aside from that, according to your statistics, nine million people identified themselves as atheists in the last census. By that account religious education should be clear about what it means to have no faith and why many UK residents choose to follow that path.

    I was at school even more recently than Tim, and I remember Buddhism being touched on (although I don't think it was in the exam) and I remember my school putting a lot of emphasis on issues that are contended differently by religions (such as abortion, euthanasia, sex outside of marriage) but without putting too much emphasis on what each religion thinks, more on the issues themselves.

    I would certainly be all for the critical discussion of many religions, if only because then we (Unitarians - only 7000 of us in the UK) might get a mention... but on the other hand so will Scientology.

  3. Aside from that, according to your statistics, nine million people identified themselves as atheists in the last census.

    Not my statistics I'm afraid. ;)

    I think you've probably misread that page though. Nine million people gave "no religion" or a variation on that theme as the answer. Saying "no religion" isn't the same as being an atheist.