I am an atheist Religious Studies teacher. It never fails to amaze me, that people are themselves amazed when they hear that.
“How can you teach it if you don’t believe it?”
Which leads me to question, what is ‘it’? And my answer is always the same: I am not teaching anyone to be religious.
People are so critical of religion, that when they hear the words ‘religious studies’, they immediately think that I am about to knock them semi-conscious with a holy book, before sticking crucifixes up their nostrils and making them watch Gandhi on a loop.
But it is precisely because of this old-fashioned idea of RS, that I so enjoy it when parents tell me how much their children love it as a subject. Thirty years ago, RS was taught very differently to how it is taught now, and many people seem not to realise this, criticising therefore from a position of ignorance.
Whether we like it or not, religion has shaped our world, and many laws and practices within in it. It is therefore crucial that people have a rudimentary grasp of why, for example, religious people, and many people who govern our country, will oppose euthanasia.
It isn’t enough to say, “I don’t believe it, and therefore it doesn’t matter.” Because if you live in a world where some people do believe it, then it matters, full stop.
In RS, kids are given the opportunity to shape their worldviews. They get the chance to discuss ethical issues such as abortion, homophobia, capital punishment, islamophobia, genetic engineering, drug abuse and the care of the elderly, and to make informed opinions about these.
They study issues that will affect them every day of their lives, and their minds are opened, via a philosophical approach, to a million new thinking skills and perspectives. As a teacher, I use high order questioning techniques to facilitate students in expanding their minds; to reflect, evaluate, apply and communicate.
Without this kind of education, we will breed generations of ignorance. We will breed people who cannot comprehend why it is that to label all Muslims as terrorists makes as much sense as suggesting all Catholics were members of the IRA in the 1980s.
People know the latter is false, because they have grown up in a country that used to attend church regularly – they were educated about the beliefs of Christianity – and so we need to be educated about the beliefs of many religions.
We have no hope of community cohesion and understanding if RS is not taught in schools. The abilities to empathise, argue responsibly, and form your own opinion and voice it, can never be underestimated.
You may or may not be religious, but poor is the person who is not interested in the world outside their window.