Last year I co-wrote an article with Richard Coles about GCSE Religious Studies about biblical illiteracy https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01416200.2018.1493270  (spot the deliberate mistake in the title of the paper)  but it also referred to what was expected by GCSE Religious Studies exams. In England, perhaps 250 000 or more students do an exam in religious studies and they study two religions. The questions that are asked frame the kinds of answers students write and also how teachers prepare them. Half of the marks of the GCSE paper must go on analysis and evaluation question (the longer questions) but any review of those questions will reveal that most exam boards approach this as a kind of debate where the student should put forward two points of view. School teachers teach their students two views and also how to evidence them (usually using learnt quotes).

Now the topics that are explored are sometimes ethical (war, medical ethics etc) and some times theological (the sacrament of reconciliation) and sometimes focussed of expressions of religious life (prayer and worship) but the structure of writing tends to always be debate style. Weigh up two views and come to a reasoned conclusion about which one wins. This is a binary argument question. If you want to show you know your stuff you need to learn two opposing views and you need to work out a way of showing which you can reasonably say is better. Knowing how views might be similar wont help here.

This requires good use of what philosophers call deductive and inductive reasoning. So philosophy is in the background to Religious Studies, directing the question forms. The GCSE is not a place to get all mystical or spiritual but nor is it necessarily all that good at relationality either. The questions and the organisation of the exam doesn’t lend itself to conflict resolution, consensus finding, or the identification of where there are areas of overlapping consensus.  In the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, groups from quite different religious and cultural backgrounds responded in common ways to help those in need. In this country, we might feel that it is good to encourage a kind of open and plural secularism where it is possible to find consensus on how we can live (differently and tolerantly) with one another.

I wonder what Religious Studies would look like if it focused a little less on the skills of winning arguments, and a little more on the skills of living well with each other.

Dr Robert A Bowie, Director of NICER