In GCSE Religious Studies exams, students are often asked to debate questions. The kind of question follows a rough formula:

‘If God were loving, there would be no suffering in the world.’ Evaluate this statement.

In your answer you should:

  • refer to Christian teaching
  • give developed arguments to support this statement
  • give developed arguments to support a different point of view
  • reach a justified conclusion.                                                         [12 Marks]’

(AQA 2016, p.6)

The issue as I see is about what constitutes reasonable reasoning and therefore constitutes the development of arguments in RE? Do we expect reasoning to be an act of logical positivism, a kind of empirical rationalistic debate? Or would a more ethnographic approach be ok (a personal reflective commentary). Or would a mystical paradoxical formulation be ok (of the kind found in many spiritual traditions)? Reasons for positivist argument rely on a definitive sort of empirical evidence. Propositional forms of religion (systematic theology included) would suit the definitive kind of evidence, but it is based on faith, not empirical evidence as is commonly understood.

However, this kind of reason and argument is not the sort of thing the ethnographer would not be all that keen about. The ethnographer might be much more interested in personal and communal senses of meaning (and here is closer to pastoral theology or spirituality studies) rather than the veracity of claims to ‘objective rational truth.’ The mystical traditions might respond with counter questions, rather than answers – or parables, and continental philosophy might not be far from this.

There are sub-disciplines within strands of theology and social sciences that come quite close to one another. Positivism, on the other hand, is broadly in line with the natural sciences when it comes to questions of evaluation and evidence. Maybe we should be educating students in at least two of these three strands of reasoning? In each case what constitutes evidence, reasonable reasons and the values of evaluation differs.

The hidden knowledge of Religious Studies GCSEs requires that you unlock these secrets, but curiously, they don’t appear in the content being studied, and don’t seem to have much to do with the traditions of religion and belief being studied either!  That would never stand for maths or music, but somehow it’s what we get in RE. Perhaps it is time to focus on the quality of analysis and the frames used to analyse, rather than the business of trying to win arguments with dubious evaluations?