Religious Education: Lessons from the United Kingdom
By Clayton Van Woerkom
August 15, 2019

The ability to interact with a plurality of religious worldviews is an increasingly important part of navigating a globalized world. However, religion remains largely untreated in the US public education system. In other arenas, efforts have been made to address religious literacy. Interfaith groups promote community-wide interactions between people of different faiths. Religious studies programs increase knowledge and outreach at a university level. However, while these efforts are extremely important, involvement in such activities is largely self-selecting, and participants are often already inclined towards interfaith engagement. In order to prepare a generation of young Americans to interact with the religious diversity of a globalized world, more must be done to increase their knowledge and exposure to a variety of faith-traditions.

Of the many potential avenues to increase societal understanding of religion, public education is one of the most viable. Though controversial, the public education approach enjoys both the mechanisms and depth of communal access necessary to inform a broad cross-section of young people. However, the US public education system has often failed to adequately teach about the world’s diverse array of faith traditions and their accompanying worldviews. Current efforts are usually limited to a cursory treatment of the core tenets of religious orthodoxy. Furthermore, US students are rarely equipped with the social skills necessary to navigate religious difference. Without sufficient capacity, regarding both religious literacy and interpersonal communication, they remain exposed to a greater risk of mistrust, division, prejudice, and strife.

Implementing a pluralistic religious education program in US public schools would constitute an important element of broader efforts to promote a more open-minded society. Such a system, similar to the one proposed by the National Council for the Social Studies, would need to address the lived experience of religion in a way that highlights the internally diverse, evolving, and culturally embedded nature of religion— rather than promulgating religious doctrine. A curriculum of this variety would focus on preparing students to engage with individuals of different faiths at an interpersonal level. Thus, students would develop actionable knowledge and social capacities to assist them in everyday interactions with religious people and with religion as a cultural and political force.

That being said, religious education in public schools has always been a contentious subject in the United States. Hesitancy to implement is largely rooted in concerns surrounding the establishment clause of the Constitution, which prohibits government-affiliated institutions from unduly favoring one religion over another. Most are unsure of what religious education might look like, or how it would function within the bounds of the law. However, the success of religious education in primary and secondary schools across the United Kingdom provides a starting point for considering how such a program could be implemented in the US.

Religious education has been a feature of British public education since 1944. At first, the system was predominantly focused on Christianity. But as demographics in the UK have shifted, religious education has gradually evolved into its present form— an inclusive system that educates students on a wide range of religious perspectives and worldviews. Standard curriculum is developed by a council of representatives from over 60 UK belief groups who work in coordination with the Minister of Education to ensure that teaching will represent a diversity of beliefs from across the country. The curriculum focuses on how various faith traditions inform the values, practices, and beliefs of people in the UK and across the world.  Teaching includes major UK religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Humanism, but also explores minority traditions, including Buddhism, Sikhism, secular worldviews. Curriculum is adapted and administered by local authorities, and it often includes trips to places of worship, guest speakers, and other immersive learning opportunities. This local teaching is monitored by oversight bodies such as the Commission on Religious Education and OFSTED in order to improve the overall quality of religious education.

The necessity of instructing our children on the role of religion in the human experience is abundantly clear. It is vital to ensuring their success in an increasingly diverse world. Public schools in the UK have been educating their children about religion for over 70 years with a strong emphasis on diversity, localization, and oversight. Given the many similarities between the US and the UK, the UK’s experience has the potential to inform the creation of a similar system in the US. Reviewing the case of the UK would allow educators to address many of the challenges to US religious education, and thus pave the way toward a more open-minded and globally-prepared future.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).