As I’ve been reading around recent research on school and college students’ attitudes to religion and religious education over the last couple of weeks I’ve been mulling over an undercurrent of debate running through the University of Worcester’s recent conference on ‘The Future of RE’. Is the name ‘Religious Education’ outdated, both for what is actually now taught in RE lessons, and for the needs and priorities of wider society? The subject has gone through a number of changes of name over the post-war period, from ‘Scripture’ and ‘Divinity’ to ‘Religious Instruction’ and a brief dalliance with ‘Religious Studies’ along the way – a title which only really took off in Higher Education. There are good reasons for thinking that a name-change is worthwhile: First, most students now study as much ‘philosophy’ and ‘ethics’ in the subject as anything else (indeed, frequently, more). Second, ‘religion’ is itself a problematic term at a number of levels: scholarly opinion is sharply divided between those who take a substantivist view (religion defined by what it is – e.g., a collection of beliefs and practices) and those who take a functionalist view (religion defined by what it does – e.g. as a system of meaning-making). Some who have thought on the category of religion – for example Timothy Fitzgerald – would even go so far as to say that ‘Religious Studies’ is to a large extent a western ideological construct that translates poorly into other cultures, and is hampered by the difficulty of isolating ‘religion’ from any other aspect of culture in order to treat it separately (seehttp://www.crcn.stir.ac.uk/) (although one wonders whether that charge could also apply to any of the other traditional disciplinary headings such as ‘history’ or ‘geography’ which have also found their subject boundaries stretched by the cultural and post-colonial turn in the human sciences – a possibility which Fitzgerald is prepared to admit). Put simply, it’s quite hard to pin down what the content of ‘religious studies’ would be.
Third, at the level of wider public understanding, the word ‘religion’ also has an image problem: a number of recent research projects conducted as part of the AHRC/ESRC’s ‘Religion and Society’ research programme observed that even many people who are themselves highly personally and publicly committed to one of the major religions nevertheless eschew the self-description ‘religious’ – on one hand because it evokes for them a dry formality which scarcely does justice to the vibrancy of their own faith, and on the other because in the popular mind it tends to be associated with the exoticism, social deviance or a by-gone age. ‘Religious’ tends to be a term applied by outsiders to subscribers, rather than by subscribers themselves. More recently, at the ‘Future of RE’ conference, Denise Cush noted the need for the subject to engage with a whole spectrum of approaches to the ultimate which fell outside the historic ‘world faiths’ (including many different kinds of spiritualities), not least since this more occasional, conditional, eclectic, unsystematic and non-institutional approach to questions of the meaning of existence and right living was more reflective of the personal experience of a growing number of students.
However, if pointing out the inadequacies of the ‘religious’ label is relatively straightforward, it is harder to know what should replace it. There appears to be some current momentum behind a designation such as ‘beliefs and values’. This has the advantage in retaining a dual focus on conventionally ‘religious’ and other belief systems, and could encompass both systematic and unsystematic manifestations. However leaving aside my suspicion that some advocates of this suggestion tacitly hope that a more general ‘beliefs and values’ will push conventional religion further to the margins of the subject, ‘belief’ and ‘beliefs’ have other disadvantages: first, in western culture at least ‘belief’ popularly tends to imply something more intellectual and propositional than whole life-embracing (more a ‘believe that’ than a ‘believe in’), whereas most adherents of anything we call ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’ for shorthand understand and hope that it will change their lives rather than remaining merely ‘head-knowledge’. This is particularly unsatisfactory to religious traditions emerging from outside the Western World, but which should be no less unsatisfactory to Westerners. Second, as Marius Felderhof has recently pointed out in a 2010 article in the Journal of Beliefs and Values (an interesting irony there!) ‘belief’ by itself has remarkably little content if examined merely as a theory and without any sense of personal investment in the possibility that it might be life-shaping. Moreover, are all beliefs to be studied or just some, and what are the criteria for inclusion/exclusion? What defines a ‘belief’ as opposed to any other sort of sentiment or conviction? And is is satisfactory to treat ‘religion’ and ‘belief’ as interchangeable, implying that religions merely offer competing theories. By the same token, a recent edition of the Church Times carried an uncharacteristically scornful opinion piece by Angela Tilby excoriating the Girl Guide movement for abandoning a commitment to duty to God in favour of (as she saw it) a more ‘vacuous’, ‘bland’ and ‘undemanding’ aspiration to ‘be true to myself’ and ‘develop my own beliefs’. The difficulty of defining ‘religion and belief’ is reflected in the Equality Act, in which a very wide interpretation of both terms is offered.
Because we are dealing with language and human beings, it is very difficult to imagine a completely fool-proof label for the subject around which there is little or no debate. However, if I was to plump for one term over another, I might be tempted to go for something like ‘Faith’ rather than ‘Belief’ (therefore ‘Faith and Values’ or ‘Studies in Faith and Values’ or SFV for short). ‘Faith’ clearly has its own problems – first, in the West, ‘faith’ can sometimes be used as if it means ‘blind faith’, implying an uncritical acceptance of an unlikely scenario (although ‘beliefs’ can be susceptible to the same accusation). Second, ‘Faith’ can also sometimes become artificially detached from ‘practice’ just as people often talk about ‘beliefs and practices’. Third, some who are not adherents of what we usually call ‘religions’ may feel that it is an overly imperialistic word, as if religious people want to use it to tell non-religious belief that they are religious really. (Although the same can be applied to ‘religion’ according to some definitions of the term, which would consider ideologies and spectator sports as ‘religious’ or ‘pseudo-religious’, and one could object that the current fad for ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ is precisely the same kind of colonisation in reverse, seeming to treat religion merely as a sub-set of philosophical and ethical thought). Also, leaving aside those of ‘non-religious’ persuasions, I do not know whether ‘faith’ would be equally acceptable to those of other religions – certainly some concept of ‘faith’ is found in many of them, albeit that it means different things.
However, assuming this last point presented no major problems, ‘faith’ does, I think, have at least a few things going for it. For one thing, it has both a specifically ‘religious’ meaning (e.g., faith in God) and a more general one (‘she has faith in you’, ‘they put their faith in the markets’, ‘I have faith in humanity’), thus enabling it to be inclusive enough to accommodate the study of what we usually think of as ‘religion’ plus much more besides. For Paul Tillich ‘faith’ is shorthand for ‘that which is of ultimate concern’ – which begs questions about what we put our trust in or hope for, how that shapes our thinking and our behaviour, and provides us with a more or less coherent guiding narrative (either meta- or midi-) for our lives. It accommodates the fact that everyone more or less deliberately is involved in a process of making the imaginative link between what is known and unknown, between lived experience and questions of ultimate significance, between the bit of life which is empirically testable and the bit which isn’t. Making those imaginative links and associations is, essentially, the business of faith. ‘Faith’ could also potentially overcome the tendency for the adjective ‘religious’ to be conflated with the noun ‘religions’, allowing exploration of both organised and more duffusive variants. Finally, ‘Faith’ (despite its frequent juxtaposition with ‘practice’) still does a better job of implying a more holistic approach to questions of life, purpose, truth and meaning than ‘belief’ alone. Of course, there are delicacies here – ‘faith’ always means something different to the insider than to the outsider (cf. Martin Stringer’s book, The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion), but this is arguably also true of any aspect of identity and communication, so in itself it should not be a bar to its use, so long as the study of faith included the study of what different communities understood by the word ‘faith’ or its equivalents. This could also invite exploration of what ‘faith’ is juxtaposed with, as a way of illuminating the shifting cultural and historical understandings of ‘faith’ as a category of human life, but also to allow exploration of some different perspectives on what ‘faith’ is underpinned by (for example, its relationship to reason, experience or tradition).
There is no watertight solution, and ‘Faith and Values’ has drawbacks like anything else, but it may be something to consider. And having drafted bits of this posting here and there over a number of weeks, and looking back on the whole, I think it’s still worth publishing.