5 RE and Society

Julian Stern

There is no question that religions are related to human rights, values, and the nature of citizenship. The same should be true of religious education as a school subject. RE can and most practitioners believe should have an influence on pupils’ values, on their moral and social development, on community cohesion, and on broad education for citizenship in a modern world. Whether this is the main purpose of RE, or one of its purposes, or a positive ‘side effect’ of it, is debated within the profession, and by researchers looking into syllabuses and classroom practice.

a_Pencils-21.jpg Mark Chater (2000, with Chater based at the QCDA), for example, connects citizenship education to liberation theology via Freire (1972), while Liam Gearon (2004, with Gearon based in the University of Plymouth) writes of teaching citizenship through RE, and Viv Baumfield (2003, with Baumfield based at the University of Glasgow) writes of ‘democratic RE’ in communities of enquiry.

a_Pencils-21.jpg Others, such as Linda Rudge (2001, with Rudge based at the University of East Anglia), look instead at the influence of RE directly on its pupils. Pupils value the opportunity to have a voice in RE (and this is a key social and political issue), and they are indeed ‘voiced’ in the National Framework document (QCA 2004). Pupil quotations on the value of RE, taken from the PCfRE RE Festival database (available at www.pcfre.org.uk/db/), themselves can be researched, or the questions used for further research (as suggested in Weston 2003, with Weston based at Mulberry School for Girls, Tower Hamlets).

a_Pencils-21.jpg One of the leading researchers on the interconnections between RE, religion, and citizenship education is Gearon (e.g. 2002a, 2002b, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2005). His work can be described in terms of religion’s place in the world, its relationship to the United Nations and citizenship or human rights education, and the connections between RE and citizenship or human rights education. He believes that religion’s role in public and political life has been underplayed. Talk of ‘secularisation’ has often meant that religion, in western contexts, has been pushed into the ‘private’ sphere since the eighteenth century Enlightenment.

a_Pencils-21.jpg However, this appears to be changing as there is increasing evidence of the importance of religion in post-Cold War public and political life, often but not exclusively centring on issues of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief. The United Nations system incorporated and defined freedom of religion or belief since the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/), and more recently freedom of religion and belief, incorporating non-religious beliefs, was incorporated in the 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (www2.ohchr.org/english/law/religion.htm).

a_Pencils-21.jpg In Stern 2006, chapter 6 (with Stern based at York St John University), there is an account of some of these issues, along with an exercise asking pupils to imagine themselves in a society where religion has been made illegal, and complete a week collecting information as if they were members of ‘the religion police’.



  • Baumfield, V (2003) ‘Democratic RE: Preparing Young People for Citizenship’, BJRE 25:3, Summer 2003.
  • Chater, M F T (2000) ‘To Teach Is to Set Free: Liberation Theology and the Democratisation of the Citizenship Agenda’, British Journal of Religious Education 23:1, pp 5-14.
  • Freire, P (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed; London: Sheed and Ward.
  • Gearon, L (ed) (2002a) Human Rights & Religion: A Reader; Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
  • Gearon, L (2002b) Human Rights and Religious Education: Some Postcolonial Perspectives’, BJRE 24:2, Spring 2002, pp 140-151.
  • Gearon, L (ed) (2003a) Learning to Teach Citizenship in the Secondary School; London: Routledge.
  • Gearon, L (2003b) The Human Rights Handbook: A Global Perspective for Education; Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham.
  • Gearon, L (2004) Citizenship Through Secondary Religious Education; London: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Gearon, L (2005) ‘The Teaching of Human Rights in Religious Education: The Case of Genocide’, in Bates, D (ed) (2005) Education, Religion and Society: Essays in Honour of John M Hull; London: Routledge.
  • Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) (2004) Religious Education: The Non-Statutory National Framework; London: QCA.
  • Rudge, L (2001) Making RE Work: Principles to Practice in Curriculum and Professional Development: Summary Report 2001: Review, Design and Implementation; Norwich: University of East Anglia.
  • Stern, L J (2006) Teaching Religious Education: Researchers in the Classroom; London: Continuum.
  • Weston, D (2003) ‘Children Talking Online’; RE Today, 21:1, Autumn 2003, pp 30-31.