Having studied Religious Education (RE) since I was a child, I feel that it is a vital part of a young person’s education that enables them to learn about the world and the various groups that make up our religiously and culturally plural society. RE was one of my favourite subjects growing up because of how interactive it was (and how it often included food!). From learning about the Eucharist at a local church to making a dreidel on Hanukkah, RE was (and still is) for me an exciting and enriching part of my education.
Promoting dialogue between people who affiliate with different religions and worldviews from a young age can help to prevent young people from forming their opinions about others through stereotypes, a particular problem in a world of instant mass media. Stereotypes portrayed through the media and other means can be harmful to social cohesion, and if they become ingrained in children's minds from a young age, can have harmful consequences in later life. One example of productive dialogue is the 'Visit my Mosque' campaign, which has been a great tool for introducing non-Muslim children to the Islamic faith, opening young children's minds to the various cultures and religions that make up Great Britain. This annual initiative, facilitated by the Muslim Council of Britain, opens over 250 mosques around the country to the public which includes school visits and giving children the experience of going into a mosque and the rituals around Islamic prayer, such as ablution. I remember going to my local mosque in Year 5, and students were able to ask any questions they had. These included, “Why does everyone have to cover up before they enter?” and “What is the role of an Imam?” These are just a few examples of how RE can be a useful tool for schools to prevent social divisions from developing; divisions that are often based on a lack of understanding of people from backgrounds that are different to one’s own.
What is more, RE goes beyond religion. It is a subject that helps young people to explore the biggest ethical and moral questions that affect our lives today. Some of the questions I explored at GCSE were: "Is euthanasia always wrong?", "Does suffering prove that there is no God?" and "To what extent is rehabilitation an effective form of punishment?". This understanding of modern issues offered me an opportunity for personal reflection as well as a chance to form my own judgement on the issues that affect people around the world, further helping to develop my own sense of identity. No doubt it did the same for many others too. By creating a space for critical engagement with various moral, ethical and philosophical issues, RE supports the academic growth of young people and their ability to engage critically with the world around them. This is an imperative skill for developing independent minds who will go on to tackle the myriad of issues we face in our time.
RE is becoming ever more important in our daily lives in contributing to breaking down religious and cultural barriers and creating open-minded, critical and confident young people that are ready to engage with a complex and globalised world. Enabling children to engage with the subject from an early age offers them an insight into the different traditions and groups that make up and enrich modern-day Britain and indeed the world, helping to break down the barriers between communities that are often presented in the media as being 'at odds' with each other. The murdered MP Jo Cox, who represented the incredibly diverse town of Batley in Yorkshire, said "We have far more in common than that which divides us". I truly feel that RE can inspire the next generation of changemakers to build bridges between different religious and cultural groups through inter and intra-religious dialogue. RE will play a crucial part in crafting a society that is caring, open and accepting of all.