ISBN 1 85175 157 2   Buy this book

From 1971 1996 I was the editor of the British Journal of Religious Education, the oldest and leading UK journal dealing with academic research about religious education. These were years of dramatic change in British religious education, and my editorials comment on these developments. A selection of the editorials with an updating explanation is published in Utopian Whispers.


Utopian Whispers: Moral, Religious and Spiritual Values in Schools


John M. Hull



The creation of a non-sectarian, publicly funded religious education for all children is one of the finest achievements of British education. This achievement, although distinctive, is not unique. With the exception of France and Albania, every major European country today has some kind of state provision for religious education. The new Norwegian world religions syllabus adopted in 1997 replaces the older Lutheran approach, and the German province of Brandenburg is experimenting with a new syllabus in world religions and ethics. In general it is becoming clear that the moral and spiritual values enshrined in its legacy of religions and philosophies is being recognised as offering an essential contribution to the European Community. Even in France, where religious education is generally confined to the Catholic school system, while the state schools are mainly secular, there is debate about the wisdom of this policy. It is being pointed out that if French young people had received a more informed understanding of Islam, then the problems of acceptance and adjustment being experienced by the Muslim communities in France might not be so severe.

One of the most significant features of the British achievement is its non- sectarian character. Even in Germany, where state-funded religious education still represents denominational interests, Roman Catholics and Protestants have not been able to agree on an integrated curriculum, while in Northern Ireland this has at last been achieved. In England and Wales the law requires that the teaching and practices of the principal religions including Christianity should be taught. The non-sectarian character of this enterprise means that although Christianity and other religions are to be taught, no attempt is to be made to advance the cause of one religion over another, or even to advance the common cause of all religions over or against the claims of a moral and i spiritually sensitive humanism, except in so far as the religions are united in certain ethical and spiritual ideals.

The second noteworthy feature of the British experience is that religious education is rooted in local communities. The Agreed Syllabus Conference, and the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE) which every Local Education Authority in England and Wales is required to set up, constitute unique opportunities for discussion and collaboration about this vital aspect of the curriculum on the part of parents and members of the public acting through their elected representatives, members of the teaching profession and the religious bodies. This model of local community participation, unique to religious education, forms a striking contrast to the centrally dictated requirements which are typical of the other subjects of the basic curriculum.

Thirdly, religious education is taught by the regular teachers to the normal classes. Churches and other religious bodies have no formal influence on the selection and training of religious education teachers. In primary schools, the subject is taught by the ordinary classroom teachers, while in secondary schools, graduates in religious studies and theology are trained as specialists, just as are specialists in geography, mathematics and other subjects. In fact, religious education is a completely secularised branch of religious studies. This is one of its unique strengths. Moreover, it is taught to all children in the common classroom, regardless of any religious background which the children mayor may not have. If Christianity were to be taught to Christian children by Christian teachers, and if Islam were to be taught by Muslim teachers to Muslim children, the public would soon start to ask why this should go on at the taxpayers expense. The only justification for a publicly funded subject of this kind is that it is available to all children without distinctions of class, colour or creed. It is a contribution to the general educational and personal development of the pupils. After all, Christianity, like Islam and the other religions, has educational gifts to offer everyone, not only to the particular adherents of each faith.

Finally, British religious education is both critical and spiritual. It is critical in the sense that religious education seeks to dispel ignorance and superstition, exposing religious beliefs to the light of rational discussion. It is spiritual in the sense that it is not content with merely factual description but seeks to make a lively and intelligible contribution to the moral and spiritual development of every child. In both these respects, in being critical as well as spiritual, religious education is a characteristic product of the European Enlightenment. Every subject has a contribution to make to moral and spiritual development, but there can be little doubt that religious education is best equipped to lead this process.

Religious education can thus be regarded as the utopian whisper of the curriculum into the ear of Britain. The subject is utopian in the sense that it is a seedbed of hope. It represents the utopian hope that the religions of the world will abandon the relationships of futile competition which have been so typical of their history, and go forward together for the common moral and spiritual future of the species. It is a utopian hope that humanists and religious people will one day work together on this wider enterprise, as they already do in many SACREs. It is a utopian hope that religious education will do something to combat the Islamaphobia which is such a widespread feature of the image of Islam in the press and media in the West. Indeed, it is a utopian hope for the acceptance of children from all religious backgrounds and none, as all contributing to the British heritage of culture and values. Religious education does not distinguish our children from their children. Religious education believes that the potential for moral and spiritual growth can be awakened in every child.

However utopian its hopes might be, religious education remains but a whisper. This is partly because so many members of the opinion-forming aristocracy in Britain have not yet understood that religious education has emerged out of its sectarian past. They still regard it as an attempt to induce irrational belief in outmoded doctrines. This book is a utopian whisper in the ear of such cultured despisers of religious education.

Religious education remains a whisper in the sense that this is not an

influential national institution, like the banks. When I read the unsolicited letters which come from banks in their thousands every week, inviting us to put our hopes in money and stirring up our greed and selfishness, and when I contrast this with the national statement on values published by the then School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) in May 1997, the difference is striking. How can Britain assume its moral leadership amongst the nations if major institutions like banks which shape the lives and assumptions of millions of men, women and children make no attempt to incorporate the moral and spiritual values which lie at the heart of education?

Religious education is a utopian whisper into the ear of Britain. This book is presented in the utopian hope that it will make some small contribution to that whisper becoming a voice.


For other writing on religious education see: The Blessings of Secularity, Gift to the Child, The Act unpacked