Critical Religion Research Group

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Dr John I’Anson

Director of Initial Teacher Education (ITE)

My own particular interest in critical religion is linked to my location within the field of education and the ways in which this refracts a series of questions. Perhaps I should say a little about my understanding of the conjunction ‘critical religion’ and ‘education’ in the hope of giving some sense as to how I try and approach this in my work.

I think it was Albanese who once said that everyone knows what religion is – that is, until someone tries to define it. Notwithstanding this ambiguity, there is at the present time a resurgence of interest in religion– and this extends to the significance of educational spaces, such as schools, colleges and universities where the study of religion forms part of the curriculum. The Committee of Ministers (that comprises representatives of all 47 member states of the Council of Europe), for example, in 2008 recommended that some form of impartial study of religion be present in schools throughout the European Union. Such acknowledgement of the educational significance of religion immediately raises two significant questions, however:

  • firstly, what forms does religious education currently take?
  • secondly, what forms might religious education take were this to engage ‘critical religion’?

Both these questions are of interest to me. As regards the first question, it is clear that the dominant approach to religious education, at least in the United Kingdom (e.g., Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 2004; Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2009), derives from curricular approaches first introduced to schools in 1970s that assume some form of neutral and impartial sense-making is possible. This has become such a familiar part of the educational landscape that for many it has become difficult to imagine making sense of religion in any other way. In Latour’s (1999) terms, religious education has become effectively ‘black-boxed’: the categories and practices that are involved in its study have become settled, even routine. This has had a number of affordances – a field of enquiry has been established in which there is some consensus, and knowledge of religion is produced that is calculable in so far as this is recognised for qualification purposes.

And yet this certainty and complexity reduction comes at a price: it has led to the silencing of a series of questions that might otherwise unsettle and disturb present ways of going on. Once claims to impartiality are set aside, it become possible to map the specific orderings of objects, material practices and the conceptual distinctions that together produce religion in these terms. We can then begin to ask critical questions about the kind of work that such practices perform and in whose interests this ordering takes place.

By the same token, (addressing the second question) it then becomes possible to undo some of the divisions upon which this way of making sense depends, such as that between religion and the secular, or between religion and politics. We might also begin to question some of the assumptions with which these categories are enmeshed – that making sense is primarily about some other space ‘out there’, rather than implicating events and relationships ‘here’ in the classroom, for example, or that the focus is upon predetermined outcomes rather than being open to the in-coming of the new.

If the root meaning of education (from the Latin educare) is to ‘lead or draw out’, ‘critical religious education’ is characterised precisely by its radical commitment to openness, criticality and its hospitality to difference. This gestures towards a different orientation in sense making: one that is permanently unsettled, interdisciplinary in scope, and informed by a ‘politics of imaginative generosity’ (Thrift, 2004).

I have tried to indicate an approach that might begin to engage ‘critical religion’ within educational spaces. To date I have been fortunate in being able to collaborate with Alison Jasper in exploring some of the research implications of this agenda and in producing a number of joint publications. If you are interested in exploring these questions further in some form of postgraduate study, then please do not hesitate to contact me:

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