Dichotomies and Religious Education

Over the last term or so I have been teaching rather a lot about dichotomies. These dichotomies are found throughout education- for example, the Traditional and Progressive approaches to teachings; or maybe the knowledge and skills debate. There are many more in Religious Education that I will explore in greater detail in this post. What I have noticed is that in every session I’ve taught that they are actually false dichotomies. Most people would acknowledge in many of the debates that we engage in that to describe an either/or approach is simplistic at best.

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So why do they persist? Why do we use them? I think part of the reason is that the extreme positions are easy to caricature and easy to pull apart in terms of their limitations. They encourage polarity and they make arguments easy to have and opposing views to be torn down. This goes beyond my natural tendency to recognise both side and try to sit on the fence in developing a middle way that can incorporate both. I have realised on most of the issues, while polarity helps position oneself into one of two camps, it actually misses the richness and diversity that we can find by honestly engaging with both sides of the debate. It is here that I need to acknowledge the contributions of Richard Dawkins and David Didau to the debate. In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins argues for a numerical scale when it comes to belief in God (1-7). He places himself as a 6.9 but also highlights contempt on both sides of the debate for the agnostic:

What this preacher couldn’t stand was agnostics: namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters. He was partly right, but forwholly the wrong reason. In the same vein, according to Quentinde la Bedoyere, the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson ‘respected the committed religious believer and also the committed a theist. He reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.

Although he places his contempt into the mouths of others it is clear that Dawkins feels that the middle ground is cowardly and that we must nail our colours to the mast.

Didau suggests that:

The point, perhaps, is this: arguments polarise because the most interesting thinking often happens at the extremes. The middle ground is exactly that: the meeting of two competing principles. And compromise is, as I’ve said before, the refuge of the unprincipled. You can always choose to do both a AND z, but you will do neither well.

I don’t disagree with some of what he says; sometimes in the polarities we can engage in some rich thinking, but I do disagree that that is the only place where it can be found. In my work with inter-faith I utilise aspects of Homi Bhabha of a third space. Bhabha argues that the “third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom… The process of cultural hybridity gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognisable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.”  

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For me, this third space is transformational, in the sense that when we engage with anything utilising our culture and background and lenses we cannot help but be transformed. Sometimes there is a solidifying of  our ideas and positions but we are transformed by asking questions and considering why we do not accept the new ideas. But we might well be able to transform the way that we think or do things by engagement with the ‘other’. So maybe these polarities work in helping us see clearly the different positions, but I would suggest that in most cases that exploring the middle ground is a rich opportunity rather than a cop out.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some debates where we have determined there is a right and a wrong- for example, racism and sexism. We don’t need to engage in a middle way in terms of these polarities. For the most part I am talking about the polarities in education, but also in religion. 

In religion the establishment of dichotomies and polarities creates what I have termed elsewhere as the ‘chocolate box’ view of religion and worldviews. It is a lazy approach to teaching and misses the rich diversity that we can find in the ‘messiness’ and lived reality of religions. For too long we have tried to shoehorn the lived reality of religion into boxes that they do not fit into. This could be because of the historical structuring of what a religion is, and we have tried to fit everything into a Christocentric structure. The observation of Jonathan Z. Smith is particularly appropriate:

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“Religion” is not a native category. It is not a first person term of self-characterization. It is a category imposed from the outside on some aspect of native culture. It is the other, in these instances colonialists, who are solely responsible for the content of the term (1998, p. 269).

One of the most obvious examples of this, though there are many others, is Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma. The categorisation of Hinduism as a ‘religion’ was essentially dependent on geography and the assumption that if it generally looks the same then it is. Religions and worldviews are multi-faceted and complicated, and teachers should recognise this in their teaching. It may be that religions and religious practices may not reflect the same categories as other religions; this should be fine. Also important is the recognition that there is diversity within religion and care should be taken to acknowledge that individual religions are not static or monolithic.

Sometimes this establishment of boundaries that exclude and develop dichotomies are evident in religious institutions themselves. One example of this for me was the discussion I had with a high ranking Catholic in the English Church about diversity within the Roman Catholic Church. In response to my suggestion that individual Catholics may have more nuanced views of  the Second Vatican Council or the use of artificial contraception, his answer reinforced the either/or approach of dichotomies. He suggested that “if people hold different views to those taught by the Church, they are in a state of heresy and outside of the Church. They are therefore not holding Catholic views.” This surprised me, and may not be indicative of Catholic leadership generally, but it surprised me because all of the Roman Catholics I met seemed to hold differing views of issues but still found their identity and their spiritual home within the Catholic Church. In this discussion it was made clear that this gentleman felt that there can be no diversity of expression or belief in this man’s worldview.

As I have reflected more on this dichotomies within Religions Education, I have also realised that sometimes the way that we teach and represent views can sometimes reinforce and perpetuate this polarity. Let me use a couple of examples of how I have seen this dichotomy challenged.

In the GCSE specifications it can sometimes be interpreted that within Judaism there are the two (almost) opposing camps of Orthodox and Reform. For those of us who are unfamiliar with lived Judaism this is a useful shorthand to help us and the pupils understand Judaism. It can almost be interpreted as Orthodox = Religious and Reform = Less religious. The falsity of such an approach was highlighted to some of my students a couple of years ago when we visited two shuls in one day. One was Reform and one Ashkenazi Orthodox. At the end of the day the students reflected that had they not been told which was which they would have assumed the opposite. All of their knowledge about Judaism had been challenged in the space of a few hours. The Rabbi in the Orthodox synagogue seemed far more ‘liberal’ and willing to see some of challenges of Judaism. The lady in the Reform synagogue seemed far more ‘hung up’ on the detail and the requirements of the Law. It also blew their minds when they discovered there are Bat mitzvahs within forms of Orthodox Judaism. The only thing they seemed to be able to hang onto was the separation of men and women in the shul. 

Following this day we were able to discuss their experience and realise that all of their assumptions they based on their school experiences should be challenged, and it wasn’t as clear cut as their teachers had tried to make it. The difference in Judaism seems to be less about Orthodox and Reform, and more about levels of observance.

Matt Greene in his recent book, Jew(ish): A primer, A memoir, A manual, A plea highlights this messiness of being Jewish:

There are as many types of Jew as there are fillings for bagels, but one thing we perhaps all have in common is that we each consider ourselves either more or less observant than we are. There are Jews who go to shul every day, those who go every week, those who go once a year on Yom Kippur and those who don’t go at all. No one type is more or less Jewish than the next, although certainly some might dispute that, and in some senses it’s the most religious who have least to consider in terms of what constitutes their Jewish identity (p.12).

His challenging of Judaism as a religion is similarly eye opening:

That Jews aren’t really a race is an argument beloved by racists and anti-Semites alike, but a rarer, adjacent truth is that Judaism isn’t really a religion. You might think it’s semantics but I’d argue it’s mechanics. Look under the bonnet of most major religions and you’ll find a system of beliefs that’s at least internally consistent (the clue’s in the name: they’re faiths). But the engine for Judaism isn’t faith. It’s doubt. What keeps the vehicle moving isn’t the belief that it will but the heat generated from a thousand simultaneous disagreements. This might sound glib or pedantic but it’s evident in one of Judaism’s most foundational facts. Our most sacred text isn’t the Torah, the purported word of Hashem, but the Talmud, a multi-volume companion text that interprets, expands and comments. Essentially the Talmud is marginalia, a conversation. A beneath-the-line comments section. What Judaism essentially amounts to is a four-thousand-year-old argument (pp. 15-16).

Some Jews may not recognise this experience, but it should provide the background against what we teach. There are many ways to be Jewish, just as there are many ways of being Muslim, Christian, Sikh, or non-religious (*other religions and worldviews are available). That is why, for me, the authentic voice is crucial in the classroom- it’s also why I find myself leaning more and more to the inclusion of ethnography in our teaching. It emphasises the messiness of religion and religious experience. It helps us understand that the continuum that we have constructed of Orthodox and Reform is not as clear and delineated as we suggest. My reading this year has included Irshad Manji, Matt Greene, Whiteman’s The Invisible Muslim, the compilations What about Eid and It’s Not About the Burqa. Reading the lived experience of religion is both challenging but also invigorating.

The second example is of specific Christian teachings around creation and humanity’s relationship to it. The GCSE specifications suggest that the approaches that Christians can take are Stewardship or Dominion. This isn’t the only issue I have with the teaching of Christian views of creation- somehow many children are of the opinion that Christian and scientific views of creation are antithetical to one another and most Christians reject science- but don’t get me started on that! Back to stewardship and dominion- the way that this is often presented surrounds stewardship being about caring for, and looking after the world; while dominion leads inevitably to the subjugation of Creation and that it can be used how Christians want. Recently a research project that I have begun to be involved with has highlighted how simplistic that approach is. The Christian Ethics of Farmed Animal Welfare (CEFAW) report highlights a Godly dominion which is a more accurate reading of the Bible:

Dominion in the image God is also complicated for the people of God who interpret scripture in their own circumstances. Dominion responsibility can be described as stewardship, guardianship, vocation of care, or management. In certain periods, dominion has been understood as domination or mastery, but this policy framework agrees with most biblical interpreters in finding that domination does not accord with other biblical and theological accounts of godly relationships. Instead, our emphasis is on dominion in the image of God as a responsibility for animals that reflects God’s sustaining care for all creatures… Scripture offers examples of dominion responsibility in the image of God in its presentation of good shepherds who provide for, protect, and gently guide their sheep (Ps 23; Isa 40:10–11); who know and are known by their sheep (John 10). The Lord, as the Good Shepherd of humans, exercises the divinely perfected version of the good shepherding that humans can partially reflect. Prophetic visions of non-violent human/animal coexistence contrast the fulfilment of God’s will (Isa 65:17–25, 66:1–3; Mic 6:6–8) with the creaturely conflict common in this life (p. 8).

In reinforcing polarity we can sometimes help children proof text scripture and go for the most simplistic reading that doesn’t take into account context, bias and links with other scriptural passages. For me, this is why Bob Bowie’s work on hermeneutics in the classroom is exciting, because we’re able to engage children in reading and interpreting scripture rather than just telling them what it means.

Of course, people have used the scriptures to suggest masterly dominion but knowing there are alternative readings brings a richness to the discussion and removes the either/or that has become such a blunt instrument.

There are many other such examples in the teaching of RE. We must be careful in our teaching not to reinforce homogeneous and polarising interpretations of belief. Religions, worldviews and the lived reality of such are messy and we need to reflect this in the way that we teach, so that the richness and diversity of religion can be explored.


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