How should we use religious objects in the classroom?

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams WB Yeats


Every year with my Secondary PGCE students we discuss the use of objects within the RE classroom. As a way in to the discussion we read Roger Homan’s article from the British Journal of Religious Education in 2000, ‘Don’t let the murti get dirty.’ In this article Homan articulates some views that I think are very pertinent today.

The first area of discussion is the terminology that we use in describing objects that we may choose to use. Homan argues that “The use of the term ‘artefacts’ frequently conveys a sense of a distant and even dead culture whose human participants are to be understood from the analysis of physical traces. These connotations are perpetuated in the practice manuals of religious education (Barnett 1992; Gateshill and Thompson 1992; Howard 1995; Draycott 1997; Bastide 1999)”(2000, p. 28). I think there is a lot to be said for Homan’s argument; even if we do not agree there is enough to stop and give us pause in using language that has become uncritically accepted. To me, the use of the term ‘artefact’ relates to Indiana Jones and as Homan terms it a ‘dead culture’ rather than the lived reality of religion and belief that these objects come from or are reflective of. In some ways this use of ‘artefacts’ to explore past societies and cultures is reminiscent of the purpose of RE suggested by Michael Gove and Nick Gibb. Gibb spoke positively of religion as a “Rosetta stone” to help understand different subjects. Then, to exemplify his point he continued:

A pupil who understands the religious context can walk into a nation’s great art collections and appreciate the nuanced iconography of paintings by men like Giotto and El Greco. A pupil who understands the restrained faith of the Quakers can appreciate the growth of London today as a financial powerhouse. A pupil who understands the great mathematical advances and discoveries under the Caliphs can appreciate how the first great European explorers navigated to new worlds (2012, p. 1).

This all sounds very positive, and was echoed somewhat by Michael Gove, who was then Secretary of State for Education:

Without doubt the constructive working and mutual understanding between faiths in this country is one of our greatest strengths. Educating children about different faiths is of immense importance in leading children to understand the history that has helped shape the values and traditions of this country, and of other countries and cultures. (Linden, 2012).

Both Michael Gove and Nick Gibb miss the point about the purpose of RE. While recognising its value, they do so on the basis of a flawed assumption. This assumption is that RE’s greatest contribution is help people to understand people’s culture, history and countries. If RE is pursued on that basis then it becomes a purely academic exercise with no attempt to understand people; and for the most part with no attempt to make it relevant to the pupils’ own experiences. It may be that the painting of the above approach to RE is simplistic and an extreme caricature; but the resultant actions that the understanding above caused suggest that RE’s immediately importance and applicability in the world was lost.

If RE is purely about understanding culture and history, the resultant RE lessons could be vibrant and evocative, but the telos, or the end point, which teachers would be working towards would be knowledge focussed rather than any reference to other elements that it could be argued are central to good RE. If we use the phrase ‘artefact’ we need to be prepared to explain what we mean in terms of it being used in an RE context. In some ways we should adopt a Wittgenstinian approach to our use of ‘artefact’ language; the language may be the same, but the understanding is subtly or blatantly different. As Ludwig Wittgenstein argued: “One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that,”[1] summarised as the advice: “don’t ask for meaning ask for use.”[2]


If we are not going to use the term ‘artefact’ what terminology is available to us? There are a number of terms that can be used linked with the types of objects that we use, and the purpose to which we put them:

  1. Objects of devotion/ devotional objects
  2. Objects used in devotion/ worship
  3. The name of the object itself
  4. Objects that are used to illustrate but which may not be religious/ sacred in and of themselves, and can therefore be variously described as paintings, picture, sculptures, etc.

None of these are perfect, and perhaps there is a better nomenclature that can be used, but these are a good starting point for the ensuing discussion, and I will explore each of the first three in some of the points that I raise, space demands that I may devote another blog altogether to number 4 as I think this has huge potential.

I need to point out that I think the use of such objects is very important, RE Today have suggested that they provide a window to the spiritual lives of believers. That imagery highlights the importance and evocativeness of such objects, but it also highlights a concern with using the first three types of objects that are highlighted above. Homan argues that:

The kid-gloves etiquette which is parodied in the title of this paper signifies a positive disposition and a thoroughly professional approach. But it has serious limitations and it is the purpose of this paper to explore them. It proceeds from a doctrine of learning to which notions of mystery and sanctity are made to yield. And the exuberant promotion of ‘religious artefacts’ has sometimes led to distortions of what matters in religion. While the faithful go to the chalice to imbibe its mystical contents, students may need only to learn what it is used for. In the classroom they may look at an ikon but the Orthodox will look through it and may even be uncomfortable about ‘staring’. The quest for learning which stops short at the surface of an ‘artefact’, then, is at best partial and at worst irreverent. This paper is an appeal to honour the spiritual significance of devotional apparatuses and not merely to regard their ritual functions (2000, p. 29).

In using the objects as ‘artefacts’ or even as an educational resource we are taking them out of their context and having pupils ascribe meaning to them in the role of an outside observer. Joyce Miller (2003) has observed, in relation to art but the same could be said of religious images, that:

The interpretation of the arts is a complex phenomenon in which it is important to recognise that works of art are not reflections of received truths or facts. They are interpretations and one part of a dialectic between art, the artist and the viewer. Thus, in the classroom, the pupil is the viewer while in the faith community the believer is the viewer. Their understandings may be very different and this raises the question of validity, for there are no clear criteria for judging such matters.

Unless the pupils is a believer themselves, there is no way that they can understand the sacredness that is imbued within the images or objects themselves. Homan uses the phrase ‘demystification’ to describe the danger of normalising the use of objects, perhaps the phrase desanctification would also be appropriate. In using certain objects are we recognising their context and use within the religion, or are we using them as illustrative or even decorative? I attended an open evening for a Sixth Form last week, and on the display were many philosophy and ethics text books, and then a Qur’an on a stand. It seemed to be serving no purpose other than as ‘eye candy’. Is this an appropriate use of a holy book?

I think there are questions that we need to ask ourselves when we use objects in the first three categories.

  • Why are we using it?
  • Do the pupils understand how it is viewed and used within the faith?
  • How would an adherent of the faith feel about the way that we are using it?

This does not mean that we need to be hyper-sensitive rather that we have thought through the value of using these objects. Although speaking about art specifically I think that Richard Yeoman’s argument about what art can bring to RE is equally true of religious objects:

[Objects] can make a contribution on several levels, and as a teaching tool provides a vivid and effective visual backing to religious education, giving concrete form to religious dogma, expression and attitudes, as well as revealing the social, political and historical dimensions of a religion. [Some objects] while providing some insight into religion, is also something to be enjoyed for its own sake and perhaps its greatest value is its capacity to capture the imagination of the pupil or student. I would suggest that [objects] could provide a more direct and immediate stimulus for the study of religion (Yeomans, 1978: 51).

This raises the question as to how they can be used to explore religion and religious experience and still maintain their integrity as sacred objects. It is impossible for a religious object to have the same meaning outside of is context or when used by someone for whom it does not hold significance. Does this mean then, that they should not be used within the classroom? Jackson, et al suggest that their use can “encourage empathy with the people for whom these artefacts hold religious significance, and… generate responses of awe and wonder” (p. 205); while acknowledging that the boundaries are sometimes blurred between ‘hands-on’ learning [and] respect for other people’s sacred objects and religious devotion” (p. 205).If such objects are to be used then careful consideration should be made: “Teachers will need not only to sort out the appropriate uses for different objects of religious devotion but also to clarify the extent to which they are prepared to use these objects as a vehicle for experience” (Homan, 2000 pp. 28-29). Homan (2000) suggests that part of this is through their appropriate use, but also recognising that in following these conventions recognition is given that non-believers are showing respect rather than giving reverence to the objects. This is important, as they may handle them in a similar way to a believer but without the associated beliefs.


It is possible to utilise religious objects without much thought other than to illustrate. The teacher needs to be fully aware of the rationale behind the use they are making of such objects. For example, the dressing up of a child in the 5Ks for some teachers would be seen to be educationally unjustifiable. The 5Ks will probably not have significance for the child, as such their sacredness and importance within the Sikh community will not be understood fully and could potentially be opened up to ridicule. I spoke with a Sikh friend who confirmed my view about the use of the 5Ks in this way in the classroom. He goes into schools to speak about Sikhism regularly- in this he asks what they would like covering- from Reception to Year 13 almost without fail the answer comes ‘The 5Ks’. These are taught about with the idea that pupils will have the knowledge that Sikhs wear the 5Ks as symbols of their identity; rather than with an understanding of the deeply held beliefs that they symbolise. Perhaps the first step in the use of objects is for the beliefs that underpin their use be explored, in this way their context and sacredness is emphasised.

It is not just religious objects that should be treated with care, but also the beliefs and practices that are within religions. There are many practices which may seem odd outside of their specific context of belief. It is important for the teacher to help pupils understand the context so that the resultant actions are not demeaned.

One of the issues that I often see when I observe the use of religious objects in the classroom is that teaching about their use seems to be an end in itself. Let me illustrate what I mean by this? In exploring religious objects teachers and pupils are handling the most sacred and deeply held beliefs of adherents to religions from around the world. Some of these will seem alien, and perhaps odd to people who are unfamiliar with them, however, for religious believers they are an expression of something sacred and incredibly important. How religious beliefs and practices are presented is crucial if they are not to be held up for scorn or ridicule.

This is not to suggest that religious objects should not be used in a practical way in the classroom. This links with the experiential pedagogy of RE. David Hay (2000) argues that “For committed believers the experiential dimension is by far the most significant aspect of their religion” (p. 72). Religious experience can be seen as the beginning and sustaining influence of a person’s religious life. This experiential aspect of religion does not stand in distinction to the other dimensions of religion and, indeed, is grounded in them, but it does provide the most important aspect of religious practice. Perhaps in reaction to the phenomenological approach, where the observable aspects of religion were being studied Hay and others felt “that the experiential dimension of religion was being ignored by RE teachers, or at least treated with kid gloves” (2000, p. 73). The argument could be advanced: “How can pupils understand religion if they cannot empathetically experience religion?”

On one hand, the experiential approach asks children to spend time looking inward to themselves to experience similar questions and the seeking for answers that is at the heart of religion. As such stilling, or guided activities that encourage pupils to reflect on their own identity and the shaping of their own beliefs can be valuable.

A different approach within the experiential pedagogy comes through the work of Sue Phillips and the Theatre of Learning (2003) where the practitioner some aspects suggest that pupils “experience” some of the practices of religious believers. One example from the Theatre of Learning focuses on enhancing pupil understanding of the Eucharist. Two of the instructions from the lesson plan are:

2              Raise the music slightly and pass around the loaf of bread asking each pupil to take a piece and eat it and pass it to the next person until the circle is completed.

3              After that, fade the music and ask pupils to brainstorm the word ‘bread’, thinking about what its purpose is for us. Round the loaf of bread they should write all the words they can think of. You could be making a group word collection on the board as they call out the words. The words will all be to do with food and nutrition (2003a, p. 76).

Although described as religion-neutral this is an activity that would need a lot of consideration being undertaken. Some teachers would be very uncomfortable with an approach to RE that involves pupils in re-enacting ritual, however religion neutral the activity might seem. Outside of the pedagogical concerns there are also concerns from a religious perspective. The RE teacher could be seen to be taking a ritual that is sacred within the specific context and desanctifying it for the education of pupils. It is impossible to experience what a religious believer experiences because it is not practiced in the context of belief. As such a teacher needs to be very conscious of the reasons why they are doing something, and the aim of the activity. Do the benefits outweigh the potential concerns? Does this activity desanctify some of the religious symbols of Christianity and make them mundane?

I am very conscious that I have spent an awfully long time to come full circle. The questions still remain as to when and how religious objects should be used in the RE classroom. There is no one answer- rather the overall tenor of this post is that teachers should consider these questions when planning to include religious objects. What I tell my students is that if I observe the use of religious objects, however appropriate I think it is I will always ask why they have been used. I hope when they are planning they imagine me sitting on their shoulder asking the question ‘why?’

Your thoughts are very welcome.

[1]Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 109. Truman Madsen, from a Mormon context, makes the same argument: “terminology is deceptive. Men may speak similarly but mean and feel differently. And as you know, the theological vocabulary is notoriously vague.” Truman Madsen, “Are Christian’s Mormon?” 74.

[2] Garth Hallet argues that the aforementioned phrase is never found in any of Wittgenstein’s published writings, but it is a commonplace summary of Wittgenstein’s concerns. Garth Hallet, Wittgenstein’s Definition of Meaning as Use.

Note- some of the thoughts outlined build on aspects of the approach to RE teaching suggested in my book Religious Education in the Secondary School. An introduction to teaching, learning and the World Religions (Routledge, 2015).