Religion in Britain- Challenges for Higher Education
‘It would be helpful for academics across many fields and other crucial staff such as counsellors and librarians and managers of residences and administrators supporting courses to have better knowledge of religion in Britain (and in the world) today …It would include better understanding of the way religion has figured in history and how it figures in social relations and policy today as well as of knowledge of different religions themselves.’ Page 20
This point in the text is something I relate to strongly. I am conscious that I do not have a broad understanding of religion in the UK today. As teachers we are always striving to update and gain knowledge in our subjects in an attempt to remain up-to-date with trends, skills and the industry. Unfortunately I do not feel we pay the same attention to broadening our awareness of faiths and religions in the UK today. The stimulus paper entitles Religion in Britain has highlighted to me how important this is. Student interaction is the first step to rectifying this issue. As universities and cohorts get bigger we must not let the lack of contact-time we have with each student affect the value of becoming engaged with their extracurricular lives. As a member of support staff working one-to-one I have the luxury of time to really get to know my students’ needs and preferences and I think this additional connection has had a positive impact on the way I teach.
Alongside focussed discussions at designated times I believe it would be equally valuable to make religion part of open and informal dialogue. One method of achieving this could be the introduction of text and references into the curriculum that encourage the students to learn about all religions. Religion is often talked about and taught in the same context as ethics and values, rather than on its own. As staff we should give the topic of religion more focussed attention and be more aware that it is very much in the ‘public sphere’.
‘…the burden of integration falls disproportionately on the minorities. If their members want to maintain any level of collective identity or solidarity, they have to work at it, while the majority do not.’
As teachers it is our responsibility to create integration within our academic communities. We should be doing this by encouraging multi-focus activities that cover religious (and other) boundaries. If we do not do this we may reduce the learning quality our students receive and perhaps more significantly may affect the connections they make with wider society.
An example of this type of activity is Angela Drisdale Gordon’s ‘Ice Breaker’ case study which can be found on the Religion, Belief and Faith Identities UAL website. This interactive task encourages students to talk about personal interests and cultural backgrounds. It consists of students asking each other a list of questions and sharing answers with their peers. They cover a wide range of questions from ‘what is in your fridge?’ to ‘do you have a faith?’
This type of activity is a great opportunity for students to explain and share their personal preferences in an informal setting. It can cover topics such as name, gender, ethical viewpoints and religion. It also allows the teachers to be aware of their students’ needs. This is important because teachers are often the first point-of-contact between students and support services. Tutors also have the option of taking part in the exercise which promotes openness and equality between students and tutors.
This a good exercise for my students who often want to explain their identity to the class and would not have the opportunity otherwise. In regard to religion I would agree with Angela’s observation that there is a nervousness around the subject of faith. From my experience people are afraid of not knowing about certain beliefs. This exercise would provide a real opportunity for discussion within a safe space.
I have first-hand knowledge of how such an activity can promote understanding and acceptance among students. My current student was involved in a similar workshop in his first year which concluded with the presentation of a visual response to the questions asked. The 5-minute discussion which followed allowed my student to openly discuss his Asperger’s Syndrome to the rest of the group. He typically finds it very difficult to talk about his disability, but this exercise allowed him the environment to do so.
Both examples show the importance of conversation between peers and teachers to learn more about people’s identities. Aspects of which people sometimes struggle to discuss.
Creed Notes- Kwame Anthony Appiah.
Kwame’s theory that ‘religion is not just a matter of beliefs’ was the message that most resonated with me. Kwame explains that religion can be broken down into three sections; what you do (practice), who you do it with (community) and the body of beliefs.
I believe he is trying to teach that simply viewing a person’s religion by its beliefs can cause us to make assumptions that may not be true. Within every religion there are differing beliefs and values so we must remember to view people as individuals. Kwame enhances this theory by stating that when we focus on a person’s beliefs we overshadow the other two parts – practice and community. Each plays an equally important role in identity. Practice is passed down through family, and traditions can become part of life beyond a set of beliefs.
Kwame states: ‘When fundamentalists of religion say identity requires a set rule of beliefs or fixed readings of scripture they have fallen for the fundamental faculty’. Instead Kwame argues that religion is not simply a ‘set of rules’. Scripture is written in poetic stories that are interpreted and these interpretations change, or in some cases are completely abandoned over time. He uses the example of slavery to demonstrate this point.
Listening to Kwame’s theories has taught me how diligently we must avoid making presumptions around religion. We have a responsibility to avoid making judgments of a person based only on their religious beliefs – every person interprets faith, or lack of it, in a unique way. Taking a student’s beliefs as a means of understanding them would be misleading and damaging. We must remain conscious that religious identities have changed throughout history, as have community values. We must make sure our knowledge and understanding evolves too.