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Studying Religion in a Divided Society

By Nelson, James; Richardson, Norman | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Studying Religion in a Divided Society

Nelson, James, Richardson, Norman, Academic Exchange Quarterly


This paper considers some key issues relating to the teaching of religious studies in Higher Education within a religiously divided society. It provides a brief historical context of one particular institution in Northern Ireland and reviews some of the efforts being made to create an ethos of diversity and inclusion through developing an approach to the study and research of religion that is inclusive, acknowledges difference and seeks to deal with it positively and constructively.

Transformative Religious Education

An increasing literature on the teaching of religious education has emphasised the need for critical openness in studying religion (Hull 1984; Jackson 1997; Watson 1993; Wright 1993, 2000, 2003). Andrew Wright, for example, has highlighted the fact that the study of religion is not adequate if it ignores the differences and competing truth claims of religions; at the very least this alienates students who, from their own experience of religious differences in the wider world, will realise that a sanitised, homogenous portrayal of religion is not entirely honest (Wright 1993). Also Jackson believes that the study of religion cannot be detached or objective but involves an interpretive process which naturally leads to reflection: 'the activity of grasping another's way of life is inseparable in practice from that of pondering on the issues and questions raised by it.' (Jackson 1997, 130) Building on Rorty's concept of edification, Jackson concludes that if religion is studied in an interpretive way that provides space for open debate and reflection then religious education becomes a transformative experience for the learner.

The experience of teaching Religious Studies in a religiously divided community has led the present writers to believe that the academic study of religion must be done openly, honestly and with criticality but within a deliberately cultivated learning culture which promotes values of mutual respect, appreciation of difference, and dealing with conflict creatively.

Religious Studies at Stranmillis University College in Context

Teacher education in Northern Ireland, like many other aspects of public life in Northern Ireland, has a history which shows evidence of sectarian struggle. When Stranmillis College opened in 1922 it was intended to be a non-denominational teacher training college preparing men and women to teach in a religiously mixed state school system. Unfortunately the main Christian churches, who up to that point had significant control over schooling, did not agree to the vision of mixed state schooling--Catholic schools maintained their independence and the Protestant churches only agreed to transfer their schools to state control in return for guarantees which ensured significant continued influence over their schools. The result was two separate systems of education--Catholic Church schools for Catholic children and state controlled schools for everyone else. The state controlled schools were strongly influenced by Protestant values through the control of religious education by Protestant clergy and through the influence of Protestant ministers on school management committees. In this atmosphere Stranmillis College quickly became a de facto Protestant teacher training college. Shortly after its opening the Roman Catholic authorities made it clear that they would not recognise teachers who trained at Stranmillis as qualified to teach in Roman Catholic schools. The religious partisanship of the college was further increased when Protestant clergy achieved significant representation on its management committee (Akenson 1973).

As a result of the religious roots of schooling in Northern Ireland, religious education has always featured on school curricula. Traditionally such teaching was confessional and focused almost entirely on Christianity however the subject has evolved considerably in the last 40 years.

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