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20 February 2015
BBC Northern Ireland Learning - Citizenship - KS3/KS4

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Teacher's Notes
Norman Richardson shares some thoughts with teachers on why it is important to learn about religions within citizenship.

  • Education for citizenship - why learn about religions?

    Some people are uncomfortable about discussing religion, fearing that religious disagreement will quickly lead to offence and aggression, inflaming racism and sectarianism. Some say that religion is a purely private matter and therefore has no place in education in a secular society. So it may appear very odd that a section on religions is featuring in a website about Citizenship Education.

    Norman Richardson

    Religion, however, is a factor in human experience and if we wish to move beyond the crude antagonisms that it may evoke we have to encourage a more informed understanding. Avoidance doesn't help - it only puts the issues into cold storage.

    Traditional approaches to Religious Education in Northern Ireland's schools often appear narrow and exclusive when compared with how it is now taught in many other countries. Few children and young people learn about religions other than Christianity, or about the relationships between different religious groups, or the role of religion in contemporary society. It is sometimes suggested that learning about "other religions" will make children and young people confused, although pupils themselves are usually keen to learn about different beliefs and faiths.

    The case for learning about religions is a strong one. Religion continues to be an important factor in human history and contemporary life, and a key element in being able to make sense of the world. Religion helps explain the importance attached to certain people, buildings, cities or countries. Religions help to shape people's values, motives and responses to universal questions about life and death, joy and sorrow, suffering and health, war and peace, right and wrong. Religions throughout history have motivated some people to lives of tremendous goodwill and service to humankind, and yet have led others to appalling acts of inhumanity. Religious awareness is important whether or not we ourselves are religious, but it will inevitably be incomplete if it is only limited to one religion.

    When religion is taught fairly and inclusively it can help pupils to develop more thoughtful and reflective attitudes and also openness and respect for diversity. It equips them for better informed, more mature religious discussion. It helps them deal with honest difference of opinion without damaging relationships. It provides a sound basis for challenging sectarian and racist attitudes and for developing positive encounters within and between communities.

    Local and Global Citizenship in the Northern Ireland Curriculum also emphasises this commitment to improving understanding of diversity and developing good relationships, encouraging pupils

    "to make informed and responsible decisions as local and global citizens throughout their lives … to explore and express their own values and attitudes about cultural, political, economic, personal and social issues in contemporary society … based on internationally recognised principles of equality, human rights, justice and democracy"
    ("Pathways", CCEA, 2003).

    Citizenship Education and Religious Education can effectively share these concerns for better religious awareness. To exclude religious issues from Citizenship is to be unrealistic about the contemporary world, as is the exclusion of world faiths from Religious Education. Education should be about helping young people to make joined-up sense of the world around them. The religious material on this website is a contribution towards that ideal.

    Norman Richardson

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