Maths was something I enjoyed at school and I would have been delighted to have taught it. Attending an open evening about teacher training last spring, I was told that having a bachelor’s degree in any subject, and a GCSE in the subject, for which one was training, would be a sufficient foundation for embarking upon training to teach the subject concerned. When I began training in September, it quickly became apparent that I lacked the necessary subject knowledge to teach mathematics in a way that would satisfy an external assessor, so, next Monday, I have change subjects.
Whether a person believes in a god, however that god might be defined, or they believe in nothing other than the things they can see and the things they can touch, they have a religion. The word “religion” comes from a Latin word concerning things that bind, things that connect. Everyone has things that bind them, things they think are important, ideas which they firmly hold. Religious studies looks at what it is that binds people, what things are important for them.
Religious studies are important at an individual level: what is it the individual believes, and why do they believe what they do? What explanation is there for a person’s sense of the holy or the sacred? Why is that apprehension not shared by others? To know what an individual believes helps understanding of their sense of morality, what they think is right and what they think is wrong; it helps to understand why they think some things are priorities and why they think other things are unimportant; it helps to understand their attitudes and their behaviour. Religious studies can provoke questions in oneself about one’s assumptions, one’s actions, and one’s perceptions of others.
Religious studies are important in the understanding of a nation and of a society. The cultural and legal frameworks in which daily life is lived are shaped by principles that bind the citizens of a country, they are shaped by principles that connect thought and action, they are shaped by principles that connect philosophical thinking with everyday reality. To attempt to understand the life of a country, to attempt to discern why a country follows particular policies and why it adopts particular laws, there is a need to understand the religion, the beliefs, the things in a country that bind and connect people, in order to comprehend the thinking of legislators and the voters who elect them.
Religious studies are vital to an appreciation of the contemporary world. The secular, rational principles that have shaped European thought since the Eighteenth Century are not normative at a global level. Religious conviction colours international politics and international relations. Western liberal democracies with their traditions of regarding religious belief as something operative at the individual level can find themselves confused, and sometimes confounded, by situations where deeply held religious beliefs can give rise to societal violence and international conflict.
Religion is not something that can be avoided: it is out there. To study it can offer insights into one’s own life, the life of the society in which one lives, and the global context that determines the future of everyone.