Pagans and religious education

Religious education in schools

Here in the UK, religious education in schools is part of the National Curriculum, acknowledges the diversity of religious traditions, and seeks to prepare children for living in a multicultural society. The content of the local curriculum is decided by SACREs (Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education), which consist of representatives of schools and representatives of local religious traditions. I have been on one as a Pagan representative, and at least one other SACRE has appointed a Pagan representative.

The other day, I had an argument on Twitter with an atheist who thought that religious education should be abolished, because he assumed that it was about teaching children the doctrines of religion (presumably he was also assuming a single religion). Religious education in UK state schools is definitely not about indoctrinating anyone; it is about teaching children about the different customs, value systems, beliefs and practices of the various religious traditions that they are likely to encounter. This includes humanism and atheism, and should include Paganism too. The reason I think it is necessary is that understanding why other people do and believe what they do is an excellent basis for tolerance and inclusion. I also think it quite likely that it will help kids brought up in the more fundamentalist traditions (which sometimes tend to regard other religions as little more than devil-worship) to see other religions in a more positive light, or perhaps to regard all religions as different perspectives on the same underlying reality, or as different metaphors for describing the physical universe.

The Accord Coalition is a UK pressure group whose members include the British Humanist Society, various liberal faith organisations, think tanks like Ekklesia, and some political groups. Its view on religious education in schools is set out in its position paper on Beliefs and Values Education (PDF):

It is vitally important that all publicly funded schools, whether secular or religious in foundation, seek to equip pupils for positively critical and respectful engagement with the challenges of living in a mixed-belief society.

This is best done by providing Religious Education (or, better, Beliefs and Values Education) that is wide ranging, fair and objective in its delivery, and as part of a properly monitored National Curriculum.

The aim of education about beliefs and values in a local and global context should not be to inculcate one particular belief system, whether religious or non-religious. ‘Confessional’ education is not the job of the taxpayer funded school system, but rather the responsibility of particular faith or non-faith communities in the sphere of civil society. Avoiding confusion about this is vital.

Rather, the aim of good quality teaching in this area should be to develop the analytical tools and human sympathies needed to appreciate and understand different beliefs and values while developing and adhering to one’s own life-stance. That includes recognising beliefs as ‘lived realities’, not simply textbook propositions.

If religious education is to include teaching about Pagan traditions, however, there is an awful lot of scope for getting it wrong. There are a lot of variations both within and between different Pagan traditions, and a lot of erroneous material available on the web and in books. So, if your local SACRE invites you to be a Pagan representative (and the best way to make sure that happens is to establish a Pagan presence at your local interfaith group), what sort of resources are there that you could draw on? I would advise drawing on academic research, and contacting local members of different traditions to discuss what they think should be included. Don’t assume that all Wiccans are duotheist (we’re not), or that we do all the same rituals (we don’t), or that all Heathens are right-wing (they aren’t).  You also need to have infinite patience, as the revision of the syllabus may not be on the agenda at all, or be a long way in the future.

Some people might argue that Paganism benefits from its counter-cultural status, and that teaching it in schools will just make it too respectable and dull. On the other hand, given the negative stereotypes that circulate about Pagans among the general population, a bit of education about Pagan traditions would be a very good thing.

Some good starting points would be:

Another difficult area is what to do if you send your child to a school run by another religious tradition, where it is quite likely that they will receive ‘confessional’ education in that faith. Even at state schools, assemblies are supposed to be mainstream Christian in character, unless the children at the school are predominantly of another faith. You do have the right to withdraw your child from assemblies and the like, but bear in mind how isolating and embarrassing that can be for the child. There is also the real possibility of stigma for the child if it is known that his or her parents are Pagans. On the other hand, it is probably best to be open and communicative about your religion, otherwise it looks as if you have something to hide.  Get advice from other Pagan parents, and from Pagan organisations, on how best to proceed in this area.

Religious education at home

Most Pagans believe that children should be allowed to choose their religious tradition when they are old enough. However, that does not preclude the possibility of educating your children about all religions including Pagan traditions, and modelling good values such as respect for the Earth, caring for the environment, caring for other beings, and being intellectually curious about other religions, philosophies, and cultures.

In a survey carried out by Covenant of the Goddess (an American Pagan organisation) in 2005, 49% of respondents indicated having no children, and of the remaining 51%, only 27% (i.e. approximately 13% of the total sample) said that they were bringing their children up as Pagans. 52% of those with children said they were bringing them up in a multi-faith environment; 9% said ‘another faith’; and 12% said ‘none’. Even those brought up as Pagans might not choose to practise a Pagan tradition as adults – I have met many children of Pagan parents who did not go on to be Pagan themselves, though many of them seemed to have absorbed Pagan values (of the sort mentioned above) from their upbringing. This is interesting, as one of Richard Dawkins’ criticisms of religion (in The God Delusion, 2006, p. 260) is that people indoctrinate their children into it; clearly this is not happening with Paganism.

Religious education for adults

Many adults may not have received the broad-based, non-sectarian, pluralistic religious education advocated by the Accord Coalition. They may be curious about other religious traditions, or want to learn spiritual techniques, or to learn more about their chosen religious tradition.

If you are educating adults – whether in a coven, grove, hearth, evening class, UU covenant group, or Unitarian engagement group, or correspondence course – it’s a good idea to think about different learning styles, and also offer opportunities for people to chip in with their own ideas. People will arrive at such events with different expectations, different levels of prior knowledge, different ideas and values, and different levels of commitment.

In the USA, the Unitarian Universalists have developed the covenant group, which is an excellent way of delivering adult religious education in a safe and supportive setting. In the UK, these are called engagement groups. They typically set group guidelines for how people will engage with each other (or covenant to be together). These are decided on by the group members themselves. They often follow a talking stick format. The way of working together that our coven arrived at by a process of trial and error (before I had encountered the concept of engagement groups) was very similar to the engagement group model.

The aim of any such course, workshop, training, or religious education (in Pagan, UU, Unitarian, and other liberal settings, and whether it’s for kids or adults or both) is always to encourage people to think for themselves and make up their own minds, as well as to broaden their knowledge.

7 thoughts on “Pagans and religious education

  1. While I agree with the concept of broadening students’ general knowledge of religions as part of a complete education, we are simply not in a position to do that here in the U.S. Exposing kids to religious concepts in public schools in a content-neutral manner may work in the U.K., but that’s because you have a stronger societal consensus for secularism in the public sphere.

    We’re not there yet over here. In many parts of this country, we still have state and local elected officials who are trying to establish theocracy or a confessional state, most often through public schools. They are constantly trying to insert sectarian Christian prayer and indoctrination into the schools, sometimes in open defiance of the Constitution, other times in sneaky little ways contrived to try to skirt the letter of the law. We have had whole states deny students the benefit of learning evolution by textbooks and curriculum which posit young Earth Creationism as an equally likely theory!

    If we opened a path to religious education in schools, no matter how well intended, these people would exploit and abuse it to the hilt. Keeping the theocrats at bay is already a difficult and expensive job over here, even though we have decades of case law on our side. Giving them this vast gray legal area would make our jobs impossible. As much as I would want my own religion to have a “place at the table”, I could not in good conscience participate in any program that involved public schools and tax money. If, on the other hand, some sort of interfaith enrichment program was established through a local consortium of churches or private organizations, I would gladly participate.


    • Honestly, when I was in high school back in the early/ mid 90s- and this was in the southern US- we were taught the basics of the ‘major’ religions as a part of our 10th grade world history curriculum, and it was never a big deal. There didn’t seem to be anything controversial about it, and I just assumed that everyone was taught those basics in high school.


  2. Yes, the situation in the US is very different to that in the UK, and I did not feel qualified to comment on it — so thank you for your comment, which is very illuminating.

    I think you are right that, in the UK, we have a much greater commitment to secularism in the public sphere (despite our lack of separation between church and state, ironically).

    I am often gobsmacked by older Christians’ ignorance of other religions, as I think the commitment to multi-faith religious education in the UK is fairly recent. I think learning about all religions is likely to increase tolerance and reduce fundamentalism.


    • Nothing wrong with fundamentalism. I think doing this, in order to gain acceptance or change other peoples kids is disturbing. I know I’d be a bit upset if people decided they needed to encourage a class in school in order for my kids to be more accepting of x because I don’t agree to it.

      Teaching it in regards to intercultural(and it’s not just among countries, but among religions) communication and how to learn and stop potential mishaps is one thing. Trying to change a fundamentalist person’s child, is not.


      • “Nothing wrong with fundamentalism” ???

        Everything is wrong with fundamentalism. It’s narrow-minded, dogmatic, rigid, and excluding.

        A child being freed from that is a good thing. But, as the old proverb says, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. It would be up to that child to choose what he or she wanted. At least they would have been offered a more broad-minded view of the world.


  3. And it just plain makes people mean. In the Sociology 101 college classes I teach in Louisiana, I only have two or three classes to talk about religions, and what I always say is “you can learn about other religions and even find things that you admire and respect about them without having to believe in them.” I then try to say lots of things along the lines of “what’s really cool about Buddhism is…” and “one of the fascinating things about Hinduism is…” and “there are some interesting places where Muslim and Christian beliefs are pretty similar…” just trying to get them to have some *interest* without feeling threatened. I think/hope that younger adults are somewhat more willing to take this approach than older generations, even in conservative areas. As far as I’m concerned they should be teaching the basics of “what different religions believe” in grade school, but as discussed above the US is a LONG way from that, sadly.


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