Problematising inclusive religious education

The world is a global village. This statement appears to be a cliche now more than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has evidenced this maxim in far more realistic terms than all the promotions about globalisation have done in centuries. Within months, a virus that was considered a problem emanating from the East (i.e. China) had spread to all corners of the world, including remote villages, and to persons who themselves could not spell China. This is how interrelated modern societies have become, and any attempt to promote exclusivity (as against inclusivity) is an attempt to fight a monstrous tide. For RE, this growing awareness of inclusivity is welcome news. Even more welcoming is the acknowledgement of inclusivity and global citizenship in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Specifically, SDG 4 has the aim to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (UNESCO, 2017, 5). In effect, the SDGs aim in part to empower learners to appreciate and become active promoters of more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable societies (UNESCO, 2018).

As a school subject, the aim of contemporary RE in many countries is to encapsulate the promotion of cultural pluralism and inclusivity, and certainly has a role to play in this renewed agenda. However, the promotion of inclusivity is more than delivering flowery speeches and statements. Everybody seem to appreciate inclusivity as a societal value. Yet, in practice, a lot more people adopt an attitude of‘not in my backyard’. Our aim in this chapter is to explore the mundane, and yet conflicted, issue of inclusivity as related to RE.Through a critical review of scholarship in RE, we will attempt to unearth the challenging nature of inclusivity from conceptual understandings to practical obstacles, and finally to implementation. First, it is worthwhile to provide some conceptualisation of pluralism. This is necessary because as a socio-cultural reality pluralism gives rise to the need for inclusive RE.

Methodological conceptions of pluralism

Pluralism is a contested concept in RE, essentially because in plural societies this can be seen as an ideological position and not merely a description of the state of pluralism (Grimmitt, 1994). By definition, pluralism is the condition of society in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious or cultural groups coexist within anation or civil polity. Geir Skeie (2002) suggests that scholars use the term pluralism when evaluating a kind of plurality that is usually positive. He contends that, for this reason, while pluralists may like plurality they may at the same time have strong reservations about pluralism. Pluralism is also the condition in society that creates the space for people to celebrate diversity through dialogue, mutual respect and empathy without requiring that groups abandon or weaken their beliefs or positions in the process (Skeie, 2009).

In their book, Religious Education in a Pluralist Society, Hobson and Edwards (1999) highlight a number of methodological positions associated with pluralism. The first position is what they call equality of religion. This position expounds the view that there is equality of religion because all world religions are equally valid since they all respond to similar big questions people have about the purposes of life.The second position, known as revisionist pluralism, calls for a radical revision of those aspects of religious tradition that are seen not to be compatible with postEnlightenment modernist critical thinking and liberal-democratic living. In doing so, religion is moved to a more universal phase in which analogous insights are chosen from many traditions. In essence, revisionist pluralism celebrates the most commonly shared beliefs of religions without emphasising the differences that exist among them.

The third position, called extended pluralism, considers the idea that both religious and non-religious beliefs attempt to answer the issues of ultimate concern. In extended pluralism, beliefs or issues are accepted or rejected only in terms of how well they are argued or supported and, in this way, religious views are presented impartially. Extended pluralism is also considered to be in tune with contemporary and secular liberalism. The final position is radical pluralism, which expresses the idea that even if postmodern society employs some kind of unconditionality, there remain core beliefs and worldviews in every religion of such salience that it is not possible for society to achieve the ‘desired’ monolithic unity. In other words, radical pluralists are critical of perspectives that advocate some form of transcendent unity because transcendent unity takes away religion’s richness and uniqueness (Hobson and Edwards, 1999). As Barnes also contends, the attempt to uncover unifying factors merely ends up misrepresenting religions under study (Barnes, 2006).

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