8 Philosophy, Truth and RE

Julian Stern

RE is a more philosophical school subject than most subjects, not least because philosophy as an academic subject is so closely tied to the study of religion. Issues of meaning and purpose, of morality and ethics, of justice and rights: all have religious and philosophical treatments. The last book written by Ninian Smart, the academic who has been perhaps the greatest influence on UK religious education, was called World Philosophies (Smart 1999), and set academic philosophical traditions in their broader context of ‘worldviews’ and religious traditions from across the world and across history.

a_Pencils-21.jpgThe nature of philosophical research is rather different to social science research too. It is likely to involve contemplation of complex issues and the careful elucidation of key concepts, rather than the collection of evidence for this or that hypothesis. Education researchers can all too easily forget this tradition of research, and yet it is important to RE in particular, as it also reflects the approach of many researchers to the understanding of religions.

The growth of multi-religious RE in the UK, supported by Smart’s work, and the decline of the sort of ‘confessional’ RE that promoted belief in a particular religion, has led some researchers to fear that matters of truth are pushed to the sidelines in RE. This would no doubt surprise and upset Smart, but a sense of letting all beliefs come together in RE classrooms, accompanied by an attitude of some that ‘there are no right answers’, or that ‘whatever you believe is right for you’, can leave truth somewhat marginalised.

Researchers in the postmodern style, such as Erricker (Erricker and Erricker 2000), have celebrated the personal in such RE; other researchers, such as Wright (1993, 1997, with Wright based at King’s College, London) and Copley (1997, with Copley based at the University of Oxford) have been keen for RE to engage with truth claims of major religious traditions.

a_Pencils-21.jpg As the work in Stern 2007a (chapter 1 on the ‘philosophy of schooling’, with Stern based at York St John University) suggests, this has brought more philosophy into RE. Recent UK curriculum developments, such as the National Framework and the increasingly pupil AS/A2 syllabuses, have left the subject more open to philosophical influences. And philosophical approaches to learning, such as those described in terms of ‘thinking skills’ (Lipman 2003), have been popular within RE, as in the work of Baumfield (2002, with Baumfield based at the University of Glasgow), Ord (www.thinkingeducation.co.uk), and the philosophy for children projects (www.philosophy4children.co.uk, www.p4c.com, and www.sapere.org.uk). It is good to see the interaction of RE and philosophy, and the different subjects working together to inform the rest of education, as in the ‘action philosophy’ described in Stern 2007b, the broad work of Haynes (2002) in primary schools, and the RE-specific work of Hookway (2004).



  • Baumfield, V (2002) Thinking Through Religious Education; Cambridge: Chris Kington.
  • Copley, T (1997) Teaching Religion: Fifty years of religious education in England and Wales; Exeter: University of Exeter Press.
  • Erricker, C and Erricker, J (2000) Reconstructing Religious, Spiritual and Moral Education; London: RoutledgeFarmer.
  • Haynes, J (2002)_ Children as Philosophers: Learning Through Inquiry and Dialogue in the Primary Classroom_; London: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Hookway, S R (2004) Questions of Truth: Developing Critical Thinking Skills in Secondary Religious Education; Norwich: RMEP.
  • Lipman, M (2003) Thinking in Education: Second Edition; Cambridge: CUP.
  • Smart, N (1999) World Philosophies; London: Routledge.
  • Stern, L J (2007a) Schools and Religions: Imagining the Real; London: Continuum.
  • Stern, L J (2007b) ‘Action Philosophy in Jewish and Christian Traditions’, REsource, 30:1, Autumn 2007, pp 9-12.
  • Wright, A (1993) Religious Education in the Secondary School: Prospects for Religious Literacy; London: David Fulton.
  • Wright, A (1997) ‘Mishmash, Religionism and Theological Literacy: an Appreciation and Critique of Trevor Cooling’s Hermeneutical Programme’ in British Journal of Religious Education 19:2, 143-156.