Peter Vardy is a theologian and perhaps the leading Religious Studies teacher in the country. After teaching theology at Heythrop College and writing several best-selling books on ethics and religious philosophy, he and his wife Charlotte – also a theologian – set up Candle Conferences, which runs huge events for RS students around the country.
For the last month, I’ve been touring with the Vardys, speaking to halls full of 300-400 RS students, in Oxford, Cambridge, Canterbury, York, London and beyond. It’s been a blast. It strikes me that RS – studied by 300,000 at GCSE level and 23,000 at A-level – is one of the very few places in the curriculum where teenagers get taught to think about ethics and philosophy. Which is why proposed reforms to RS, to reduce the amount of ethics in the subject, worry me and surprise me, particularly when all the main parties say they want more of an emphasis on ‘character education’. Here’s an interview with Peter:
Jules Evans: Why is RS so popular, in a country that’s increasingly non-religious?
Peter Vardy: Mainly because of the ethics component. Schools can choose how much they focus on three components – philosophy of religion, religious texts and ethics. Many schools choose to focus almost entirely on ethics, because it’s the most popular component [and most of the students are not part of a religion]. Some of the ethics is theoretical – the study of leading ethical theories like utilitarianism, natural law, emotivism, relativism and so on. And there’s also an applied ethics component at A-level – medical ethics, environmental ethics and so on.
Where else is ethics taught in schools?
Almost nowhere. There’s citizenship, which has a bit of ethics in it. There’s Personal and Social Health Education, which tends to revolve around how to put a condom on a banana – it has a basic utilitarian approach and is very badly done indeed. There’s philosophy A-level, but it’s very small, it’s miniscule [about 6000 study philosophy at A-S Level, and around half of that at A-level. For an article about the problems that have beleaguered philosophy A-level, read this.]
So what reforms are being proposed for RS A-level?
At A-Level, the Department of Education want to strip back the philosophy of religion and ethics components to 25%. They want to make the subject more single-track, with a greater focus on textual criticism and on religious sociology, what festivals different religions have and so on.
Why is that a mistake?
Well, textual rigour is important but it can’t be the sole focus. In fact, if you do enough Biblical criticism you realize it’s impossible to know anything about the historical Jesus, apart from he existed. Students are not particularly interested in historical Christianity – it’s just one story among others in our post-modern, relativist age. And if you did textual criticism of Islam you’d get a fatwa declared on you. The main reason students want to study RS A-level is for the philosophy and ethics. They take it because they enjoy it. If you take that out, we expect a 50% decline in numbers in the next few years. We’ve already seen some RS departments close.
Why did the government introduce such misguided reforms?
Their consultation process was mishandled – they didn’t consult RS teachers, but instead consulted religious studies academics at some minor universities, to ask them what would prepare students for RS degrees. But most RS students don’t go on to study RS at university – they do PPE, or medicine, or law. And the ethics component of the existing RS is a great preparation for all these different degrees and careers.
I think the government may also secretly want to close the subject down. Michael Gove already left it off the baccalaureate curriculum. The hope is perhaps it can be ditched to save money and concentrate on ‘core subjects’.
I suppose people in philosophy might feel it’s more appropriate if ethics are studied in philosophy A-level – secularists might be worried that RS teachers would teach ethics in dogmatic or superstitious ways.
The ethics component tends not to be Biblically based. For example, natural law has its roots in Aristotelian virtue ethics. You can’t teach RS in a dogmatic way. Even in GCSE we teach that you can’t say ‘this is the Christian position’, because so many Christians have different positions on key issues. You have to give reasons and arguments.
I wonder if both RS and philosophy could have more of a practical bent – give students a sense of the practical usefulness of virtue ethics like Stoicism, or of spiritual practices like Christian or Buddhist contemplation, so they have a sense of the spiritual life as a practice rather than just a set of ontological or ethical theories.
I agree. I introduced an RS curriculum in Australia that was a five-strand approach, one of which was stillness and silence. But that approach is not really accepted today. Teachers, senior managers and headmasters are judged purely on educational results. There’s been a narrowing of education based on metrical measurements, and you can’t measure stillness and silence.
You travel around the country holding conferences for halls full of RS students. What’s your sense of the spiritual temperature of this generation?
There’s a huge hunger and need for something on the spiritual side. They’re open to that, they’re open to God, they’re open to life after death. But they’re not interested in Christianity, it’s simply irrelevant to them. They’re postmodernist and relativist.
I think the big problem is not atheism, it’s indifference. A lot of people are no longer interested in the big questions which the ancient Greeks asked – why are we here, how should we live, what happens after death. Indifference is the big problem, and I don’t see churches addressing that. There’s a need for some way to help young people and adults to engage with those great questions.
Is the evangelical church the only place where there’s much sign of life? Yes. Particularly in African churches, or in charismatic churches like Holy Trinity Brompton. But the evangelical wing is not perfect. The intellectual element of Christianity tends to be marginalized, in favour of emotional experience, which is often transient and can be manipulated – think of all the billionaires who run African mega-churches. I worry about the US, where evangelical churches dominate, and there is no concern with social justice, only about homosexuality. I have great hope in Pope Francis, who is calling Christianity back to what it was originally about – social care and compassion. But I think the real contest is between Islam and Christianity, particularly in Africa. Islam gives certainty – this is the truth, it says, this is the law. People like certainty. Ambiguity is less popular.
Do you think mindfulness, some kind of secular version of Buddhism, could become the unofficial religion of the West?
Well, mindfulness taps into people’s spiritual need, and it leaves out the dogma.
Is that a problem – the lack of dogma?
Another hope, it seems to me, for some sort of spiritual revival, is through the idea of aesthetic and creative experience as something transcendent and divine.
Yes, absolutely. Beauty makes a demand of us. You see that very much in the teaching of St Francis and the Franciscans, the idea of beauty as love overflowing. The trouble is, people today deny the idea of beauty. Thanks to the secularizing or rationalizing trend, people might have an experience of the natural beauty of the world, and say, well, that’s just natural selection.
Still, it seems to me that even New Atheists want to retain the idea of beauty, of the transcendent and the numinous. That gives me some hope.
Yes, well, I think a good atheist is a lot closer to God than most people. As I said, the real problem is not atheism, it’s indifference. I’m not anti-atheist. I’m pro-atheist. At least they’re engaged. Fewer and fewer people are. That’s why RS is so important and why it would be a devastating blow to this country if the ability to ask questions disappears. The education system will simply create robots to work on production lines.
If you’re an RS teacher worried by the proposed changes, there is a meeting to discuss them and plan a response, on December 6, at Trinity College Croydon. Details here. And anyone can send in online comments to the Department of Education on the proposed reforms here.