Thursday, 20 March 2014

Broughton Young Ambassadors for RE: The importance of RE for good community relations

The Religious Education Council and the APPG for RE have carried out an inquiry into RE and community relations. On Monday 17th March, a good practice document was presented at Westminster. The Broughton Young Ambassadors for RE were invited to the event to speak about why RE is  so important for good community relations. This is what our students had to say:

The world that we live in is a diverse place. There are the obvious examples of diversity such as religion, gender and race, but we also need to consider the importance of diverse thinking and the need to have dialogue between the vast range of differing opinions and beliefs that make up our communities.
Sadly, there are many barriers to good community relations; stereotypes, prejudice and ignorance cause community relations to suffer tremendously. In our modern world young people are bombarded by information from the media, but often lack the skills to filter this information and to question its accuracy.  To combat this it is clear that education is essential. The willingness to enter into dialogue with others, to question and to develop your own opinion is an important element of RE.

 RE helps us to understand the complex and diverse communities that we live in and gives us an understanding of the role we have to play within these communities. RE offers the opportunity to consider our own place within the global community and can allow us to broaden our ways of thinking and reflect on issues from different cultural perspectives. As our communities become more and more globalised, an understanding of the beliefs, values and lifestyles of others is essential to build respectful relationships based on mutual understanding.
Good RE helps us to understand and behave respectfully towards others. Religious Education does not teach us what to think or tell us that one belief system is better than another, but it encourages us to examine the different views that are held within our world and to understand the impact that these beliefs have on individuals and communities. There are times when we may not understand or even respect the opinions of others, and this is why good RE is vital – to teach us how to disagree respectfully and to still be able to live side by side in peace.

 Really good RE should aim to move beyond the respectful disagreement and allow us to see the whole person. Recently, our school’s youth voice group for RE worked with representatives from faith communities to present workshops at the Lancashire SACRE youth conference. At the end of the day the faith speakers were asked what they had gained from the event and what message they hoped young people would take away from the conference. The representative from the Islamic faith felt that it was really important that young people had the opportunity to meet members of religious communities in order for them to be able to see beyond the external appearance and because of this to then have confidence to talk with those different from themselves. This is an essential part of good community relations. If people are to learn how to get along they must first learn to talk to one another.

 Religious Education provides a unique opportunity to bring people together with the common goal of promoting understanding and respecting differences. This is a good start to developing community relations.
Engaging with real people of faith allows us to see past the stereotype and challenge misconceptions. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that we need to take our responsibility as good neighbours seriously    but we often need to find some common ground with people who are different to us in order to see them as neighbours. Good RE celebrates the wonderful diversity of our communities but also enables us to see the bigger picture of religion as an expression of the human search for meaning, purpose and truth. It turns the “man in a dress” into a human being who is as easy to talk to as anyone else; it turns the “lady with the red dot on her head” into a friendly and devoted grandmother. These are the people we want as neighbours, the people who we can talk to and share our communities with. 
This is why RE in schools is so important. In English we read novels with a diverse range of characters, but this is exactly what they are – characters as opposed to real living people that we can engage with. In History we examine the impact that religions and religious people have had on our world – but this is the past and is often unhelpful for interpreting the world we live in today. In PSHE and citizenship we discuss the importance of social cohesion and how we can be better citizens – but this is not the same as gaining a real depth of understanding about the importance of religious beliefs to a person of faith so that we can show respect for their traditions and lifestyles, even when they differ greatly from our own.
Of course, religion is not the only barrier to cohesive communities. There are many view-points and lifestyles that some members of our society find difficult to tolerate, but again, RE is often the only place in school where these issues are investigated in any depth. For example; how have social attitudes changed regarding homosexual relationships? What about the way in which society treats the elderly or the disabled? Do we really value everyone in our community? What about issues surrounding poverty and inequality?  Or responses to racism and immigration? All of these potentially divisive aspects of living in the modern world are part of my GCSE Religious Studies syllabus. We have already acknowledged that it is largely ignorance that leads to prejudice and intolerance within communities. If more people studied these issues in depth it would begin to challenge some of these views and build bridges between people of differing social, economic and cultural backgrounds.

 There are many people in our communities who for a variety of reasons do not feel that they are listened to. For some, this leads to apathy and a general feeling of discontentment. For others, feeling excluded from society causes them to turn to extremist groups which only serve to distance them further from the wider community and promotes hatred rather than tolerance and understanding.  Neither of these help to develop a cohesive community.  A good RE lesson is one that is inclusive and enables all people to feel that they have been heard. I myself am quite an opinionated person. In RE lessons I often have very different opinions to the rest of the class. However, I am still listened to and even when others disagree with me they do so in a way that is respectful. In this way, RE provides a model for discussion, debate and disagreement. It is important that our RE teachers are properly trained to handle discussions surrounding controversial issues so that young people grow up knowing how to express their view in a way that is both sensitive and respectful without necessarily agreeing with others. For communities to be truly cohesive they must also be inclusive.

Good community relations involve all people feeling a sense of belonging to the society in which they live, it involves living side by side in peace, it involves recognising the value that all people contribute to our communities and accepting that there are times when we will disagree, but that this is simply part of being human.
Our world is a diverse place where the lives of people of faith and none intertwine together to build good community relations. In Religious Education there is an important responsibility to teach the information needed to ensure that these relations are founded on knowledge and genuine encounter as opposed to perception and prejudice. Good RE is essential to help young people like myself to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to play our part in today's society and tomorrow's world.

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