New atheism

Just read a thought-provoking article by Michael DeLashmutt in the Expository Times about the challenge posed by the “new atheism” for the teaching of theology and religious studies. DeLashmutt focuses, not on the arguments of the new atheists qua arguments, but on the power of their discourse to affect the starting assumptions, the “naive” beliefs, of students of theology and religious studies. He makes the interesting point that many lecturers in TRS (particularly, let’s say, T) have grown up with the working assumption that their major challenge is to enable students to think critically about their uncritically-held – naive – religious beliefs. Now, however, we are likely to have to deal with another challenge – enabling students to think critically about their naive atheistic beliefs-about-religion. (Note that neither he nor I would assume that all atheism, any more than all religion, is naive or uncritical, nor that our goal in life is to make students change their minds). It is unlikely, I think, that the best way to do this is via direct engagement with the arguments of leading “new atheists”, since the problem is often not so much the “arguments” as their starting assumptions. My own hunch is that we still need to do much more plugging away at “religion does not equal belief-system” (and that goes for theologians as well as religious studies scholars).


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lisa on 31 December, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    As well as the atheism, another challenge for you in Higher Education is almost certainly what is being done in Secondary Schools… The naive atheism (and in many cases, it is naive at secondary school level) means that the RS going on is very different to even a few years ago…

    As a new HoD, the schemes of work that I’m writing, and the RS that I’m delivering, is very different to almost everything I’ve ever done before! Also, the number of non-specialist teachers delivering RS at secondary level means that RS takes on a very different form, particularly at KS3, which incidently, is the only stage at which it is now called RS at my school… GCSE is now Philosophy and Ethics; the compulsory RS at KS4 is General Studies; A Level RS is Philosophy and Judaism.

    In my teaching, really the only part of my degree that I’ve used is from your Theology & Nazism module! Certainly, none of the “Fathers and Heretics” and similar style stuff has been of much practical use! My Theology (& Classical Studies) degree was really interesting… But an entirely different kettle of fish to secondary school RS these days!!!


  2. It’s great to hear from former students unexpectedly like this! What you say sounds very familiar. I put a few comments about my experience of discussing RS with secondary school students here:
    Congratulations on being a HoD already, by the way. Now THAT makes me feel old 🙂


  3. Posted by Lisa on 3 January, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Thank you! The HoD thing is great – I really enjoy it. Not sure it should make you feel old, though; this is only my 4th year of teaching, so it’s not that long ago that you taught me!

    & sorry it’s been a long time since I was in touch last – the last few years have been busy! After I left Exeter, I had the PGCE to get through; then my NQT year; then in my 2nd year, I was made 2nd in department, & took on KS3 & 5 RS (& due to an absent member of staff in the department, a string of supply teachers!), I mentored a PGCE student, & had 2 Ofsted inspections, & then got married! In my 3rd year, as well as 2nd in department, I mentored an NQT, and was deputy head of Year 7; this year, I have moved schools to be HoD, and have done an Ofsted inspection already (we are in special measures), but things are altogether calmer than they have been in quite a while, & I have found time to do a few things other than school!

    Anyway, another “new” thing that you will have with the students that you get in September / October is that they won’t have done any course work for A Level RS.

    RS is now 100% exam for both AS and A2, and the level of extended writing skills that were needed for writing coursework don’t completely transfer to the new exam-based specifications (in my opinion, any way).

    They may also have done some slightly more weird & wonderful things at A Level, as the new specifications are different – last year, I taught Quantum Mechanics as part of AS level RS (& loved it!) in a module called ‘Philosophy, Religion and Science’.

    Oh, and in another couple of years, you will get students who haven’t done any RS coursework at all, not even at GCSE, as coursework’s gone from there too, under the new GCSE specifications. That is also now 100% exam.

    So, as well as the starting points in terms of students’ beliefs, their starting points, in terms of their skills / experience of the academic ‘requirements’ of a subject like RS, are very different to in previous years.


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