Our next conference: Salvation: A national lecture-series for students of GCSE Religious Studies with Dr Peter Vardy

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What I think about Religious Studies…

‘Being brought up in a Muslim household, I have been taught throughout my life that, “Knowledge is half of religion.”As a result, a desire to learn about anything and everything has been with me for as long as I can remember.

However, my desire to increase my knowledge about other people’s beliefs, came into fruition when I joined Haslingden High School. Over the last five years, I have realised that RS has the potential to change the way we learn and change the way we interact with those who have different religious and non religious beliefs.

Firstly, RS allows students to look for questions, rather than being told to work out answers, like you’re expected to do in, for example; Maths. This allows for everyone to choose what they want to learn about and ask whatever question they want to ask.

RS shows young people completely different perspectives, whilst maintaining the idea that it doesn’t matter whether you’re Jewish or Muslim, Hindu or Sikh – we all have so much more in common than what is originally thought!

I will forever be indebted to RS because it changed the way I looked at the world. Previously, I had thought that everything was black and white. I believed that those who voted Conservatives were rich and greedy, whilst those who voted Labour were hard working and good people. As I went in to more and more RS lessons, I noticed that there were so many shades of grey in between. As a result, I no longer hold these beliefs.

An Advocate of RS, Dr Peter Vardy came in to deliver a lecture at Haslingden High School. In his lecture, he taught me that if I read, for example, The Guardian, then I should also read The Daily Mail, in order to come to my own conclusion. This is exactly why I fell in love with RS, because it teaches people to stop and consider what “the other side” believe and why they believe it. RS does this whilst consistently encouraging good debate. Unfortunately, the kind of debate we see on TV, is simply both sides trying to humiliate the other. Instead, by RS encouraging good debate, we see both sides wanting to listen to each other and want to come out of the debate, not as a winner, but as someone who has increased their knowledge on the whatever subject that was discussed.

As a conclusion, I think that if RS is continually taught in schools, then we will see less people become vulnerable to the lies and misinterpretations that the media promote. I myself saw it in an RS lesson, where we read single verses of the translated Quran, and immediately, as a class, judged them as barbaric, until we learnt about the context of the verse and realised that it wasn’t barbaric at all, and in fact was extremely justifiable’.

Tarek Ahmed, GCSE Student, Haslingden High School

Reposted from…

https://www.natre.org.uk/news/latest-news/what-i-think-about-religious-studies/

COVID update, September 2020

This post is just to let everybody know what is happening with Candle Conferences in the period up until Christmas 2020. Our website will be updated shortly with further details, as online booking goes live.

Obviously enough, we will not be running any live events this Autumn. Despite this, we are conscious that your A Level and GCSE students should not miss out on more of the richness of the educational experience than is necessary, and that many teachers will want to continue or even step up their CPD at this time, as we all respond to a changing work environment.

To this end Candle will be offering a range of online events and CPD opportunities this term, including…

1. An enhanced range of affordable, flexible Bespoke Events that we will run online specially for your school. These will include exciting programs designed for GCSE Religious Studies and Year 13 A Level Religious Studies groups, accompanied by our invaluable student resources, as well as events to support the broader curriculum and for for Gifted and Talented students.

2. In November, a national lecture-series for Year 13 A Level Religious Studies students, taking a close look at the problem of Evil and Suffering and exploring the synoptic links between this and other topics across the specifications. Again, this will provide students with a rich pack of resources to accompany and extend beyond the lectures.

3. A unique series of twilight CPD events for teachers, offering a unique opportunity to enhance A Level subject knowledge related to selected topics in Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Christian Thought and to acquire teaching ideas and resources.

Memberships of our Friends of Candle Conferences scheme will be extended for another 12 months in the light of the current situation and discounts for all the above events will be made available to Friends.

We will be posting information about our plans for 2021 as soon as we are able to do so. In the mean time, we hope that you stay safe and are able to enjoy a peaceful and productive return to the classroom.

With our best wishes, Dr Peter and Charlotte Vardy

How to write excellent A Level essays…

Charlotte Vardy writes…

This year we have been working on strategies to help students of all abilities maximize AO2 marks for the new A Level.  This will be of huge importance, given that 60% of the marks are allocated to AO2 and high AO1 marks demand a focus on the precise question, not the general topic.

We are advising students to take a conclusion-first approach, avoiding the twin traps of just describing different points of view and running out of time before developing a proper conclusion.

In the very limited time available, students are more likely to score higher marks by arguing a case from the outset than they would by waiting until after they have gone through two different points of view. Too many lower and middle-ability students confuse listing points in favour and points against with developing an argument… and in the limited time available, very able students often run out of time before getting to the conclusion otherwise.

I have developed a formula for success to train my students to score the best AO2 marks.  I developed the full rationale for this and worked an example in a recent video that I produced for Candle Conferences’ events.

NB: I am well aware of the pitfalls of using formulae and writing frames, but know from experience that it is better to start with a frame and then let the more able ditch it than not to use one and let the weaker students flounder.

“Religious Experiences prove that God exists!” Discuss 

Intro TRADE C

  • Intro – What are religious experiences? (Refer to classifications from James and Otto and one or two examples)  What is proof (Note that Religious experiences can only provide an Inductive or Abductive argument, not deductive proof)
  • THESIS – the conclusion of the argument e.g. “Religious experiences do prove that God exists”
  • REASONS – as many reasons in support of this conclusion, each with evidence (i.e. a quote, a scholar, a name etc.) plus explanation.
  • AGREE – mention at least one well-known person or group who would agree with your argument and explain why this would be, preferably with evidence.
  • DISAGREE – a scholar who would argue the other point of view. Their argument must be explained with reference to evidence, e.g. a quote or reference.
  • EVALUATE – explain why this counter-argument fails to convince, giving reasons.  (deal with several counterclaims if time)
  • CONCLUSION – if there is time finish by repeating thesis and main reason(s) and explaining the limitations or implications of the argument.

ADVANTAGES

  1. As I see it, the Intro TRADE C approach has the advantage of making sure that they cover and explain different points of view and reach a conclusion quickly.  In my experience, it reduces the marks-penalty for running out of time.
  2. The structure forces them into forming chains of reasoning because they are arguing for their own perspective, supporting it with reasons and evidence, albeit masked behind third person phrasing i.e. “Religious Experiences like St Paul’s prove that God exists” NOT “I think that Religious experiences prove God’s existence“.
  3. Intro TRADE C also pushes more able students to evaluate at least one of the points of view they cover, demonstrating higher-level skills and reasoning for the higher levels.
  4. Putting implications or limitations of the argument into the conclusion forces them to consider the relevance of their work, and will push them towards the level 6 at A Level.

DISADVANTAGES

  1. Intro TRADE C is tricky to master, not least because it forces students to make up their mind on the question BEFORE they start writing.  This is no bad thing once they get used to doing it though… avoids those awful answers where it is obvious that the student hasn’t a clue what they think.
  2. Of course, there ARE more sophisticated ways to write an essays at A Level!  However, TRADEC does point students towards a more assertive essay-style, which can mean that they score highly on AO2 at the expense of AO1.  Nevertheless, this can be remedied very successfully later on with more able students.  Given A Level AO2 is 60% to AO1 40% this is a risk I am happy to take to get them started on the right track.

I have produced a large number of model essays for A Level, many of which use the Intro TRADE C structure.  For example, this model essay on Irenaeus has the thesis highlighted.

Religion will have no place in 22nd Century Britain!” Discuss (40)

Religion is in decline in 21st Century Britain. This does not seem to be due to an increase in peoples’ understanding of science and acceptance of it as a complete explanation for life.  As Richard Dawkins has observed, even non-religious people remain wedded to unscientific beliefs and the battle for science and reason is a long way from being won, even in Britain which is one of the most secular countries in the world. In a “post-truth” era, people are increasingly willing to question scientific method and accept “alternative facts” on the strength of little more than popular opinion or convenience. Further, there is no clear correlation between supernatural beliefs and religiosity in Britain.  For examples, a YouGov poll in 2017 suggests that only 19% of British Christians have any difficulty accepting the Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection as a full explanation for human life and a YouGov poll in 2015 suggested that only 55% of self-identifying Christians actually believe in God!  Clearly, some people claim religious affiliation and even attend a place of worship, while not subscribing to the most basic doctrines of that religion.  Further, it is probably fair to say that a lot of people who do not attend a place of worship maintain religious beliefs.  Nevertheless, NatCen’s Social Attitudes Survey of September 2017 made headlines when it reported that 53% – a majority – of the British public now describe themselves as having “no religion”, up from 48% in 2015 and 31% in 1983.  From a straightforward statistical perspective, it would probably be fair to say that Religion will have a much smaller place in 22nd Century Britain than it does in 21st Century Britain. 

Of course, statistics do not provide a complete picture; they need to be contextualized and interpreted, as well as to be tested for validity.

Firstly, it is wrong to infer that because the number of people with a particular characteristic in a society is small that that characteristic “has no place” in society.  Consider; the percentage of people who identify as transgender or even homosexual in Britain is small.  Estimates suggest that around 1% of people are gender nonconforming to some extent and the 2013 ‘Integrated Household Survey’ undertaken by the Office for National Statistics found that just 1.1% said they were ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ and 0.4% said they were bisexual on a sample of 178,197 British adults. This suggests that there are about 545,000 homosexual and 220,000 bisexual adults in the UK but relatively few people would accept that this is evidence for gays, lesbians and bisexuals, their issues or culture, having “no place in” our society.

Secondly, the headlines of the data conceal the fact that both the religious landscape and the intensity of religiosity in Britain are changing as a result of evangelism and immigration.  The numbers of evangelical Christians, of Muslims is rising and is projected to rise further in the coming decades according to Pew Research in 2015.  Reasonable estimates suggest that the proportion of Muslims in Britain will increase towards 10% by 2050.  Further, Pew Research in 2015 suggested that Religion is very important to more Evangelical Christians and Muslims in the US than it is to members of more traditional Churches.  If the same is true in the UK, then the shift from traditional Churches towards Evangelical Churches and the increase in numbers of Muslims could signal an increase in how important religious people think religion is in their lives.  While the raw number of religious people might be much lower in the 22nd Century Britain than it is in the 21st Century Britain, these people might well see religion as more important than many religious people do today.  Possibly, the influence of religion will not decline as as sharply as the raw percentages might suggest it should.  On this basis, Religion might still have a place in 22nd Century Britain.

Thirdly, the sample size used by NatCen to gather religious affiliation and attendance data is small and its conclusions are contested. NatCen’s surveys typically draw on fewer than 2000 responses, so the margin for error on projections of proportion across the sample would be just less than 3%, with a substantially higher margin for error on projections for age-cohorts, which are sometimes dependent on excessively small samples such as the 20 responses available for the before 1920 cohort in 2008.  Further, UK Census data suggests that the NatCen figures for religious affiliation may be significantly lower than the actual figures. For example, in 2001 NatCen suggested that 54% of the British population was Christian whereas the Census suggested 72%.  In 2011 NatCen suggested that 47% of the British population was Christian whereas the Census in the same year suggested that the figure was 59.3%.  Further, by the same comparison, NatCen seems to inflate the numbers of people who are not religious even more dramatically.  For example, in 2001 NatCen suggested that 41% of British people were not religious whereas the Census in that year suggested that the figure was just 15%.  In 2011 NatCen suggested that 46% of the British population was not religious while the Census suggested a figure of 25.1%.

Despite significant issues with the statistical evidence, it is clear that both NatCen and the Census data support the principle that religious affiliation is declining steeply and that the number of people with no religion is increasing rapidly.  Projecting forward it might be inferred that religion will have died out in Britain by the 22nd Century.  Indeed, NatCen’s figures suggest that the percentage of religious people has been falling by approximately 1% per year and that 71% of 18-24 year olds claiming to have “no religion” in 2016, compared with only 27% of those aged 75+.  Although the margin for error in these statistics is quite sizable, on this basis it might seem reasonable to argue that the % of religious people will be negligible by the mid 21st Century and that Religion will indeed have no statistical place in 22nd Century Britain.

Such a conclusion might seem to ignore the effect of age on religiosity.  It is clear that as people age they tend to become more religious.  Argue, Johnson and White documented this in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion back in 1999.  They stated that… “The results show a significant, non-linear increase in religiosity with age, with the greatest increase occurring between ages 18 and 30...” (Abstract)  This would make sense given analyses of Religious belief put forward by scholars from Feuerbach through Durkheim to Freud.  As Feuerbach and later Durkheim noted, Religion fulfills societal needs and seems to be projected and shaped by societies for their own purposes, such as to promote conformity or a collective moral conscience.  As Freud noted, a similar pattern applies to individuals, with religious beliefs and practices fulfilling psychological needs and desires for most people and so, arguably, being projected by the subconscious mind to quell anxiety.  If religion is a man-made phenomenon, a natural response to personal and social needs, then it would make sense for religiosity to be more apparent in older people who are more likely to have experienced the need for community, conformity and comfort.  If, as Freud suggested, God acts as a father-figure for those without a father it would make sense that belief in God would be more apparent among those who have lost their parents and are generally more lonely and isolated.  If, as Durkheim suggested, religion comes into being and is legitimated through moments of what he calls “collective effervescence” then it would make sense for older people – who are more likely to have had experience of such “moments” – to believe and belong. 

However, once adjusted for aging, the statistics still suggest a real and significant decline in Religious affiliation and attendance. D. Voas and A. Crockett, ‘Religion in Britain: Neither Believing nor Belonging’Sociology (2005), vol. 39, pp. 11-27 analyse British Social Attitudes by age-cohort, noting that affiliation and attendance declined markedly from cohort to cohort, but remained relatively steady in both measures across a 23 year period from 1984 to 2007 for each cohort born before 1970.  In addition, for the 1970s cohort however, affiliation declined from an average 46% in 1990 (when most of the cohort would have been teenagers) to an average 28.1% in 1997 (when most of the cohort would have been starting their careers).  Why the 1970s cohort were particularly susceptible to secularization during the 1990s is an interesting area for research, as is what the effects of this on the children of those in the 1970s cohort will be.  However, as it stands this research suggests that both on the basis of the lower rates of religious affiliation and attendance seen in successive age-cohorts through the 20th Century and into the 21st Century and on the basis of a further decline in religious affiliation and attendance seen during the 1990s within the 1970s cohort, it is reasonable to project that in the absence of other factors, religious affiliation will decline towards zero over the next century.  

Yet what might these “other factors” be and how might they still affect the place of religion in 22nd Century Britain?

One factor might be apparent in NatCen’s figures for the 1980s cohort rates of affiliation, which rose from 32.6% in 1997 (when the cohort were mostly teenagers) to a high of 39.2% in 2001, before returning to 32.3% by 2007 (when most of the cohort would have been in their 20s).  The short-lived spike in religious affiliation within the 1980s cohort around 2001 is mirrored within the 1950s and before 1920 cohorts, but was not evident in the attendance figures… apart from for the before 1920 cohort, who seem to have attended places of worship in 2001 and again in 2005 in significantly higher numbers.  It is tempting to interpret the correlation between higher church attendance among elderly people and big terrorist attacks as having some sort of causative explanation.  Going back to Feuerbach and Freud, perhaps the shock of 9/11 and 7/7 caused people to seek solace in religion?  Going back to Durkheim and thinking about Marx, perhaps the trauma of the attacks and the “war on terror” can explain the need for a collective religious response, both practically and politically.  If religion is the “opium of the masses” it would be reasonable to see more of it being used – rightly or wrongly – when the masses are in real pain!  Nevertheless, if the breakdown of the statistics is anything to go by, the statistical spike was not demographically uniform and nor did changes in affiliation rates translate into attendance.  Only the oldest people actually attended a place of worship more often in 2001 and in 2004-5; there is no apparent change in NatCen’s attendance figures for younger people and the attendance of the 1960s cohort actually dropped in that year and in 2005.  Perhaps the statistical spike in affiliation in 2001 and around 2005 is more to do with expressing solidarity, cultural and moral identity and to do with asserting hope in a seemingly hopeless situation, than it is to do with any actual change in what people believe or do in terms of religion.  In part, this seems to confirm Max Weber’s suggestion that religion emerges out of peoples’ need to respond to the injustice of evil and suffering and out of their need to believe in salvation and that something they can do could lead to a righting of this injustice.  What might the principle that people might be willing to state religious affiliation in greater numbers at times of social stress suggest about the place of religion in 22nd Century Britain?  Just that religion will probably continue to have a place in 22nd Century Britain and that then, as now, that place will be more apparent at times of national crisis and when people feel the need to assert control over their fates. 

Further, the population is aging.  This trend might be interrupted or even reversed by the reduction in antibiotic efficacy, the increase in cancers, the growing likelihood of pandemics as well as by decades of under investment in health and social care etc, but if it continues even at a slower rate, the proportion of very elderly people in the 22nd Century Britain might well be larger than it is today.  Sadly, a higher proportion of very elderly people is likely to result in a higher proportion of people suffering from poverty, loneliness, isolation and depression, all of which are indicators for higher rates of religiosity.  In “Religion and depression: a review of the literature” (1999) McCullough and Larson found that… “some forms of religious involvement might exert a protective effect against the incidence and persistence of depressive symptoms or disorders.”  Surveying more than 440 pieces of research, in “Religious and Spiritual Factors in Depression: Review and Integration of the Research” (2012) Raphael Bonelli et al found that  “Religious beliefs and practices may help people to cope better with stressful life circumstances, give meaning and hope, and surround depressed persons with a supportive community.”  According to a 2008 study, people who are lonely are more likely to become religious while rates of loneliness in the UK among older people are high and arguably rising, perhaps as a result of families dispersing and the long hours worked by British people.  These studies seem to support Freud’s suggestion that Religion can often help people to cope with voids in their lives and Jung’s suggestion that religion is about much more than a world-view or a set of rituals and is better understood as a process of working out our relationship with reality.

In addition, Gallup research in 2009 found that Religion is typically far more important to the population in poorer countries than it is in richer countries and that there is a direct correlation between economic prosperity and religiosity. If rates of religiosity in Britain have a relationship with the economy, then the place that religion has in 22nd Century Britain may depend on the long term economic future of the country.  Of course, the relationship between religion and economics was charted more than 100 years ago by Karl Marx and then by Max Weber, who both understood how religion can function as a tool of capitalism which keeps ordinary people motivated and engaged with the market and the political system which puts it first when it singularly fails to benefit them. Of course with Brexit on the immediate horizon, continuing problems with managing the deficit and the housing market, the national debt and the longer term effects of world population growth, climate change and resources depletion, it is difficult to forecast what the economy will be doing in five years time, let alone into the 22nd Century.  It could be that Capitalism will collapse before that time; Marx predicted that it will.  Suffice it to say that there is a real possibility that Britain will be poorer in the future, and that with the decline in its finances the country could see an increase in the number of people expressing religious affiliation… and even attendance (assuming that places of worship continue to function for long enough to benefit from an upturn in numbersthat is).

In conclusion, the claim that religion will have no place in 22nd Century Britain is exaggerated.  While religious affiliation will probably continue to decline, part of this effect may be offset by an increase in religious intensity among those believers who are left, by temporary increases in religiosity at times of national crisis and by the probable effect of a potentially aging and in any case stressed, sick and impoverished population.  Further, even with a small proportion of religious people, there will continue to be a place for religion in British society as there are places for other minority ways of life. Clearly, the decline in religion will raise questions about the established status of the Church of England, the representation of religions in the House of Lords and about the protected status enjoyed by religions in relation to tax and education for examples.  How these questions are handled will have some effect on the place religion will have in 22nd Century Britain.

Charlotte Vardy will be proposing the motion “This house believes that religion should have no place in 22nd Century Britain” as part of Candle Conferences’ “Outstanding A Level Religious Studies” events across England during November 2017.

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