Our conference reviewed

27 Apr 2022

Ticket scanned, goody bag collected, name badge found I entered the largest most prestigious lecture theatre at University of Oxford in the Andrew Wiles building. Comfy seats! Tiered seating – no chance the person in front will obscure my view, ergonomically designed table space! On one side of me I have a delegate who has travelled overnight to be here from Exeter and on the other a delegate who has flown in from Ireland. 

We are at The ISRSA Conference hosted by the University of Oxford on Tuesday 22nd March. Teachers from all types of have been invited along to consider the Future of RS. The main question of the morning is whether religion is a ‘world view’, and whether if it is, that is the best way to approach teaching Religious Studies. After being challenged by Dr Andrew Pinsent to consider Pascal’s Wager and to say the Lord’s prayer anyway, Dr Kathryn Wright was the first to speak.

Professor Liam Gearon at the ISRSA conference
Professor Liam Gearon at the ISRSA conference

Dr Kathryn Wright outlined the ‘Religion and Worldviews’ proposal, explaining that it would be not just a name change for the subject but an entirely new approach. The recent Ofsted report, which draws attention to the multi-disciplinary nature of the subject, was quoted in support of a worldviews approach. They asked RS teachers to consider a shift from a ‘world religions’ model to a ‘worldviews’ model, reminding us that “no one stands nowhere”, we all have a worldview, and recommending that this be the philosophical and pedagogical driver for our teaching. Professor Trevor Cooling developed and expanded the theme before inviting us to take a copy of the newly- published, free-of-charge book about it – a fantastic resource for us all! 

Dr Liam Gearon, Professor in the department of Education, University of Oxford, followed with a review of the philosophical origins of ‘worldviews’ (Weltanschauung), and a summary of the research literature. He concluded that in intellectual circles, from Kant onwards, the worldviews phenomenological approach to religion has resulted in a critique of religion (Freud, Durkheim, Marx, Feuerbach, James et al) which has fuelled atheism and secularism. The worldviews approach has prioritised human reason to the exclusion of the transcendent or revealed, and attempted to reduce ‘the cultural inheritance of Christianity to intellectual rubble and ruin’. He also drew attention to the political and moral impact of Weltanschauungphilosophy, which historically has result in man-made mass death, and the death camps of Nazism. He concluded that the proposal was fundamentally flawed. An inevitably colourful and deeply analytic Q and A session followed.

Break included much-needed conversation and refreshments, in the frankly gorgeous Atrium, where there was a range of interesting stands, including Culham St Gabriel’s and OUP. After the break, Julie Arliss and Andrew Capone led a talk on Blended Learning as the future for education. Julie outlined the value of a blended learning approach both to students and staff, and the importance of staying ahead of the curve with regards to technology to the success of our subject. Andrew Capone then introduced a brand-new Blended Learning Platform, EthIQa, primarily designed for A level RS students. The platform offers students flexible individual learning paths, differentiated learning, and support for non-specialist teachers. The Thriving Minds Blended Learning platform is designed to excite younger students about philosophy and big ideas. Lots to think about here and we have already signed up to trial the platform.

 We then broke into groups with our exam boards to discuss the future summer RS exams including the advanced information and changes and adjustments to their specifications, marking and required skills. This was highly informative and gave hugely important and up to date information that we need to help students succeed in the exams. It was an excellent addition to the day. 

 In the afternoon the wonderful Professor Alister McGrath, Andreas Idreos Chair of Science and Religion, University of Oxford, welcomed us to Oxford, thanked us for all our hard work, and explained the Oxford tutorial system. This was followed by a fascinating and timely talk by Professor Nigel Biggar, a leading Professor of Ethics at Christ Church, University of Oxford, about war and military ethics in the light of Ukraine. He reminded us of the importance of Christian principles in the serious decision to go to war, which seeks to avoid meeting evil with evil. He drew attention to some critical ideas in our tradition, such as the importance of doing as little harm as possible, re-establishing justice and peace as quickly as possible and protecting, (not targeting and brutalising), the innocent. I ordered one of Professor Biggar’s books as soon as he had finished speaking – In Defence of War, and this will be explored in one of our reading group sessions next week; as a teacher this session was invaluable given the many questions we face daily about the ethics and justification for interventions in light of events in Ukraine.

The day finished with tea and biscuits with the Faculty of Theology and Religion. 

 I have just spent the day with teachers who care as much as I do about RS, in the intellectual heart of the country, with University Professors speaking to me as someone they highly value, helping me understand things in new ways. I have met, and reconnected with, some brilliant people and I feel reinvigorated for being part of this event. Heartfelt thanks and well done to Julie Arliss and the ISRSA committee for all they do for us as teachers of RS and Philosophy – a spectacular event.

Dr Elizabeth Mackintosh

Winchester College