By Thomas Plant
Part of my role as a school chaplain at Lichfield Cathedral School in Staffordshire is teaching religious studies. This, the educationalists tell us, is meant to be undertaken from a rigorously neutral position. The problem is, the so-called “neutrality” is anything but.
Come into my classroom. We’re having a discussion about sex before marriage. One girl says that it’s absolutely vital, because, in her words: “you’ve got to try before you buy.”
Her friends nod sagely.
This takes me back to an earlier classroom episode, where one boy asked how anyone could possibly choose any one religion out of all of those available.
Trying. Buying. Choice.
Where are these concepts coming from? Do we really believe they are “neutral,” and value-free?
Our young, unburdened by the tradition of our nation’s Christian past, are brought up to think that they are fiercely independent free-thinkers, encouraged to express whatever opinion they like. Yet, despite their apparent freedom in the topical discussions of the religious studies classroom, our young free thinkers overwhelmingly default to a single opinion, whether on dress, or abortion, or salvation, and the opinion is this: it is up to the individual to decide.
Autonomy is the sole virtue. There is no point debating any further, because there is never any implication that there might be any truth behind any religious claims. So, religious beliefs are presented as purely arbitrary decisions, matters of choice, based on the individual believer’s choice of one-liners from whatever their preferred brand of scripture happens to be.
Whether it’s religions or potential mates, in the end everything is a product: one choice among many in the supermarket of personal values. And the individual is the neutral, liberated consumer who can take their pick from the shelves.
In other words, we have inculcated in our pupils an ideological analogue to consumer capitalism. And there is nothing neutral about that at all.
The acquisition of consumer goods does not seem to be making us happier. When teenagers constantly tap out their addiction on glowing screens, you seldom see their faces glow with equal ardor. Generally, their faces are harassed and tense, anxious as the little red message count rises, so engrossed in their virtual world that the dull old world of, say, families and children becomes an obstacle met with frustration.
In London, I used to see parents get angry with their infant children in the streets for interrupting their own non-stop cell phone screen time. Then we wonder why the little ones grow up incapable of meaningful relationships or even basic social interaction.
Patience is certainly not my forte (as my wife will tell you). Now this is what twenty-somethings call a “first world problem,” but much of my impatience is to do with the sheer range of choices available in almost every aspect of life. Which TV streaming service should I choose, which internet provider, which train company for my upcoming trip, which supermarket for dinner? There are those who would say that these are nice problems to have. Nicer than many, and certainly nicer than having no choices at all. Yet under the illusion that choice equals freedom, we can end up trapped in a cycle of administrating our lives rather than living them.
I am not for a moment suggesting that commerce and capitalism are bad things in themselves. Even consumerism has its place. I am writing on a desirable Apple iMac, which would never have reached its current evolution without serious consumer investment. I am doing so in my own house, paid for by money which people pay me. Even if you work in the State sector, you are reliant on private wealth-generation for the taxes which pay your wage. It would be naive in the extreme to suggest that employability, skills, and increasing pupils’ potential to generate wealth have no place in education. If anything, these skills can greatly help reduce inequality.
The problem starts when wealth-creation becomes not just a means, but the only agreed end, and when the way of thinking which it inculcates has no serious rival.
Certainly, from any religious point of view, reducing everything, including people, to consumer products, relating to the world purely in terms of its use to me, is an impoverished view of reality. It leads to the devaluation of those who earn less. This in turn contributes to the declining self-worth and insecurity which can lead to restiveness and violence, especially in young men. A culture which makes wealth the sole measure of a person is always going to alienate those who fail to live up to that measure — especially when the expectations of ownership are inflated by an entertainment industry that idolizes men who “own” big houses, guns, hot cars, and fast girls.
So who benefits from this in the end?
It is in the interest of unscrupulous employers to have a ready workforce with a crippled moral compass and a laissez-faire attitude to truth. We don’t want them asking those awkward questions about our business ethics or its environmental impact. How convenient that those questions can all be relegated to matters of private opinion and driven from the factory floor.
You can take that cross from round your neck or that scarf from your head when you work here: everybody has an equal opportunity to say nothing.
It is in the interest of entertainment corporations to have a ready body of consumers who will not question the goodness of what they are watching, but will simply pay for the next endorphin hit. Are ultra-violent video games and hard-core pornography really good for you? Or, in the latter case, for the people “acting” in them? Who cares? You don’t have to justify your habits to anyone any more. You pay your price, you get your choice, and that’s all there is to it. Nothing more to say.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that so many of the teen dramas into which producers pour so much money also seem to consolidate the relativist values of individualism and self-determination, the inalienable right to define one’s own personal truth?
It is in the interest of media moguls to have a ready body of viewers unable to distinguish truth from fiction, because then all they need to do is take money from the highest bidder and spin their story as news. Since there’s no truth anyway, may as well let the people choose which side of the story they want to consume: all for a very reasonable subscription charge.
So, who benefits from the relativism we teach under the rubric of religious studies? Exactly the people who, frankly, have more than enough benefits already.
If education, and especially religious education, is to avoid either implicitly or explicitly idolizing wealth and power, it will need to weed out the relativism and utilitarianism from its classrooms. And given that secular schools really have nothing else to fall back on, it is up to Church schools to lead the way, arguing with conviction for what we believe whilst equipping students to dissent – and unveiling to our children’s critical gaze the idol of Mammon that has been secretly guiding their lives for so long.
Then, at last, they might be able to make a real choice.
The Rev’d Dr Thomas Plant is Chaplain of Lichfield Cathedral School, UK. He will further address the problem of relativism in Christian education in his forthcoming work, The Iconic School. His recent book The Catholic Jesus is available on Amazon now.
I get wanting to weedout a pure utilitarian approach from the class room, but it is also important to help children identify when even their utilitarian analysis is wrong (such as the “try before you buy” example at the start). Not just relying on the dominant decision making framework is worth teaching but also pointing out the false assumptiins that are also input to the framework most of the time too.