New plan for RE needs to consider how secularism over two centuries fundamentally reshaped the world and helped plant the seeds of religious extremism

Reza Gholami. 

The Commission on Religious Education (CORE)’s report, Religion and Worldviews: a national plan for RE affirms “the central importance of learning about religious and non-religious worldviews for all pupils, regardless of their background, personal beliefs or the type of school they attend”. It takes a step in the right direction by recognising the complexities involved in teaching and learning about issues of secularity and religion. However, the approach it takes fails to appreciate the ways in which secularism has fundamentally reshaped the world socially, politically, economically and culturally over the last two centuries.

CORE’s report  sees secularity as a specific worldview, and one which is neutral, or at least can be easily separated from the socio-political processes of secularism. History shows that, as with religions, secularity and secularism are highly complex. They, too, need to be studied critically.

To be sure, the secularist project spearheaded by the likes of English freethinker George Jacob Holyoake in the mid-nineteenth century – the organisation of society and politics by reference to ‘Reason’ rather than God – had by the end of that century become entangled with the wider currents of modernity, especially the Enlightenment and industrialisation. This meant that ‘secular’ became associated with ideas of progress, freedom and rationality, defined in opposition to ‘religion’, seen as backward and dangerous.


Although this particular definition of religion arose from secularism’s relationship with Christianity, it became the blueprint for how a vast array of systems of belief and practice around the world were approached by European colonial powers. Thus, religions everywhere were seen as a barrier to modernity’s ‘civilising’ progress and religious people as its enemies.

Historical evidence shows that in countries such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and India, secularization (or its prospect) helped to bring about increasingly hard-line Islamic movements and in some cases planted the seeds of what is today referred to as ‘Islamism’. There was also an educational dimension to these processes. Ivermee (2016) has shown that in 19th-Century India, the British Government’s withdrawal of its support for Indian religions in favour of a distinctly secular, Western education system led to the proliferation of Islamic madrassas, the chartering of a Muslim university in Aligarh, and the coalescence of the idea of a ‘Muslim religious community’. Although these responses are not necessarily signs of extremism, they point towards the creation of a ‘religious’ sphere that supposedly works in opposition to ‘secular progress’.

Interestingly, where a concept for religion was not readily available, as in 19th-Century China, it was invented: the Chinese word for religion (zongjiao) was imported from Japan to refer to a wide range of disparate beliefs and practices that were now simply called ‘religion’. Again, the aim was to render the Chinese context more compatible with the West.

Today, these processes are at play in key areas of policy, including in education, which has now become formally drawn into the counter-extremism agenda. In my own work, I have been concerned with the way religions are represented in the ‘Prevent duty’, a strand of the UK’s counter-terrorism policy. Aside from the fact that Muslims (or those perceived to be so) are disproportionally targeted by the policy, the language of the policy has from the outset routinely problematised not just ISIS and Al-Qaida but ‘Islam’, ‘Muslims’, ‘Muslim communities’, ‘the Muslim world’, and so on. By the same token, it hides from view the distinctly Christian identities adopted by many members of Far-Right and white-supremacist groups. What we have here, I argue, is an example of secular power: the ability to define and problematise (or conceal) particular religious traditions in particular ways and deploy those definitions in pursuit of certain political aims, while ensuring that ‘the secular’ remains uncritiqued and unquestioned.

Religions and secularisms comprise both practical-ideological and socio-political dimensions. This is part of the very complexity that requires in-depth, critical examination. However, although religions have generally been subject to critical study in secular countries (e.g. through the subject of Religious Studies), the same cannot be said for secularism, which is often assumed to be a space of neutrality. CORE’s report was an opportunity to redress that imbalance, but it is worryingly silent on these issues. I fear, therefore, that it will fail to achieve its otherwise admirable goal of a more rigorous and relevant curriculum.

What is needed in my view – whether as part of the RE curriculum or as a separate statutory subject – is a ‘critical secular studies’* that enables pupils to adequately engage with the social and political histories, and the current dynamics, of religions and secularisms.

Dr Reza Gholami is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology of Education at the University of Birmingham and an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education (CREME) at the UCL-IoE.

*Gholami, R. (2018) “Cosmopolitanism as Transformative Experience: Towards a New Social Ethic” in Panjwani, F., Revell, L., Gholami, R. & Diboll, M. (Eds.) Education and Extremisms: Re-Thinking Liberal Pedagogies in the Contemporary World. Routledge.

Map of British Empire via creative commons




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