THE BELIEFS AND ATTITUDES OF
By Graham Rossiter
Chapter 13 of Religious Education in Australian Schools, Curriculum Development Centre, 1981
This is an old article on the topic. It will be of interest to compare the diagnosis of young people's beliefs written in 1979 with what religious educators would think in 2000. What would be the major changes in emphasis in a contemporary treatment of this topic? What findings would you expect to be the same? What would be different? What would be the main difference in implications for religious education that would be proposed for the new millennium?
"If there is one thing that has wrecked up this world and narrowed people's ideals and created moral, physical and sexual cripples, it is religion."
"This school has, if anything, destroyed any faith I had . . . I'm Christian in the sense of helping the fellow man, but the institution is of no importance to me."
If these comments by Year 12 students in church schools reflect the views of even a significant minority of young Australians, then it is unlikely that religion teachers will have the most attractive subject matter to present and it is unlikely that they will evoke enthusiastic responses from their classes.
When young people come to religious education classes in any setting, they bring with them a background of beliefs, attitudes and experience that have a strong influence on their response or lack of response to what is done by the teacher. It is one thing to see education as advanced by teacher, yet all of these details may be viewed in a very different light by young people themselves. Approaches to RE may seem educationally sound to teachers but, in their implementation, these approaches may be unsatisfactory because they are not in tune with the needs of young people.
For teachers in a church school, where the aim may be to hand on the church's faith tradition and to promote growth in personal faith, it becomes important to know just how the structures, approach, and content in religious education contribute towards or detract from the possibility that young people will find God as a reality in their own lives. Religion teachers suggest that the point of view of young people and their particular needs and aspirations should be seriously considered when developing approaches and preparing content for religious education.
To illustrate this thinking, reference will be made to some surveys of young people's beliefs that have attracted the attention of religion teachers and have influenced them to comment on important implications for the practice of religious education. Quotations have been drawn from the surveys to highlight the range of views and style of expression of young people and to serve as starting points for further discussion.
SURVEYS OF YOUNG PEOPLE'S BELIEFS AND ATTITUDES
The following material samples the views of young people in areas like beliefs, attitudes and purpose in life, from three recent surveys. As the first survey was a small one and as the other two were conducted in the United Kingdom, no claim is made that the results give an accurate picture of the outlook of young people in Australia. The surveys do, however, show trends that have been recognised as relevant to their teaching situations by a number of Australian religion teachers in both church and State schools.
Young people's ideas about God, religion and the meaning of life
A book entitled Young People's Ideas about God, Religion and the Meaning of Life (1978), reports on Elizabeth Nowotny's findings from a survey of three hundred Year 12 students from eleven Catholic schools in six States and from one Uniting Church school.
The book quotes extensively a range of views of young people with chapters on God, religion, the meaning of life, and the school. Some interpretation from the point of view of the interests of Catholic schools is offered.
The following are some samples of the views of young people quoted in the book.
The book discusses a number of issues raised by the survey's findings. Belief in God is not always a clear-cut 'black or white' issue for young people. An important distinction is drawn between 'institutional' end 'persona!' religion. Apparently the rejection of religion by young people may often be related to perceived irrelevance of some institutional aspects of the church and to a gap between what their present religious needs call for and the
way they manifested their faith earlier in life. The question is posed:
What forms of institutionalism contribute to fostering growth and a sense of belonging and what forms prevent young people from committing themselves to a faith community, with its religious beliefs and practices, through which they can find God and feel at home?4
Freedom, responsibility, initiative and trustworthiness are shown to be important aspirations of young people at school. They prize a person-centred education and are unhappy about schools and teachers that inhibit any dimension of their personality growth.
Young people's beliefs, Britain 1977
The English General Synod Board of Education commissioned an exploratory sociological study of the beliefs of young people, the results of which were published in 1977.5 The following comments are drawn from a discussion booklet published as a digest of the research findings from one hundred in-depth interviews from a random sample of young people in the 13-24 years age range.
The religious attitudes of young people in Britain, 1978.
The following data report on the beliefs of a nation-wide sample of English school students aged 14-18. Buzz magazine conducted the survey in association with the Bible Society and Scripture Union, and the material quoted appeared in the Times Educational Supplement in September 1978.7 Nine hundred and fifty school students from seven schools were surveyed with a questionnaire while 790 additional returns came from readers of the Christian magazine Buzz.
One other survey that attracted the attention of a number of religion teachers was the investigation of the needs of church youth in the United States by M.P. Strommen. In his book, five Cries of Youth (1974), Strommen discusses the results of his 420-item survey of more than seven thousand young people, organising his discussion around the five distinctive 'cries' that showed through in his findings—of self-hatred, of psychological orphans, of social protest, of the prejudiced, of the joyous.
The Government reports on religious education in State schools in Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales present some useful data on surveys of the attitudes to religious education of parents, students and teachers. The Evaluation Report on the South Australian departmental RE program shows the results of a survey of the attitudes of a sample of Year 10 students to the new course. (These reports are listed at the beginning of chapter 5.)
IMPLICATIONS FOR RELIGIOUS EDUCATION
The following paragraphs reflect the views of religion teachers about the implications for religious education that they see arising from the survey results just referred to or from their own personal experience with regard to young people's beliefs and attitudes.
Yesterday's answers may not fit today's questions
Religion teachers cannot assume that the approaches to religious education that may have satisfied them (or may have been tolerated by them) when they were pupils at school, will necessarily be satisfactory today. Complications come not just through changes in teaching style but also through changes in religious awareness, or at least through changes in emphasis in the meaning that religion has for people.
There is a recognisable trend in present practice to make religious education more relevant to the immediate lives of pupils than was done formerly. This trend is in part a response to the complaints of young people who are tired of being given answers to questions they have not yet felt the need to ask, while the questions that are of urgent personal concern go unheeded. This criticism is often made of the whole school curriculum, and is not just a problem peculiar to religious education. However, if many of the claims made about RE in chapters I to 6 are to be taken seriously by young people, religious education might need to show firstly that it is sensitive to the personal needs of young people and that it can make a distinctive contribution to helping meet their meaning making and life-education needs.
Life-centred religious education and the consideration of depth-themes in contrast to formal religious phenomena (approaches that are followed in both church and State schools), often presume a readiness on the part of teachers to listen to the questions young people are raising and a willingness to search for ways of handling these questions constructively in class.
Just how much religion?
Just as the curriculum experts in science education and in other subject areas are people with background and interest in their particular field, the strongest advocates of religious education are often people with extensive knowledge of religion and with an appreciation of the role of religion in their own lives, or they may be people with a strong sense of evangelism. It is natural for such people to feel that formal religious knowledge will be good for young people. The problem lies in determining how much religion should be given. Some teachers point out a danger in an approach which tends to present to pupils a package of religious knowledge rather than an approach which tends to help pupils to progress in their own religious quest.
A consideration of the results of the surveys noted earlier was reported by some religion teachers to be a sobering experience. The average views of young people about religion are often quite different from those of enthusiastic religion teachers. A better appreciation of the students' religious background, or lack of a religious background, can help religion teachers make fewer presumptions about what students know of religion and how they feel about it. Such considerations have also helped teachers clarify their aims for religious education and shape their lesson presentations, in both content and method, to be more in tune with the interests and needs of their students.
Some teachers suggest that young people often look for a more informal approach to their religion while at the same time being interested in a more intense form of personalise and commitment than might be required in a formal approach.
A prominence for freedom and individualism
Freedom and individualism are values that strongly influence the pattern of beliefs of young people. A consequence is the 'privatisation' of belief. As the booklet, A Kind of Believing, notes, this trend is part of a genera] acceptance of:
In response to this view, some teachers suggest that efforts need to be made in religious education to highlight the social side of religion and religious faith. This has particular implications for faith communities regarding how the community allows for different ways of being together, ways of sharing and celebrating, that might fill out the meaning of shared beliefs. However, a point of more general significance is whether a church community or religion teacher accepts that a more individualistic responsibility for religious beliefs is a strong reality in the minds of young people. Education in faith and evangelisation need to take young people's responsibility for their faith seriously and should not presume that faith can be imposed or required through religious education. Approaches to education in faith are needed that allow young people to choose their own particular faith response rather than approaches aimed specifically at persuading them to accept a ready made package of religious teachings and observances. Taking seriously the need to provide room for options would show a commitment in RE to the needs of young people rather than to the religious product.
Further on this question, some teachers suggest that through bringing the activity of meaning-making into conscious focus in RE, some attempt can be made to counter a destructive element in the privatisation of beliefs. The sharing of beliefs may be the basis of important relationships which ease the burden of being alone in one's quest for meaning in life.
The nature of faith
Some religion teachers point out that the survey results show how religious faith cannot be satisfactorily regarded as a neatly organised system of beliefs. Many people seem to live according to a faith that has doubts, inconsistencies, and ambiguities—a faith that is not arranged into a coherent or comprehensive pattern of beliefs. Also, young people seem to regard faith primarily as something personal and not propositional. They tend to see faith as a commitment rather than as a body of knowledge, while not denying that faith has a knowledge component.
These generalisations suggest implications for the content of RE. How much relative importance should be attached to the communication of religious knowledge? Some people regard formal religious knowledge as the primary object of religious education. There is sometimes an apparent assumption that knowledge of formal religious teachings automatically generates faith. Some teachers suggest that a clearer distinction is needed in religious education between the 'faith of the church' and 'personal faith'. Only after such a distinction is made can the interrelationships between the two be clarified.
On the question of faith, some religion teachers make a point of treating this topic with senior students by
commencing with an exploration of what it means for them to believe. From such a starting point, a teacher can raise for consideration the problems and ambiguities of faith. Some teachers have found that a presentation of Fowler's theory of the development of human faith is a useful way of approaching these questions. (Fowler's theory is described in the following article.)
A sense of pluralism and the study of world religions
The survey results indicate that young people in Western societies have a strong sense of pluralism and they value it highly. In religious education, they are not content with being taught just their own particular religion. Many young people would prefer to see RE include reference to all major world religions. While the swamping of RE with descriptive information about world religions may be another extreme to be avoided, it is possible that young people will become dissatisfied with or suspicious of an approach that gives only one point of view. Religion teachers suggest that religious education aimed at fostering commitment to one point of view needs to show that it is aware of and open to other points of view.
Symbolism and belief in a spiritual realm
The survey results from England show that it is at least questionable to say that young people are unwilling to believe in a spiritual realm. While there is a widespread type of scientific empiricism that may be invoked to question or dismiss traditional religious or moral beliefs, there is on the other hand, a widespread readiness to believe in spirits, astrology, etc. The same empiricism used to criticise traditional religion does not seem to be used so critically with regard to superstitions and parascientific phenomena. One suggested explanation for this apparent ambiguity is considered in more detail in the article on religious myth and the interpretation of scripture.
Some religion teachers suggest that the myths, symbols and language of traditional religion have lost most of their power and may not be speaking meaningfully about the spiritual to many young people. (Tillich suggested that when symbols lost their direct evocative power and needed explanation or interpretation they ceased to be symbols, and new ones had to be found.)'° For example, one group of students complained that the following verses of a hymn, sung at church and at school, did not exactly suggest images that had meaning for them.
Angel choirs above are raising,
Cherubim and Seraphim,
In unceasing chorus praising,
Fill the heavens with sweet accord.
Holy, holy, holy, Lord.
One of these students also noted that, while the language of the liturgy and scripture readings had power to communicate, it was the language used during the sermon that seemed to be referring to life on some other planet. This indicates that 'what the churches offer at present does not engage the feelings of young people or make sense of the world in a way that they can understand'.
Are today's young people irreligious?
In the light of the survey results and as reckoned by many religion teachers, it is not accurate to say that today's young people are irreligious. There may be styles of religious awareness in youth that differ from traditional patterns. One aspect of this trend may be a strong reaction against church services that do not speak to the lives of young people. Traditional religion may not be the place where a number of young people find God. As the booklet A Kind of Believing suggests, 'there is a distinction to be made between those who have really grasped what Christianity is about and rejected it, and those who have been put off by an inadequate expression of it in the context of uninviting church life'. The booklet also points out that there are many signs 'of young people today who are more altruistic and caring than most previous generations'.
Apart from implications for the development of more involving worship services, the generalisation above tends a' affirm the educational value in a life-centred strand in RE referred to earlier. The desire of young people to have religion and RE as relevant to life as possible is often parralleled by a wish for life-relevance in the whole school curriu~lum.
The image of the religious person
A number of religion teachers have suggested that one of the greatest difficulties they face is related to the negative image or stereotype that young people have of a 'religious person'. Teachers have pointed out that sometimes there is little chance of doing any meaningful work in class because of the poor general attitude to religion that prevails. Teachers also suggest that there is a need to present an alternative view of religion to compensate for negative stereotypes. A crucial question for the churches appears to be whether or not they are reinforcing a negative image in the eyes of young people.
The following quotation highlights some of the issues. The material was selected by a Canberra church youth group for publication in its regular newsletter to the parish. The quotation expresses a criticism of religion that the group wished to bring to the attention of the local church.
Interest in personal development
Young people are very interested in their own development as persons. They want to understand their own needs and are anxious to learn how to relate satisfactorily to others.
Some approaches in RE, particularly where there is integration with personal and social development themes, seem to make a useful response to the needs referred to here. The popularity of live-in religious and personal development camps, and of mixed RE discussion groups may in part be due to successful efforts towards meeting these needs.
Finding meaning in life and the privatisation of beliefs
Religion teachers suggest that RE can serve an important meaning-making purpose in education. In times when there is much confusion about personal meaning in life, when the future is uncertain, when the institutions in the community that traditionally gave meaning seem to have lost much credibility, and when the assumptions underlying a technological, consumer-oriented society are faltering, much more pressure of responsibility for making sense out of life falls on the individual. This is another aspect of the privatisation of beliefs. It is as if the individual's capacity for finding personal meaning in life is under more than usual strain.
If this is the case, then where RE attempts to help the individual in his or her own meaning-making quest, religious education may be making a distinctive contribution to the child's education. This consideration also affirms the educational value in a life-centred approach to RE. Some religion teachers suggest that a meaning-making role for RE may be useful in helping young people develop a personal vision that will enable them make a creative response to the dismal prospects for life that confront them in the present troubled times.
In one example of this approach, a religion teacher used the following material as the basis for a discussion with Year 12 students of an issue that was very much on their minds.
This material was used to focus a religious tradition on a problem that seriously concerned young people.
Some religion teachers claim that young people are hungry for meaning as they come to feel increasingly cynical or disillusioned about our consumer-oriented society—a system they sense is beginning to crumble under its own weight. This view goes on to suggest that, as the avenues to increased material growth are closing rapidly, it is becoming more important to recognise that the only unlimited form of growth that can be encouraged is personal growth. Religious education is felt by some to be a suitable field where these ideas can be fruitfully considered by young people still at school.
The use of information gathering techniques
In some schools, religion teachers use information gathering techniques to obtain a picture of the beliefs, attitudes, areas of concern, and interests of young people in ways that will guide the development of the RE curriculum.
One teacher used the questions raised by pupils as data around which the RE curriculum was structured. At the beginning of the year, students in each year level were asked to list the religious or life questions that concerned them most at the time—questions about which they wanted information, or questions that troubled or interested them. From their responses, a duplicated list of all the questions and issues raised, grouped in useful categories, was printed and distributed. The students were very interested to see what were the questions that most of their fellow students were interested in. This list generated a spirit of inquiry and the students showed some satisfaction in seeing how the progression of lessons was shaped to respond to the specific questions they had raised. When the questions from across a number of year levels were considered, the data showed a changing pattern of emphasis according to age. This pattern suggested a natural variation in emphasis that could be given to different year levels in the overall RE program.
In addition to using written responses for student assessment in religious education, some teachers use written responses for regular evaluation of the content and presentation of the RE program.
A questionnaire to sample the views of senior students on religion and religious education was developed to draft stage during the Curriculum Development Centre's religious education project. The questionnaire with 111 items was trialled with eighty-two year 11 students from four non-Government schools. The limitations of time and funding required that this aspect of the project be discontinued before the survey could be developed further and used more extensively. The draft questionnaire and the results of the trial are given in the Sample of Individual Submissions as an example of an attempt to gauge student opinion on: the relative importance of aspects of religious education when considered side by side with other aspects of education for personal and social development; and the role of teachers.
While no claim is made that the results of the small trial are representative of Australian students, the findings do highlight some issues related to the earlier discussion.
In all parts of the questionnaire, students showed a consistent favourable preference for items concerned with their own personal and social development, a majority of the sample feeling that religion should promote their growth as persons. The students indicated that proper concerns of religion should be helping people cope with life problems, helping find meaning in life, decreasing prejudice, improving self acceptance, improving personal relationships, discovering what it means to be human and providing security with something to believe in.
A majority saw religion as motivating committed social action and opposing injustice and oppression, while a small but significant minority were opposed to the idea of religion encouraging people to live simpler, uncomplicated lives.
Concerning the teaching of religion, this sample of students regarded values and attitudes for living as more important than formal religious knowledge. They were opposed to authoritarian teaching and to teachers who asked for responses that were too personal. However, they liked discussions very much and agreed that in a favourable situation, not necessarily the classroom, they would like to share personal insights about their beliefs. They did not like teachers who were aloof and they felt it important that teachers should be able to speak about their own personal views on religion without imposing these views on the students. While most students recognised that people other than parents had been a positive stimulus to their growth as persons, less than half the sample included teachers in this category.
Almost all the students felt that it was appropriate to learn about other religious traditions and approaches to life, suggesting that this would enhance and not threaten their own particular beliefs.
THE RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN
Most of the material presented so far in this article relates to the beliefs and attitudes of adolescents. To conclude, some attention will be given to the research findings and literature that touch on the religious development of children.
The Religion of Children, a booklet published in the United States in 1977, gives a concise account of current theories and research concerned with the religious development of children. Following the thinking of Freud, the 'parental projection' theory of religious development postulates that the young child's first conception of 'God' is generated through the attitudes and emotions of parent-child relationships. On the other hand, research that has taken up the cognitive developmental perspective of Piaget has concentrated on studying the development of religious concepts in children. Recently, in his theory of' faith development', Fowler has attempted to merge ideas on intellectual and moral development with aspects of emotional and identity development to give insight into the ways in which personal faith might develop in children.
With older children, adolescents and adults, it is possible to study religious beliefs through interview and questionnaire techniques. Such approaches are not applicable to young children. Nevertheless, some researchers in the United States have tried to probe the 'pre-personal' development of young children to see if behaviours, moods and tendencies can be measured as if they were precursors of the child's later basic attitudes to life. In some of this work, the parents fill in questionnaires about the characteristics of their child while it is still a baby (1-2 years of age). The findings are used to help the parents facilitate the psychological and religious development of the child.
Another approach to studying the early religious development of children is to analyse their paintings and drawings in response to questions about 'God'. Pitts has published a book, Children's Pictures of God, in which many drawings by children from Jewish and various Christian backgrounds show their ideas about 'what God is like, where He lives, what He does all day, what sort of clothes He wears, etc. In the book, The Original Vision, Robinson suggests that children can have basic religious experiences quite early in their childhood and
that such experiences can have an important influence on their later religious development.
During 1979, the Year of the Child, three interesting books on children and religion were published by Australians. Stan Stewart, in The Ministry of the Child, emphasises the critical importance of the early years for a child's religious development. Writing from within the Uniting Church tradition, Stewart and his American co author, Benson, suggest that the child needs an accepted, respected, responsive place in the worship of a church community if that community is to nurture the child's personal faith. These authors also suggest that the child has a uniquely important ministry to offer to the Christian church through such an involvement.
In his book, Children and the King, Ron Buckland discusses the principles involved in ministry with children. Developmental insights, theology, family relatedness and practices are considered. The wider context of a child's growing responsibility and accountability interacts with more specific life issues. An open-ended final chapter, 'The On-going Agenda', is followed by a 60-entry resource bibliography. In Focus on the Child, Denham Grierson discusses some of the apparently paradoxical aspects of the child's personal and religious development. In an evocative style, he writes about the child as a leader and as a follower.