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Hodder History Expert Blog

Making sense of (religious) history
By Alec Fisher
17 Nov

How do we teach about religion in Key Stage 3 - Part 1

Recently, the kids I teach have been asking me about 'all that stuff in Syria, where they cut off heads and all.' Moreover, as one of the authors of the Making Sense of History series, I have been grappling with writing various sections on religion.

These two challenges have given me occasion to think more widely about our approach to teaching religion and matters of faith in history lessons.

So let me share my thinking with you.

The end of History?

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama prophesied the 'end of history' and wrote, "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the … universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

It was a different time in the early nineties, I had bleached blonde hair and images of Berliners armed with pickaxes were still fresh in our minds, so perhaps we can give Francis a pass. Fast forward to 2014 - my hair is age appropriate and Fukuyama, partially chastened by the rise of radical Islam, has a new book to sell. Whether the facism of IS stems purely from religion is debatable, but matters of faith are once again shaping events. Religion it seems is back, though actually it never really went away.

And we history teachers think we've got it sussed don't we? Leave all that sitting in a circle stuff and lighting candles to our colleagues down the corridor. Meanwhile, we'll get down to the nitty gritty and put the whole holy thing in context.

1066 to 1509, no problem - Becket, the power and influence of the Church, the Crusades, and Lollardy - take your pick. 1509 to 1745, easy - the Reformation, those topsy-turvy Tudors, divine right, Guido and his mates - boom. But then it all goes a bit quiet with the occasional Laud exception (apologies). Accusations of Papal plot pop up and sizzle briefly during the Great Fire, but then what? Then it's just the gradual decline of belief - the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, Darwin and Dawkins, right?

Wrong.

The assault on God

So how do we extend the theme of religion when teaching the industrial and modern periods? Firstly, it's important to move kids away from the idea that religion somehow disappeared from people's lives in the nineteenth century. Those of us who teach lessons on the threat of revolution in early nineteenth century Britain need to consider the possibility that religious belief (especially Methodism) as well as repressive government policies helped reduce the likelihood of a guillotine at Tyburn.

I've just finished writing the religion section for Making Sense of History 1745-1901. When I left the initial planning meeting with the sickeningly talented John D Clare, Neil Bates and Richard Kennett, my initial worry was that I'd struggle to fill the pages allocated. In 1882 Nietzsche had declared, 'God is dead', reflecting a perceived decline in religious belief. Indeed, overall church attendance and membership was falling.

However, we should not confuse this with a decline in faith or religious sensibility. There is much evidence suggesting that religious considerations remained important even among the urban working classes. Industrialisation, capitalism, cities and Darwin did not kill God, although they did 'rough Him up'!

We eventually settled on the question, ‘How far did people abandon religion in the nineteenth century?’ Students consider a range of possible 'culprits' in the 'assault' on God, including urbanisation, industrialisation and scientific discovery. Hopefully, they will develop a more nuanced understanding about the role religion played in the nineteenth century.

Coming in Part 2: Teaching about religion in the context of the British Empire

If you have ideas to share about how best to teach about religion in Key Stage 3 I look forward to hearing from you! Send me message on Twitter: @alec_fisher. I have permission from my publisher to give a Making Sense of History 
50% discount voucher to the idea that I think is best. But there is a deadline - please send me your ideas by Sunday 23rd November.

Alec Fisher
Head of History at Mill Chase Academy, Bordon.
Co-Author of the Making Sense of History series.
Twitter: @alec_fisher

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