September 2004

Culture change and A-levels

Once upon a time there was a largely untested presumption that Britain was a Christian country; more recently the reverse has been true, the presumption is that we are entirely secularised. Yet the choices of pupils taking A-levels in 2004 may reveal something more complex. The epitome of secularisation may be the empirical sciences but Computing, Information and Communication Technology, Science Subjects and Physics are four out the five subjects showing the biggest drop in pupil numbers. In startling contrast religious studies showed the greatest growth – up 13.8% on 2003. And indeed this rise at A-level may be the outworking of the increase in pupils taking religious studies at GCSE. It is to be noted, however that the numbers taking Biology (52264) and Chemistry (37254) are still 3.6 times and 2.6 times greater than those taking Religious Studies (14418)

Any decline of science should not be treated as the triumph of religion. Rather it is a worrying social development that the cultural, social and economic importance of science should be on the wane. All too often a false conflict has been set up between Science and Religion. To be sure there are proper tensions between these fields. However, while there are indeed ethical and moral and even metaphysical concerns which Christians should apply to scientific programmes, we should also affirm with the Catechism of the Catholic Church that ‘Science and technology are precious resources when placed at the service of man and promote his integral development for the benefit of all.' (CCC 2293) Also there are many areas where Religion and Science should make common cause: one such being a common commitment to very notion of rationality.

Further there is a worry that ‘Religious Studies' is seen as a soft option. Clearly there was a development amongst the science community from natural history to biology in which observation and description developed into analysis and ‘harder' theoretical and experimentally based understandings. In some ways the move from ‘Theology' to ‘Religious Studies' could be seen as in the opposite direction – to a value free assembly of phenomena without faith commitment or any expectation of ‘truth'. Although, that worry being noted, I am happy to say that most students and teachers who I have met in the area have put the lie to these concerns. Their energy and desire for deep knowledge and understanding is as welcome as it is challenging.

Yet, these figures do suggest that there are changes. At the very least pupils are recognising that questions of faith and religion remain important. The world after 9/11 has sharpened the political profile of religion and in domestic terms one of the necessities of a multi-cultural Britain is to understand our diverse religious make up.

For us as observers of and participants in this cultural change we should see this as an opportunity. There is growing number of people who have a wider education in religious issues. At a time when more are interested in religion, now is the time for us to be confident in allowing our faith to be known and in presenting it to those who enquire.

Information from http://www.jcgq.org.uk/Media_and_center/A,AS,VCE,AEA_News_Release_2004.pdf