Updated: Aug 25, 2022
Students are beginning to enrol at sixth forms and colleges. In larger sixth form settings, one option is Religious Studies but why would anyone want to do that? Although numbers doing the subject have slightly declined in the last five years (the demise of AS where RS was often the fourth pick and the decline of GCSE RS in Key Stage 4 in some centres) there are still just under 16,000 young people studying the subject. Why do so many students take RS?
What puts people off?
Firstly, as in a balanced essay, we need to consider the other side. Those who would try to put students off RS typically say one of two things. They suggest that the subject is boring and irrelevant or they point out that there are no careers where RS can be used. Often they have hitched a ride on the STEM train without noticing that it is not the only good train leaving the station that day. Critics of RS are wrong on both counts and I will try to deal with both of these claims below.
RS and the World of Work
Some subjects do lead directly to specific jobs. If you want to be a doctor, you have to study Chemistry A level. If you plan to teach Maths, you should probably do an A level and then a degree in the subject. Other subjects, such as Humanities and Social Science courses, do not have set career paths but open doors to a whole range of possible vocations.
Religious Studies is in this second group and it is an excellent preparation for the world of work. It requires the ability to analyse and assess different ideas, it requires that you are able to put yourself in another person's shoes and argue a case from their point of view. It involves discussion and debate, it involves communicating with precision and clarity in your writing. At its best it requires that you are able to put a case forward clearly, yet retain the sensitivity and emotional intelligence to avoid alienating those who disagree - in short, it develops your people skills. These are precisely the skills that employers hope to find in their selection procedures. It has also been suggested that studying philosophy - a key part of RS - helps to Improve literacy and numeracy. Why is that? Perhaps it is because both literacy and numeracy involve understanding and communicating ideas.
So although no employer will ever require an A level in Religious Studies, having such a qualification tells an employer a great deal. So you tend to find Religious Studies Graduates in all walks of life: Law, journalism, politics, education, media and social work. They will be found using those skills and making a difference in the world as they do so as shown in the excellent UK TRS graduate videos.
Religious Studies and Life
It may be that the argument about employability doesn't grab you - after all you will only be at work for around 25% of your adult hours - how does Religious Studies prepare you for life in general? Here RS has few equals.
Firstly it is about people: understanding their different views, learning about their beliefs, and understanding what makes people tick whether they have a religious worldview or not. RS involves thinking deeply about what it is to be human and how we relate to others. Now I'm not promising that studying RS will improve your friendships but it helps our emotional intelligence so it can't hurt! Yes, you can argue that the world is changing but as long as there are people, you will need RS.
Secondly, it is an opportunity to think through the really big questions of life. 'An unexamined life is not worth living' Socrates may or may have actually said this but the point stands. Whether or not God exists, how we make moral decisions, questions about gender and justice, life and death - the meaning (if there is one) of life itself. These are important questions and in no other subject is wrestling with such questions so central. Science can tell us what we are able to do, but only RS perhaps assisted by other Humanities type courses can help us answer ethical questions about whether we should do it.
Religious Studies and the F word
Finally, I almost hesitate to mention the F word but RS on the whole is...fun. Not everything that is important in education is fun; some things are dull but important, conversely others are enjoyable but useless. Religious Studies is a subject that is both important and generally enjoyable. Hopefully you have found this to be true during secondary school. It may be that this has not always been the case. RS is sometimes taught by busy non-specialists in lower school (NATRE estimate that approximately 56% of RE in secondary schools is taught by non-specialists) but at A level you will be taught by a passionate subject specialist.
This is important because whether or not you enjoy a subject actually matters a great deal at A level. You will spend a third of your time each week on that subject so don't be afraid to pick subjects you enjoy; this will help keep you motivated on those wet November mornings as you wait for the bus and wonder why you are doing all this. You could choose a subject that seems more vocational at first glance but if it is boring then you might not do well and will want to change. So why not be brave and choose the subjects you are passionate about first time around?
So RS can be an excellent preparation for the world of university or employment but it is also more than that; it has the potential to prepare you for life itself. The questions it considers are significant. And if you ask anyone who had studied the subject whether they enjoyed it, they’ll probably tell you they had a lot of fun along the way!