Digest of terms
It is a common assumption that Religious Education (RE) refers to initiation into a particular religious tradition or faith, usually the responsibility or parents and guardians. They are passing on their own beliefs and values which they regard as important. Although some critics would argue that this must be a form of 'brainwashing', it can only really qualify as such if boys and girls are wilfully closed off from any other view. Many 'religious' parents, along with those designated to teach RE from within a particular faith community, fully expect that young people will be encouraged to think through and test the religious framework into which they are being inducted.
Nevertheless, suspicion of the risk of exposure to one-sided RE, and a determination to protect children from it, sometimes leads to a prohibition of this form of RE from public/state-funded schools. Instead there may be a programme of Moral Education or Ethics, although the basic beliefs and values on which that is founded may still be only a little less contentious.
A different approach to RE has developed in recent years, especially in UK and many countries in continental Europe, as also in S Africa where it is referred to as 'Religion' Education. This starts from a position of plurality. Often locally and regionally, certainly nationally and globally, there are many religions, many different conditions of belief and unbelief. Teachers will be sensitive to the diversity of backgrounds which children bring into school with them, as also the predominant mix which shapes the national context. They will see it as their priority not to endeavour to make a young person religious in a particular way, but rather to enable them to become 'religiate'. Through empathy, with the use of stories, visual symbolism and empirical exposure, this gives pupils some understanding of what it might mean to be religious. It encourages them to discern the difference between intelligent religious belief and unbelief on the one hand and shallow alternatives of either.
In this version of RE, religion is too dangerous to be left unexamined, too potentially rewarding for humanity not to be recognised as part of the global picture.