Phenomenological and Experiential Approaches to Religious Education

Table of Contents


Religion is an integral part of most societies. In the history of humanity, religions have influenced major parts of the way of life of most societies. In many societies, passing religious beliefs to the other members of the society is taken as major duty for existence. In accordance with this trend, religious education was adopted as part of curriculum in many countries.

In United Kingdom, religious education is mandatory for primary schools and some secondary schools. Various approaches have been adopted in teaching religious education over a long period. Confessional, implicit, explicit, evaluative, phenomenological and experiential approaches are the major approaches used in religious education in both primary and secondary schools.

In the recent past there has been interest in phenomenological and experiential approaches to religious education. Both of the approaches have strengths and weaknesses on how they approach religious education and how they integrate with other fields in education. This paper critically analyse phenomenological and experiential approaches to religious educations by analysing the assumption, methodology, strength and weaknesses of each approach.

Overview of Religious Education

Conventionally, religious education is used to refer to teaching of a specific religion. However, in other usage religious education is used to refer to the teaching of religion in general while religious instruction is used to refer to teaching of a specific religion. Religious instructions are common with most people; most people have received religious instructions in one way or the other (Francis & Kay, 1997, p31).

Religion is an integral part of each person. Most people associate with a certain religion; some people consider themselves as Christians, Muslims, Hindu and other religions. Even in a particular religion such as Christianity, people identify with different denominations such as Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians.

These religious identities indicate that people are conscious of their religions and religion takes a central part of their lives (Francis & Kay 1997, p 47). Although human beings are considered to be innately religious, religious instructions are responsible for religious consciousness. Religious instruction offer believers in a certain religion the foundation through which to build their personal beliefs.

Building from religious instruction in various religions and denomination, religious education was adopted in educational programs. Unlike religious instruction that aim at building faith in a particular religious belief, religious education has to accommodate varied interest in religion (Taylor, 1960, p22).

The purpose of religious education in the society can be viewed in three fundamental perspectives. Foremost, it seeks to communicate to individuals who are not religious an essential understanding of religion.

On the other view, religious education seeks to help individuals who are religious to be able to understand themselves and their religious beliefs. Lastly, religious education also provides, to both the religious and non-religious, the importance of studying religion (Francis & Kay, 1997, p98).

The benefits of studying religious education are not only important to students but they are also important to adults since religion have a far-reaching influence both to young and the adults.

Approaches to Religious Education

Various approaches have been adopted in religious education in various parts of the world. Since religion is known for bringing divisions among communities, some countries do not include religious education in their education programmes.

For example, in China, religious education is only allowed in theological schools or schooled sponsored by various religions (Keast, 2007, p73). However, most countries is Europe include religions education as part of their education programmes.

Initially, religious education was viewed as instruction towards a certain religion. The instructions emphasized on theological aspect of religious education of a certain religion. Thus, religious education was offered through pastoral studied offered by different denomination such as Catholics and orthodox.

This approach assumed that all individuals were associated with a certain religion and aimed at providing knowledge that would promote faith. However, increase in diversity in culture and religions called for review of such approaches. Diversity in culture and religious beliefs increased interest by scholars who wanted to study religion as subjects (Jackson, 2004, p67).

Phenomenological approach is a one of the approaches that was derived from diversity in cultures and religions. On the other hands, experiential approach to religious education has developed with aim to correct weaknesses in phenomenological by emphasizing on common experiences in various religions.

Phenomenological Approach Religious Education

In a conventional way, phenomenological approach to religious education can be refereed to as a multi-faith approach to religious education.

This term give an explanation of the aim of this approach; to appreciate religious practises in various cultures and religions. Theoretically, the approach tries to give understanding to the seven basic dimensions of religion.

Doctrinal, methodological, ethical, social, experiential, artistic and ritual aspects of religion are explained with disregard to a specific religion. Thus, phenomenological approach does not aim at teaching religious beliefs or theology of a specific religion but help individuals understand the religious aspect of human beings.

The term, phenomenology as used in religious education developed from early scholarly work by Professor Chantepie in 1889. The term developed from a study made by the scholar that aimed at coming up with a broad definition of religious education (Jackson, 2004, p132).

The growth in diversity in cultures and religious practises by different people called for an approach that was broader than religious instructions to a specific religion (Keast, 2007, p87). The main aim of the Chantepie’s study was integrate common themes observed across different religions. The various religions under the study were referred to as phenomena of groups of religion.

This led to the use of phenomenological approach to religious education to emphasize on the observations observed from the study. Chantepie tried to explain the common phenomena such as prayers, sacrifices and aims of various religions practises.

The main motivation to the study was earlier philosophical work by Hegel that made distinction between essence and manifestation. According to Hegel, the essence of an action in taken into consideration when analysing how an action in manifested.

Accepting that there was the essence of religion, Chantepie aimed at underlining the different and varied manifestations of religion across common themes. Other theologians and philosophers also made similar attempts in twentieth centuries aimed and explaining the essence of religion in different societies regardless of how the religious practises were manifested.

Phenomenological approach has seven major accepted features that distinguish it from other approaches in religions education. The approach takes more emphasis on the observable aspects of religion and ignores the unobservable. Thus, the approach fails to recognize the grand system and emotions proposed by speculative thinking. Phenomenological approach does not support naturalism.

Naturalism was a development from natural science and advocate for view of religion in a scientific way (Barnes, 2001, p113). The approach justifies cognition; which advocate for awareness of matter as disclosed for something of its kind. Object in natural and cultural worlds, ideal objects and conscious life are believed to be made evident in through this approach.

In phenomenological approach, inquiry into a religion is viewed as encounter and is directed at the objects. Thus, religious study with the approach seek too find correlation between objects of different religions as manifested by different aspects of religion. Description rather than explanation of observations is emphasized.

Before 1970, religious education in most education systems in Europe was fundamentally ecclesial and theological. In most extent, the religious education was biased towards Christianity and Christian traditions. However, in twentieth century there was increase in globalization and migration.

This led to significant changes in composition of people in Europe that led to religious and cultural diversity. With these changes, theories and approaches that assumed Christianity as the foundation for religious education were challenged in their ability to accommodate cultural and religious diversity (Barnes, 2001, p89).

With multi-religious societies, and school systems, a different approach was essential. Such an approach had to be able to not only accommodate different religious groups but also explain religion in general. From this dilemma, religious educators, researchers and scholars expanded the religious educations beyond Christianity or any particular religion.

In essence, phenomenological approach to religious education is not used a pure theoretical form in religious educations. The syllabuses, textbooks and curriculum do not use phenomenological philosophy in a pure form but the philosophy influences the didactics and the way of thinking towards religious education.

The approach tries to emphasize on neutrality in studying religious education. The religious belief of the teacher or the students ought not to influence the study. The teachers are encouraged to discuss religion in a thematic approach that try to understand religion rather than appeal for any particular religion.

In one side, phenomenal approach concentrates on looking at religions in a theatrical way. In this approach theatrical topics are discussed and compared across different religions. For example, sacred space, festivals, rituals and ideas on divinity are compares across different religions. Different religions have varied religious beliefs and practices.

These variations may be motivated by different cultural and other backgrounds. By discussing the religion using this approach, the students are taken through various religions. From this approach, the students are able to understand the similarity and differences in various religions. In addition, students are able to understand religion a topic without bias to any religion (Hull, 1993, p17). Thus, the approach is able to accommodate diversity in religion and culture by understanding the religious aspects of human beings in general.

Although the features above are noted as the major strength of phenomenological approach, it leads to some limitations. One of the limitations to approach is that the examples and discussions are drawn out of the social and cultural backgrounds of the students. Thus, major mistakes could be made in trying to understand another religion out of its context.

On the other hands, there is a risk making the students unstable in their religious beliefs rather than encouraging understanding. In addition, serious mistakes could be committed when some religions are not discussed out of their context.

When religious practises are discussed out of their context, wrong conclusion may be drawn. Instead of bringing about harmony and understanding across religions, the approach may lead to disharmony and tension in the classroom.

The approach is criticized for giving only descriptive account of the external aspects of religion. Phenomenological approach discusses the observable aspects of religion such as rituals and festival while ignoring the inner understanding of the external observations (Barnes, 2001, p123).

Thus, the approach in criticized for failing to take into consideration of the emotional depth manifested by the external observations (Ashton, 1999, p131). This criticism is valid as observed in some poorly prepared books that do not focus on the in-depth understanding of various religions. However, the criticism does not hold in a well-prepared phenomenological material and approach in general.

Recent phenomenological approach take into consideration of the criticism made against this approach (Marvell, 2002, p89). In defence, advocates of this approach claim that the approach is proper for contemporary study of religions education rather than in the study of any specific religion in particular.

The defence suggest that religious education should be studies in contexts of other aspects of human existences such as a culture, social and economical aspects. From this, religious beliefs and practises are compared across social cultural economical differences of the communities under the study (Ashton, 1999, p89).

Instead of focussing on historical religious practised, the approach emphasizes on study of living examples of religions that can be easily compared. In addition, the approach engages with the linguistic and conceptual issues and do not put categories in one religion to the other.

In pedagogy, using this approach calls for use of pedagogy methodology such as role-play and drama that enable imagination in a certain religion (Marvell, 2002, p132). The students should be able to understand the various aspects of religions without confusing one religion to the other or being influenced in their religions.

Role-play as a pedagogy method enables the students to assume the role of the individuals that practise the religion. By so doing, the students are able to have in-depth understanding and compare other religion.

Experiential Approach to Religious Education

As used in religious education, experiential approach makes use of students experience as a bridge to teaching religious education. The use of this approach to religious education developed from research made by Alister Hardy. According to the study, religious experience was a development from natural selection due to its survival value for an individual.

Hardy made an argument that there was an awareness that was different from the everyday awareness (Schreiner, 2002, p78). This awareness was attributed to religious experiences and observed to be an important element in human survival.

However, the transcendent awareness was believed to be the common experiential root of all religion. Thus, spirituality and religious experience is not a reserve for any particular religion or religion in general. Individuals who do not associate with any religion do also express their spiritual awareness through other forms

Experiential approach to religious education is a development from experiential education that was promoted by Freire and Dewer. Freire protested against passive students and advocated for an approach that would enable students to participate in their education.

On the other hands, Dewer criticized the conventional approach to education where teacher passed on fact on subjects to passive students (Drawbridge, 1906, p211). He advocated for an approach that would allow students to be, not only recipients of information, but also active participant to the process of acquiring knowledge (Drawbridge, 1906, p213).

The pioneers to experiential approach saw a connection between activity and knowledge. They viewed learning as a social endeavour and called for close examination of the social setting that would provide the proper context for learning. Experiential approach to education is also known by other terms such as situational and action learning to refer to the importance of students participation.

In pedagogy, experiential approach to religious education aims at making religion real to students. For example, while using experiential approach in Christian faith, the approach enables the students to have a real experience of Christian faith. This is made possible by showing the students that Christian faith originates from their own experience (Maloof, 2006, p173).

Thus, the approach help the student not only understand a specific religion but also make sense of their personal experience in religion. For example, a teacher teaching about the passion of Christ in Christian religion would not just describe the events but would also ask the students on how the events affect their religious experience.

In addition, the teacher should also be able to relate the biblical themes under study to moral issues in the class and the society.

Using experiential approach to religious education implies that students will be actively involved in the lesson. The role of students in this approach is not just listening and taking notes from the teacher but they would part of the process of education. Participation and involvement is not reserved to the lesson alone but continues throughout the period. This enables the students to understand themselves, their environment and their religious experiences and practises.

According to the experiential approach to religious education, the main objective of religious education is viewed as deindoctrination. This is used to refer to the role of religious educations to accommodate more that a single perspective of reality. The aim of religious educations is thus, to expand a student’s awareness of religious experiences as well as promote respects to varied reactions to reality.

The approach encourage the teachers to be able to show the students that the varied ways of being human taught in religious education presents a possibility for themselves. It is the responsibility of religious education to assist students to be conscious of ordinary experiences taken seriously by religious people.

The active participation of students as proposed in this approach is an important element in education. Active participation enables the students to separate the perception from reality of religious experiences.

In addition, this approach does not require eloquent ability to explain concepts but ability of a teacher to help students experience religious experience. Thus, linguistic and semantic barriers that encounter phenomenological approach could be overcome by this approach.

In teaching religious education by use of this approach, the teacher may use their personal experience, actual experience of the class or an imagined experience. The teachers also confront the students with experiences or situations that aim at evoking a desired response (Maloof, 2006, p57).

Since the students are close to their teacher, use of teachers’ personal experience enables students to see the relevance of the topic under study. Personal account also enables the students to reflect of on similar religious experiences that they could have had in the past. Class experience is important in bringing out the relevance of religion in the society.

Experiential approach brings strength to religion education. The approach includes spirituality, which had been marginalized in education for a long time. The approach respects student’s personal experience in religion enabling them to develop in their spirituality

Relation between Phenomenological and Experiential Approaches

Experiential approach to religious education is viewed as a reaction and correction to criticism made against phenomenological approach. Phenomenological approach’s focus of external element of religion receives criticism for failure to accommodate the individuals’ religious experience (Mull, 1984, p67). As a correction, experiential approach focuses on religious experience rather than the external presentation of religion.

Review of the two approaches shows some truth in experiential approach as a reaction to phenomenological approach, however, a sharp contrast between the two approaches cannot be drawn. Experiential approach is not a sharp contrast to phenomenological approach but is thought to express and recover the fundamental form of phenomenological approach.

Some scholars and educators have misrepresented phenomenological approach to religious education. The view that phenomenological approach is an influence of secular and scientific views is not always true. Tolerance to multi-religion does not imply that the approach fail to recognise religious experiences in different religion. Various textbooks on religious education have also misinterpreted phenomenological approach.

Originally, phenomenological approach had two hermeneutical steps. The first step involved describing religion without use of critical judgement while the second step involved intuitive awareness (Hull, 1993, p12). To accommodate for multi-religions and cultural diversity, the first step in phenomenological approach did not intend to draw any conclusions to the observable religious expressions.

However, after the description, the approach reviews the essence of believers’ religious experience. As used in school, only the first step of the approach is used making the approach to be viewed as a mere description of multiple religions.

Experiential approach is an attempt to correct the deficiencies on how phenomenological approach is used in schools. The approach provides resources and ideas that enable the students to go into their personal experiences and those of other peoples with aim of understanding religion (Mull, 1984, p59).

Personal religious experience enables students to not only understand their religions but also relate their individual experiences to those of other individuals.


Religion is an integral part of human being. Study on various communities across the worlds show religion expressions in almost all communities. As an important part of humanity, study of religion becomes imperative in education. There have been various approaches adopted for teaching religious education.

Phenomenological and experiential approaches are some of the approaches that have drawn attention to educators and scholars. Phenomenological approach focuses to the phenomenon of religion across varied religions. As used in religions education, the approach attempt to accommodate religious and cultural diversity by studying religion in a comparative approach.

This approach is criticised for its over-emphasis on external expression of religion; which is viewed an influence of secular and scientific views.

Experiential approach can be viewed as a reaction to phenomenological approach by how it focuses on religious experiences of the students. Both of the approaches are important in religious education. Phenomenological approach is important for contemporary study of religion while experiential approach help to promote spirituality in the students.

Reference list

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Barnes, L. 2001” What is wrong with the phenomenological approach to religious education?”. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J 1962. “Religious education: the foundation and practice of nurture”. London: Harper & Row.

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Francis, K. & Kay, W 1997,”Religion in Education”. London: Gracewing publisher.

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Jackson, R 2004.”Rethinking religious education and plurality: issues in diversity and pedagogy”. New York: Routledge

Keast, J 2007.”Religious diversity and intercultural education: a reference book for schools”. London: Council of Europe.

Maloof, J 2006.” Experience this! The experiential approach to teaching”. Journal of Progressive education.

Marvell, J 2002. “New Direction in religious educations: Phenomenology and the future of religious education”. New York: Routledge.

Mull, J 1984. ”Studies in religion and education”. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Schreiner, P 2002. “Towards religious competence: diversity as a challenge for educations in Europe”. Berlin: LIT Verlag Berlin-Hamburg- Munster.

Taylor, M 1960.” Religious education: a comprehensive survey”. London: Abingdon Press.

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