What is a ‘Worldview’?

Jul 3, 2022 | Big Ideas for RE, Curriculum, Definitions, Religion, Syllabus Designers, Teachers, Worldview

What do people mean when they talk about worldviews?

The Report from the Commission on RE in England, set up by the REC (Religious Education Council of England and Wales), in 2018 recommended that we rename the subject Religious Education (RE) ‘Religion and Worldviews’. 

There were several reasons for this, such as:

Religious Education can sound as if you have to be religious to be interested in the subject, or that teachers are trying to encourage you to be religious. This is not true of the type of RE in state-funded schools in England that do not have a connection to a religious group, nor even of many schools that do have a religious connection.

Not everyone belongs to a religion, but everyone has an overall outlook on or approach to life, even if they don’t think about it much, so ‘worldview’ seemed like a good word to include everyone, religious or not, especially as the majority of young people in the UK say that are not religious.

What does ‘worldview’ mean?

Unlike ‘religion’, ‘worldview’ is not such a commonly used word, though it seems to be becoming more so. The Report understood ‘worldview’ as ‘a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world’, an ‘approach to life’, including things like ‘beliefs, behaviours, experiences, identities and commitments’. If you compare this with what is said about ‘religion’ it sounds quite similar, but the intention is to include those who say they are non-religious as well as those who say they are religious. A religion is a worldview, but not all worldviews are religions or religious. 

The Report also distinguished between an ‘institutional worldview’ which refers to organised groups, and ‘personal worldview’, ‘an individual’s own way of understanding and living in the world, which may or may not draw from one, or many, institutional worldviews’. Pett (2022) suggests that we might reserve ‘personal worldview’ for that of the students in the classroom and ‘individual worldview’ for that of the individuals who might be studied by the students.

In 2019-2020 the Religious Education Council followed up on the CoRE Report with an in-depth exploration of the meaning and uses of the terms ‘worldview’ and ‘worldviews’ across many different academic disciplines. This (and other) research showed that people use this word ‘worldview’ in many different ways with different meanings – and even spell it differently (worldview or world view or world-view?). As a result, the discussion about a ‘Religion and Worldviews’ approach to RE can get very muddled. 

Here, put simply, are some of the different understandings of ‘worldview(s)’:

  • Views about the world/planet/universe, where it came from, how we should treat it.
  • Intellectual ideas about the meaning of the whole of life, philosophies, ‘isms’.
  • Feelings or emotions about human existence, what’s most important, and how we should live.
  • Actions that show what we think life is all about (for example ‘being kind’ or ‘being the best you can be’).
  • Institutions and organisations that promote a particular understanding of life, such as religious organisations, Humanist societies, some political parties.
  • An individual’s personal approach to life.

Some people see ‘worldviews’ as fixed, distinct, with only one agreed version; completely separate from and in competition with others. For example, they may believe that there is ‘THE Christian Worldview’ which cannot compromise with ‘THE Secular Worldview’ or any other religion. They may even view other Christians who disagree with them as having got ‘The Christian Worldview’ wrong or even not being real Christians at all. 

Alternatively, worldviews can be seen as fluid, changing, interacting with each other, where individuals can draw upon more than one organised worldview, and may emphasise different aspects in different situations. This is not an either/or but a spectrum with ‘completely fixed and separate’ at one end and ‘completely fluid and interacting’ at the other – most religious groups are somewhere in between, and may contain ‘more fixed’ and ‘more fluid’ members. 

Some see worldviews as expressed or expressible in words, others that worldviews can be also or better expressed in art, music, dance, drama, or in ethical actions to help other people or the planet.

Another use of the term worldview is to refer, not to a person’s deep thoughts and feelings about life, but rather, the things people take for granted and don’t think about much at all: ideas and behaviour that are part of people’s upbringing and considered normal in their society. This use of the term can include what was taken for granted at different times in the past which we no longer accept.

Some use worldview to mean any approach to life that is NOT religious, whereas others (including the Report) use worldview to include both religious and non-religious approaches.

Those who are not so keen on the actual word ‘worldview’ often find the general idea useful, but have suggested alternatives such as ‘lifeview’, ‘lifeways’, ‘lifestance’, ‘outlook on life’, ’cosmovision’, ‘habitus’, or ‘existential culture’.

Having explored the various possible meanings of ‘worldview’, the ongoing REC worldviews project decided to take forward an inclusive understanding of ‘worldview’ that is not just about intellectual ‘views’ but ‘the way in which a person encounters, interprets, understands and engages with the world’. An unpacking of what this means can be found in Pett (2020). The Big Ideas Project endorses this use of ‘worldview’.

Further Reading

Benoit, C., Hutchings, T. & Shillitoe, R. (2020) Worldview: A Multidisciplinary Report. REC. www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/5-REC-Worldview-Report.pdf

Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) (2018) Final Report. Religion and Worldviews: the Way Forward. A National Plan for RE. REC. www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/1-Final-Report-of-the-Commission-on-RE.pdf

Tharani, A. (2020) The Worldview Project: Discussion Papers. REC. www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-Worldview-Project.pdf

Pett, S. (2022) Religion and Worldviews in the Classroom: Developing a Worldviews Approach – Draft Handbook. REC. www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/projects/draft-resource/

Photo: Dave Francis, 1990.