Considering Philosophy/Religious Studies GCSE or A-level? Read our FAQ here Watch

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So you're thinking of studying GCSE or A-level religious studies or A-level philosophy, but aren't quite sure if it's right for you? You've come to the right place!

If you have any more questions about GCSE/A-level RS/philosophy or philosophy in general, do let me know!

Introduction: What are philosophy and religious studies, anyway?
Unlike religious studies, philosophy is never a compulsory part of the curriculum, and so you may not have encountered it before. In case you didn't know, philosophy is essentially the study of the fundamental, existential questions which underpin every field of study, human experience and interaction, and existence itself. Philosophy can be applied to any subject field, from biology to art to politics, but the type of philosophy you'll be studying involves ultimate questions connected to God, reality, the mind and knowledge. As part of philosophy or religious studies at either GCSE or A-level, you might explore whether life exists after death, how to prove the existence of God and how to tell right from wrong, all of which are key philosophical questions.

Before GCSE, your religious studies lessons may have involved primarily learning about religious customs and culture. That aspect still exists, but religious studies also encompasses the study of holy texts and of how different religions approach ethical issues (questions about what is right and wrong, and how one should behave) and philosophical issues. An RS qualification will contain some philosophy, some ethics and some study of religious scripture and traditions.

How is philosophy/RS a useful subject for later life?
Essay-writing, verbal reasoning, critical thinking and an ability to engage on a deeper level with ideas are highly valued skills, and studying philosophy or religious studies will help you to develop them. At both GCSE and A-level there is an emphasis on considering different viewpoints and reaching judgements on controversial questions with no clear answers, which is useful in a variety of ways. It will increase your awareness of other people's perspectives on issues, improve your ability to criticise others' arguments and back up your own, and make you a better writer and deeper thinker. That's a lot of transferable skills!

Philosophy and RS are most commonly chosen to complement law- or politics-related degrees or careers, since philosophical and ethical questions often come up in those two disciplines and being able to consider different arguments is a valuable skill in either of them. However, because such questions can be applied to any discipline, philosophy and RS are almost always useful subject choices. If you're more interested in studying medicine, engineering or something scientific, having an essay subject like philosophy/RS shows your versatility, and you might like to look into bioethics, logic or the philosophy of maths or science to see how philosophical questions relate to your field of interest (if you have any questions or would like some recommendations concerning the intersection of science/maths and philosophy, feel free to talk to me; that's a particular interest of mine ).

Does philosophy/RS suit my skill set?
Philosophy and religious studies are essay subjects, and your exam will be composed almost entirely of essay questions, so you should be reasonably confident with your ability to express yourself in writing before choosing philosophy/RS. Philosophy (including the philosophical component of religious studies) can also become quite abstract, and you'll need to get used to dealing with topics whose relations/relevance to your everyday life aren't immediately obvious. That's not to say that you should be dissuaded from taking the subject if you haven't always enjoyed essay subjects in the past. If you like the sound of philosophical questions and are willing to put in the effort to improve your essay-writing skills, I would encourage you to take philosophy/RS - you might unearth a passion for it! Ultimately, even if you're not too keen on essays or abstraction is a bit of a shock to the system for you, interest in the subject matter is the most important deciding factor when you're choosing subjects, and philosophy/RS is no exception to that.

GCSE
What sorts of topics will I be studying?
In GCSE religious studies, you'll study a religion (most likely two religions, unless you attend a religious school) and learn about their beliefs, teachings and customs. These could range from their views on the nature of God, the soul and miracles to their teachings about marriage and human relationships, as well as how they pray, the festivals they celebrate and the stories behind their traditions. You might also look at philosophical and ethical questions from the perspectives of your religions; these include the ethics of many controversial topics such as abortion and euthanasia, and the philosophical issues surrounding the afterlife, proof of God and the apparent conflict between religion and science. You will look at some secular perspectives on these issues as well, and there will be an opportunity to form and state your own opinion. Depending on which papers your school selects for you, you may also study a holy text from one of your religions and look into the content of and questions raised by scripture. You will sit three or four essay-based exam papers at the end of the two-year course, and there is no coursework.

You might want to take a look at the specification for your exam board if you want more specific information.

How hard is the workload?
GCSE RS was one of my easiest subjects, and I'm not alone here! Memorising quotations can be a bit of a chore and you'll need to quote scripture in your exam to get top marks, so that was probably my biggest source of stress, but apart from that, there is no coursework, not too much content to learn and a fairly consistent structure for every essay you'll write. Exam technique isn't too much of a struggle for this reason, especially in comparison with other essay subjects. Homework will naturally vary depending on your teacher's benevolence, but it shouldn't be too bad! One thing I would say is that you will be pushed for time in your GCSE RS exam, so your teacher might set you lots of practice papers and essays to prepare (mine did) and it is worth doing every single one of them in timed conditions.

A Level
How is A-level RS/philosophy different from GCSE RS?
Like every A-level, A-level religious studies goes into much more depth than GCSE and you learn about scholars and schools of thought. Unlike some other subjects, GCSE RS knowledge is not necessary for A-level because whatever overlap there may be will be recapped anyway. The main ways in which A-level RS goes into more depth are the context of the information and the difficulty of the philosophical concepts. There is much more discussion of the social, cultural and historical context which shaped religion and scripture, and much more critical analysis, interpretation and challenging of scripture with reference to specific thinkers rather than the general analysis presented at GCSE level. In addition, there is greater emphasis on the philosophical aspect of the course, and topics like deontology, virtue ethics, ancient philosophy and philosophical language are explored. However, a lot of A-level RS is similar to the GCSE, but more detailed; topics include sexual and medical ethics, proofs of God and the philosophy of religious experience, all of which made an appearance at GCSE.

If you're doing A-level philosophy, expect a lot of difference from GCSE. For starters, you won't be using a specific religious perspective; while you will still study the philosophy of religion and ask questions about the nature of God and the rationality of belief in God, you will not look at issues through the lens of a certain religion or study its scriptures. Instead, you learn about many secular and sometimes religious perspectives on ethics, epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) and metaphysics (the study of the nature of reality).

What sorts of topics will I be studying?
Broadly, your RS A-level will be divided into philosophy, ethics and scripture. The philosophy part will involve questions about the nature of God, arguments for and against God's existence, religious experience, philosophical and religious language, the soul and consciousness and the work of various ancient and more recent thinkers on the philosophy of religion. Ethics involves looking at some frameworks determining right and wrong, the relationship between religion and certain ethical theories/thinkers, questions raised by death and rebirth, ideas such as virtue ethics and deontology and medical and sexual ethics. Finally, scripture involves the influence of social and historical factors on scripture, critiques of scripture, debates over its validity and the thoughts of some key scholars. You may also sit a paper on a specific religion and its teachings (for Edexcel).

AQA A-level philosophy is divided into four parts: epistemology, ethics, the metaphysics of God and the metaphysics of the mind. Epistemology involves discussions of the nature and sources of knowledge, how it is possible to know and prove things and what sorts of objects can be known, with reference to several contentious philosophical debates including the debate over concept innatism (whether any knowledge can be innate) and whether knowledge is primarily gained through experience or through theoretical reasoning. The ethics component delves deeper into ethical principles such as the categorical imperative and examines the sources of, nature of and reasons for moral behaviour. Metaphysics deals with the fundamental nature of things, and you can expect such questions as whether God is a coherent concept, whether ideas are real and what exactly "the mind" is.

How hard is the workload?
Here are some comments on the workload by past philosophy/RS A-level students:
"I found the course challenging but the workload was fairly average in comparison to my other subjects. The main bulk was grasping the material and perfecting essay techniques and styles to suit a variety of questions. There was a lot to learn to access the higher marks, but by no means was it a particularly huge amount in comparison to other subjects. Revision was a case of learning key theories and philosophers, who agrees/disagrees with who, and how this can all be applied to the question. Practice questions will become your best friend! I'd recommend this course to people who particularly enjoy a good debate, and have decent essay-writing skills." -brightanna98

"The workload in alevel compared to as level is a jump just like gsce to as level, but with hard work and preperation you can do well, practice past papers in timed conditions is the key! And prepare as soon as you can , early in the year so you are well prepared! The workload is a jump but you can handle it , with prioritising and meeting deadlines." -alevelyh
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