Religious education should reflect reality
Politicians love to interfere with our children. From the failures of Kenneth Baker to the unfathomable logic of Michael Gove, every part of the school curriculum has been pulled apart – sometimes beneficially but largely to fit narrow dogma.
Yet despite changes implemented by both Labour and Tory administrations in recent years, one subject always escapes unscathed: Religious Education.
This week an Ofsted report has described RE teaching in this country as "inadequate". Its officers did not, however, pass judgement on whether RE is "necessary". So perhaps now is the time to ask whether faith-based education has any place in a modern school environment.
Since the Education Act 1944, RE has been compulsory in all state-funded schools. Compare this to countries like Lebanon, France or Japan, where RE has been replaced by "social and ethical" education. It inevitably begs the question why these countries have shifted the emphasis from the purely religious to the moral. Is it the double realisation that not only does every creed have its crackpots hell-bent on twisting benign teachings for their own nefarious agendas, but that, like any cause, it is inevitably the young who form the vanguard?
Religion can, of course, be a force for good. But sadly, history also records a brutal catalogue of misery perpetrated by one branch of a faith against another, or against those of a different faith or against those of no faith at all. Is it any wonder, then, that some sophisticated, knowledge-based societies have decided against actively promoting it?
So why not us?
In a civilised society, people should, of course, be free to follow whatever belief system they choose, as long as it doesn't offend or injure others. You might fervently believe in the power of crystals, the existence of ghosts or pixies or UFOs, the efficacy of homoeopathy, or be a member of the Flat Earth Society, but you would not expect these views to be routinely served up in an academic environment and presented as "truth". Tolerance is one thing, compulsory instruction is quite another.
Teachers reading this will argue that their own school's RE lessons broaden students' views on a variety of faiths, their history, global influence and belief system. But some schools in Britain use RE for evangelising and missioning. And there have even been instances in recent months of creationism being taught in our schools. In a secular society that is simply unacceptable. Schools have a range of roles, but they are not for the dissemination of doctrine. "Religious" education should be extra-curricular, not a requirement.
Some might accuse me of being a zealot of another kind. But the truth is I quite like religion. I like the art it has given to the world, I like the imagery, I like the costumes, I like the architecture of wayside chapels, grand cathedrals, mosques, temples and synagogues, and I like the songs we sang as children. More importantly, I like the fact that religion can give adherents a moral compass and a sense of purpose in their lives.
But does it need to be taught in school? And if it does, which particular brand should we in the UK recommend to our children?
Under successive administrations, every single area of the school curriculum has been scrutinised and turned on its head. Teachers' time is micro-managed, children are tested as they leave the womb. Yet as every new broom sweeps in, RE's compulsory status remains. This is largely because the case is so eloquently and persuasively made by the Religious Education Council for England and Wales, which says the subject "deepens pupils' understanding of the nature, diversity and impact of religion and belief in the contemporary world".
In that sense, we're all singing from the same hymn book.
However, this is 2013. Over the centuries, scientific study has rid us of much of the mumbo-jumbo once peddled by priests. Many of the ideas and speculations of previous times can now, thanks to patient, rational inquiry, be explained.
Therefore, as followers of any faith need to adapt their beliefs to take account of contemporary knowledge, so schools should be allowed to move away from the narrow study of religion and instead look at broader philosophy.
Religion, like science, must be subjected to intellectual rigour. Otherwise we are doing our young people a disservice, perpetuating myths, and dwelling in the land of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
We have to face reality. This is not the 19th century.
The majority of people no longer troop off to church every Sunday.
We are a secular nation, there is no point in pretending otherwise, and schools should reflect today's realities.