Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, said many schools regard the study of religion as peripheral, leaving pupils ignorant of religious basics such as Good Friday and Lent.
His views may take on a new significance should Government policy lurch further to the Right during the next few weeks. Leadership contender John Redwood has already complained that "too many of our children are taught more comparative religion than Christianity" and as Welsh Secretary insisted on more teaching of explicit Christianity in Wales.
Speaking at a conference of RE teachers organised by the Christian Education Movement to launch a new short GCSE course in the subject, Dr Tate acknowledged that a shortage of qualified teachers is hampering schools. But he also mounted a vigorous attack on teachers for failing to take the subject seriously.
"It is a disturbingly narrow, secularist view of the world that leads some people in our educational system to regard the dispassionate study of religion as something peripheral to the main purposes of schooling," said Dr Tate.
"But this attitude regrettably is prevalent. It is one of the main reasons for the neglect from which RE has suffered in recent years . . . the key problem is a failure to take the subject seriously and a blinkered view of the world which dismisses anything to do with religion as relicts from the infancy of mankind, unworthy of serious study. Reinforcing this attitude is a narrow, utilitarian view of the curriculum which plays down the importance of anything that does not contribute directly to what TS Eliot called 'getting on'."
This set of attitudes, he said, has led to a situation where, according to inspectors one-third of all schools in 1993-94 were failing to provide specific religious education for 14 to 16-year-olds. A further fifth of schools did not provide adequate time for RE to be taught and more than four-fifths of schools with sixth forms were breaking the law by not providing basic RE.
"It is hardly surprising," said Dr Tate, "that even in terms of basic knowledge we appear to be far advanced in becoming a religiously illiterate society." He said this limits understanding of British cultural life and of religion as a major world force. "The major faiths have millions, indeed billions of adherents worldwide and a far-reaching impact on the lives of individuals, families and whole societies."
The Church of England applauded the new GCSE which was called for last year by the Archbishop of Canterbury. "It is said that children no longer know the stories behind pictures in art or behind works of literature," said Alan Brown, director of the Church's RE Centre. "And I think there is some truth in that."
Deborah Weston, a head of RE in Tower Hamlets, welcomed Dr Tate's comments. "For so long RE has been the Cinderella subject. Children actually say to us what's the point of doing it. Teachers can often sell it short as well by just thinking of RE in terms of careers. In schools generally, people from other departments feel free to give plenty of advice about whether or not the pupils should take RE at GCSE. Not always good advice."
The new short courses, approved by the Government this week, are thought likely to provide a major boost to secondary school RE. They are intended to fit into the 5 per cent of curriculum time recommended for the subject by Sir Ron Dearing in his review of school subjects. Most GCSEs are expected to take up 10 per cent; according to Dr Tate the short GCSE will have exactly half the content.
Teachers hope the new exam will motivate pupils and teachers. Until now most British teenagers have been legally obliged to study RE but with no accessible qualification to show for it. Only one in six 16-year-olds takes a qualification in RE; 60 per cent of these are in church and independent schools.
The short course is the product of a long campaign by RE professionals. They are also pleased that students will be examined in religious education rather than in the more formally academic religious studies: the full GCSE is currently in religious studies. RE places a greater importance on children's experience than RS and is thought to be more popular.