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Bad jokes can swiftly turn into sectarian slurs

Well, football referee-in-chief Hugh Dallas had to resign at the end of last year, following some unguarded comments about the Pope's UK visit last September.

But were Mr Dallas's remarks sectarian and, if so, is this a uniquely Scottish vice? Certainly Peter Kearney, spokesperson for the Catholic Church in Scotland, thought so. The sending of what might be considered an offensive email from his work address was certainly careless and has the appearance of being anti-Catholic. But given that I have no access to Mr Dallas's mind, much less his soul, I am not in a position to comment much on his disposition.

This is always the difficulty in such matters. When does a bad-taste (or, in this particular case, just a bad) joke turn into an offensive and sectarian remark? And, does it matter much, given Professor Tom Devine's remarks that the Catholic response heralds a new-found confidence among Catholics no longer prepared to acquiesce in their historic treatment as "second class" citizens?

I don't pretend to have some uniquely brilliant insight into what would count as an appropriate dividing line between banter and sectarianism, but I think that there is likely a problem. Whether it is a uniquely Scottish issue is another matter. After all, the visit of Pope Benedict occasioned a wave of fiercely anti-Catholic church television programmes and newsprint articles from the likes of Johann Harri, Richard Dawkins, Geoffrey Robinson and Peter Tatchell.

In the midst of all this, Catholic schools became a target because they are regarded as the vehicle of a wicked, almost Mephistophelian, institution. Harri suggests that "we know Catholic schools often push the most vile aspects of their faith at children". His view is fairly widely shared by a growing number of secular liberal websites (often sponsored by such as Dawkins), which have Catholic schools in their sights.

Their condemnations come in fairly predictable waves as they "lay into" the perceived illiberalism of Catholic ethical teaching, and their remarks are generally of an irascible and intemperate nature (for example, Dawkins refers to Mr Kearney as "a weasel"). So, let me suggest that anti- Catholicism and antipathy to Catholic schools is hardly peculiarly Scottish but has grown as a result of a concerted campaign by a loose confederation of quite militant secular humanists.

However, it would be foolish to think that this is the only or real problem. At the time of writing, Nil by Mouth is hosting a conference. It is a fine organisation, born out of one of the recent tragedies of the intemperate culture that surrounds football and leeches into the fabric of society. But it shares a basic mistake with government and liberal secular humanist alike - the belief that schools are more powerful agents for shaping social attitudes than is actually the case.

Schools are not the chief vehicles for the amelioration of hate, sectarianism and inter-culturalreligious strife. At best, they can reinforce positive and constructive dispositions to be found in society at large. They cannot, nor should they, assume responsibility for the failings of the adult political community.

Sectarianism is not primarily an educational problem; it is a political challenge. That is why, despite Mr Dallas probably being a very nice chap, what he did in the public spaces of his organisation mattered. But this does not license other institutions or their spokesmen to ramp up the rhetoric of anger and resentment.

James Conroy is professor of religious and philosophical education at Glasgow University.

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