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Have faith in this business of hypocrisy

arents lie about their religion to get school places," announced a headline this month in the London Evening Standard. Tell us something new, you may say. But what is common knowledge among professionals is often news to the general public.

The paper's education correspondent, Tim Miles, had found a lapsed Catholic who had started attending Mass for the sole purpose of getting his child into a Roman Catholic primary school. Once the child had its feet under the school desk, he intended to lapse again. The Catholic Media Office disingenuously commented that it could not see why anyone who did not go to Mass would want their child to go to a Catholic school.

I remember, from when my own children were approaching secondary school transfer age, the sudden parental conversions and the acquisition of smart Sunday suits. I was tempted to sing (and would have done were I remotely capable of hitting the right note) "Nearer my God to thee" as neighbours set forth on the Sabbath in solemn procession, carrying Bibles. There is something irresistibly comic about how church schools, which are supposed to be good at providing children with what Estelle Morris calls "a strong value base" (plus "a sense of being", whatever that is), encourage falsehood and hypocrisy among parents.

But why should churches care? Any business needs to refresh itself with new customers. The congregations of the mainstream Christian churches, like the membership of the Conservative party, are ageing and declining. Some lifelong Christians complain that their children are elbowed out of church schools by the recent converts. Well, that's business. In the same way, banks offer better interest rates to new customers. The prospect of getting your child into a decent school is one of the few incentives churches have to offer. Maybe they will keep most new customers for only a few years, but a few may become permanent converts, and even the worst hypocrites will swell the collection plates for a few months.

All this, I know, is very cynical of me. But we should be clear about what is at stake in the present debate about faith schools. If it were not for their schools, churches would now play almost no significant part in the life of the nation, save for the BBC's Songs of Praise, and a few seats in whatever we are meant to call the House of Lords in future.

So the stakes are high: indeed, I would say that the survival of the Church of England and the continuing health of the Roman Catholic Church in this country depend largely on their schools. And here I hesitate. As an atheist, I ought to support the abolition of all church schools and the rapid demise of their mother faiths. But then I look across the Atlantic, and see that a country with an entirely secular school system and no state church has one of the most God-fearing populations in the world; a moralistic religious right that acts as a significant and dangerous political force; and a growing number of crazed and sometimes violent sects. Moreover, I know that, if Muslim schools are not accommodated within the state system, many Muslim children will go to private or Saturday morning schools, where the teaching could be far more narrow-minded and intolerant.

In other words, I am rather frightened of religion. Maybe we are wise to keep it entwined with the state where it is subject to some degree of control. Left to itself, it multiplies and mutates in unpredictable and troubling ways. Perhaps we should just leave well alone, and let faith schools flourish, with all their hypocrisies.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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