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I don't believe in God. But teaching children about religion is one of the most important things I will ever do

Religious education in English schools is being edged out, marginalised by exam and curriculum reforms. To some, this is a cause for celebration. In many countries, such as France and the US, it would be unthinkable to include religion in the syllabus other than incidentally. Religion, they say, is a matter of personal conscience, to be taught at the family altar if at all.

But although this creed has admirable ambitions, nothing could be more dangerous, nothing more nurturing of fundamentalism and misunderstanding. If religion were only about piety and devotion to an ideology, I would exile it from the classroom. But the study of religion wrestles with aspects of human existence that are unavoidable. It tackles the whys as well as the whats. Proper understanding of religion requires a level of core knowledge that would choke a scholar's library. It can be taught with a view to proselytisation, but that would be immoral; it can be taught as a bedtime story, but that would be pointless.

Recently, I took a group of sixth-form students to Jerusalem, Israel and Palestine. We walked in the Judean Desert, carried a cross along the Via Dolorosa, knelt at the stone of Golgotha, drank cardamom coffee in Palestinian schools, celebrated mass in a Franciscan chapel overlooking the Dome of the Rock and touched the Wailing Wall. Without the students' studies in religion, this unique immersion in culture, faith and values would have been a barren package tour, devoid of understanding. Without religious education, stones are just stones. With it, they hum with meaning - and mystery.

One of the objections that disestablishmentarians have to RE is that it sanctions the state indoctrination of children. But many of the people who talk about this are looking back to their own dim pasts, at least in England: prior to 1988, RE in English state schools was explicitly instructional and assumed a Christian background. Contemporary RE has undergone several resurrections since then, however. It has become the study of religion, rather than a study in religion - something that still escapes many parents who fret that their child will come home brainwashed. Interestingly, as an RE teacher of 10 years' standing, I have encountered just as many parents who are concerned that their child will come home an atheist. More worryingly, I encounter the occasional parent who openly admits that they do not want their child studying "those other religions and cultures", their xenophobia not even masked.

Banishing the subject to purely home instruction guarantees that the child will be exposed to no other religion and culture than their own domestic catechisms. Teaching religion formally in school permits us to drag dogma into the harsh light of comparative study, where believers and non-believers alike are forced to confront the origins of their spiritual axioms. I have seen, I assure you, just as many faiths wane as wax in RE lessons. "Learning about" is not "learning to".

This is not the case in some countries, where religion and the state are intertwined. There - in Iran and China, for example - religious study (or its absence) promotes an accepted metaphysical norm. From a believer's perspective, this makes perfect sense; to the outsider it constitutes an act of ideological tyranny. Confessional RE (where the student is instructed in the procedures of faith) has dropped rapidly out of fashion in countries where the old gods of religion have been undermined but not yet obliterated. Even in England, which has a state-sanctioned belief system in the form of the Anglican Church, the profound secularisation of society has produced an uneasy relationship between those with faith and those without. No politician wants to go near it, few are happy with the status quo, but nobody has the heart for the fight.

Many forget that even in societies haemorrhaging belief, the faithful still represent a potent constituency. About 65 per cent of those surveyed in the 2011 UK census indicated membership of one faith or another. This presents a conundrum for those who argue that the state should not promote faith in any way, for example by funding faith schools. Were there to be a state religion, this objection might be understandable. But if all faiths have the opportunity to access this funding then the argument against any faith doing so diminishes. And to those who object to the funding of religious education on the basis of their own non-beliefs, the problem remains that the majority of people - and presumably parents - still identify with one faith position or another. In a democracy, that's how taxation works, like it or not. I may or may not agree with a nuclear deterrent but I don't get a choice about where my income tax goes.

We visited the West Bank. Leaving Israel proper, we met signs warning Israelis that crossing the border was "forbidden, dangerous to your lives and against the Israeli law". It isn't enough to keep Palestinians out of Israel, it seems: passage has to be obstructed both ways. In this way, communication is severed, further reducing the chance of reconciliation. How can either side progress past dtente if even physical encounters are restricted? The gradient between the neo-European affluence of Israel and the tumbledown poverty of Palestine is striking. So, too, is the containment wall that runs round the perimeter of Bethlehem. For security.

The mayor of Palestinian city Jenin spoke to us through a translator: what he wanted, he said, wasn't revenge, or war. What he wanted was an end to the walls, to the settlements built by fundamentalists; he wanted the restoration of political suffrage to a people who felt like prisoners in their own country. It was a sentiment I heard from every Palestinian to whom I spoke. Not hatred, just weariness. Their land was important to them. I wondered how people could remain so calm and sober in such circumstances, and I wondered what price we would finally consider to be too high before we took up arms.

At the Wailing Wall we encountered the only hostility of the entire trip - an Orthodox man who shouted at us for being Gentiles at the sacred site. We bluffed our way past him and our guide shook his head. Our chaplain told me how he had previously been battered with a rifle butt for wearing his dog collar at the wall. Fundamentalism of any flavour - jihadists self-immolating on school buses or bigots with pistols - is tragic. How can a claim of divine pre-eminence ever be resolved politically? How can immovable objects be moved?

The lives of others

Nothing but ignorance blooms in the darkness. When children learn about religion and faith together in the same room as each other, they can see not only that people have different values, but why. Child marriage; creationism; jihad; just war; the purpose of our lives; immigration; charity; abortion; the role of reason and the senses in appreciating truth: where else are these subjects explored in the curriculum? Slotted into the unloveliest of moments in school, registration or an assembly afterthought.

There is always a cry for this topic or that to be shoehorned into the curriculum - cybercrime, witchcraft, littering, body image - but RE is the last real place where such things can be tackled in a coherent and academic way by an adept teacher. Like most subjects, RE is easy to teach badly. Taught well, it is almost essential. The beauty of it is that religion addresses every area of life and can therefore be used as a platform to encounter almost anything. In my lessons we have covered Darwinism, quantum mechanics, the Iraq War, homosexuality, superheroes and the causes of the Reformation. The subject's versatility, so easy to fumble in inexperienced hands, becomes a huge asset with care.

Much has been made of the potential for religious study to develop emotional literacy. I simply don't believe that such things can be taught directly, only as a by-product of a civilised education. It is true that RE can be taught spectacularly badly - with the drab orders of liturgy and unimaginative summaries of the Old Testament, or the missionary fervour of the zealot. But one should not judge a subject by its worst delivery; bad English literature can be just as damaging to a child's educational health.

In England, the national state school system evolved in tandem with (and often from) church schools, which explains why the UK has so many faith schools and such a powerful mixture of state schools and RE. It also explains why other countries, such as the US, have none. The US' unequivocal distinction between church and state wasn't a reaction against organised religion or religious instruction, but against denominational prevalence. Yet this country, which guards against any state-sponsored RE, is ironically one of the most religiously affiliated countries in the West. Clearly the separation of church and state hasn't acted as much of a bulwark against the expansion of faith. Perhaps Richard Dawkins should be campaigning for more RE, not less.

Every nation's curriculum is the end product of a thousand years of horse-trading and culture. The US separates church from state because of the peculiar DNA of its foundation, as persecuted denominations escaped a Europe that could not countenance religious plurality. France embarked on a similar dislocation of God from the town square because of the carpet-bomb of the 1789 revolution. The study of religion is a healthy side-effect of a society that is interested in itself, whether you view it as a pathology or not.

In the UK, most people will have heard of the national curriculum, the state-endorsed, compulsory series of syllabuses for all locally maintained and funded state schools. Not as many will have heard of the basic curriculum, but they should, as it's compulsory for all schools: the national curriculum, plus sex education and religious education. RE occupies the oddest niche in the ecosystem of UK education: statutorily guaranteed but with locally agreed syllabuses; technically compulsory to provide but frequently neglected. In its reports, England's schools inspectorate Ofsted frequently notes an absence of rigorous provision but rarely compels the inspectee to do anything more than try to improve. In the UK, some entitlements are more important than others.

When we reached Jerusalem, we met a labyrinth of contradictions: thousands of years of history tumbling on top of each other. Old Jerusalem has been carved up and rebranded so many times it must barely recognise its own reflections. Ottomans, Crusaders, Muslims, Britons, Romans, Zionists and Palestinians have all planted their flags there. Today, the Old City hangs together with the equilibrium of a Mexican stand-off. Without understanding what faith means - not just the history of men's actions but the history and comprehension of their beliefs - the streets of this medieval warren are incomprehensible: a tower of Babel, wide rather than high. This truce is astonishing. Cultures and faiths that in some parts of the world are harrowing each other are forced to coexist like family, shoulder to shoulder. Nobody wants to blink or give an inch; nobody move. How long can this last?

A fragile peace

And that's part of the problem with any discussion about the place of RE. It is intrinsically connected to the personal faith of the speaker. It's tragic that the debate is often so binary: the secular atheist dogma that it should be excised from state education versus its polar opposite, the religious belief that every child should be instructed not just in faith but in its observance. Neither side corresponds to the mission of state education - the transmission of the best of what has been learned by our ancestors, in every field.

It is impossible to understand literature, or history, or the birth, adolescence and death of civilisations, without understanding the impact of faith. It is, I believe, impossible to understand how the world works without understanding religion.

Science can become dogma unless you understand how probability, inductive inferences and a continuum of faith play a part in justifying any theory. Try reading Shakespeare without understanding the Bible. Try understanding the Renaissance. Those who argue that these things can be covered in history will be hard pressed to show how and when this will happen, when it has so much to do already. Besides, the study of religion isn't merely historical but philosophical. You cannot understand religion without understanding faith, and faith is something experienced and understood, not recorded on a timeline or concluded from triangulating source material.

In the souk of the Arab quarter, our female members drew interest. A male student with a striking Afro was a magnet for curious looks. The novelty of our appearance raised many questions. Who was at fault: us for our intrusion or them for their curiosity? Who is right when cultures overlap? At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we saw Christianity's holiest shrine split between denominations unable to agree even on when renovations should take place, condemning it to a state of elegant decay. The dispute runs so deep that every night the shrine is locked up by a Muslim, the key having been handed down through the same family over several centuries. I was reminded of how the Vatican is described as having a heartbeat that takes centuries to pulse. What other human endeavour has such a glacial pace in a world where "now" is too late for everything?

Throughout this article I've posed many questions. During our week in the Holy Land I asked myself a million more. To answer them, you need history, of course, but more than just history: crypto-history. And geography, but more than that: the geography of imagination and belief. Literature and art, too - as ways of understanding how values become embodied in aesthetic representation. Sociology also, that upstart arriviste. Perhaps even psychology. Theology and its secular sister, philosophy. All of these. And more than just these. That's the space that RE occupies. The story, the history of the interior space of the human heart; meaning and value and all the things that make life important. Not just where and when, but why and at what cost.

You can believe in Hell, Zion or the great silence of nihilism if you want, but ignore belief in the human story and you've deliberately ignored one of its pillars. That's fine, but don't pretend that you've acted in the interest of objectivity or rationalism. Religion endures, whatever one thinks of it.

Tom Bennett is a teacher at Raine's Foundation School in East London and TES behaviour expert. Read more from Tom on his TES Connect blog or follow him on Twitter at @tombennett71

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