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It's Me against Him;Subject of the week;Religious Education

Is consumerism the religion of the West? Terence Copley argues it's time for a spiritual revival

What momentous events will usher in the new millennium? Thousands of house fires caused by inebriated revellers attempting to light candles supplied free by the Council of Churches? The bug blanking televisions and videos and reducing people to conversation? Thick fog in the Dome, reflecting the pronouncements of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which seems not to want a solely Judaeo-Christian event (thought to be divisive) or inter-faith worship (thought to be offensive)?

We have to please everybody. But it's not quite everybody's millennium. Oops, gulp, embarrassment - the millennium is unavoidably connected with Jesus and Christianity because it stems from the year zero. Some of our UK religions have different calendars anyway.

But it seems that the problem is not with the "other religions" who don't mind if Christians have a party, but with the secular, who find all religions hard to handle. The English attitude to religion (is the rest of the UK different?) is that it's nice to have around in case of emergency, rather like a guard dog. But keep it outside the house, muzzled, in case it bites.

The house is the national curriculum and the Tories created the "basic curriculum" to provide a kennel for RE, outside the house, which New Labour has not tried to improve. Who but the English could be busying themselves adopting a secular citizenship curriculum which did not start with RE and religious values?

If we used to accuse religion of indoctrination, the boot's on the other foot now: most children and adults receive a thoroughgoing secular indoctrination in western society. They don't even realise how well they've been programmed to ask "What has religion done for me?" instead of "What is the truth?" We love to dilute religion: only westerners could think up "broadly Christian" as an ingredient for collective worship. I can't conceive broadly Muslim or broadly Zoroastrian or broadly Sikh.

Then there's the very label "religion". Most religions didn't even know they were religions until Europeans told them. They thought they were ways of life, complete world views, until we told them they really fit an optional mindset called religion.

The more we can think of religion as a hobby, the more we can keep it at bay. Very English. Gray's Elegy is part of the national psyche. We love our country parish churches, their bells tolling for summer Sunday evensong. Just don't ask us to go inside.

But if a nation's religion is really that which it is devoted to, what are we to say about the national religion of the English? It's clearly shopping and the national lottery. The lottery is testimony to the mysterious power of money to change human destiny. The superstores are the cathedrals of our age, within which we can acquire food, pharmaceuticals, fashion, finance, furniture, even funerals, not to mention contraceptives, (and cr ches when the contraceptives fail).

Seven-day opening was almost a civil rights issue, the right to acquire goods whenever we want. So the centre of our western world view is startlingly revealed to be not a god or gods, but ourselves. Our wishes, our desires, our demands: these are assumed to be paramount. It is a Me culture.

So what of Me, the Millennium and RE? RE might continue to conduct its tours of religions, though the danger is that to many children, religions appear like zoos, collections of exotic and rare species, not really part of daily life, or like dinosaurs - fascinating, but extinct.

It may be that Christianity remains the worst taught religion because so many teachers are culturally and personally tangled in it. It may be that RE on Christianity neglects Roman Catholicism as the greatest world church, a perpetuation of 19th-century No-Popery into the 21st.

It may be that children continue to find learning about Jesus unattractive - is it because he's badly taught, or is it because his values challenge the Me culture? Or it may be that RE, by scrutinising world views, points to where real indoctrination is occurring. Religions and humanism will be presented as world views worthy of respect.

By examining these world views, pupils may become more sharply aware of their own unconscious world view. They may even begin to leave a surfeit of knowledge behind (Encyclopaedia Britannica can download into my PC while I write this) and think again about wisdom, the accumulated wisdom of the world's religions and of humanism, which Europeans appear casually to discard in favour of Me.

But there's a credit balance to carry through into new millennium RE. Despite lack of government support, we have one of the best RE programmes in the world. RE researchers, teacher trainers and classroom teachers raised standards long before governments were trumpeting this as a political bandwagon.

Extensive in-service has been made possible by charitable trusts; other trusts sponsor research in a number of universities and colleges of higher education; one is involved in an RE teacher recruitment initiative to deal with teacher shortages in the subject.

The Professional Council for RE and the RE Council maintain their publications, brief their members and keep a watchful eye on national developments. The Office for Standards in Education's overview of RE has improved performance in key stage 2 and highlighted underachievement in ks3. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's work on levels in RE will help refine the new century's RE.

But the best hope for RE in the new millennium is the teacher-child interaction. Enthusiastic teachers and children will spark each other. Children are willing to be interested in religion and to look at world views. The short course GCSE in religious studies looks set to be a continuing success, feeding AS and A-level.

If the Me culture has indoctrinated children and adults, its stranglehold is not yet complete. But we have to ask ourselves, if we as a society have really been brainwashed, would we know? In which curriculum subject would that realisation be most likely to come about? This is the strength and potential for RE, that it is de-indoctrinatory, because it increases pupil choice.

The notion of millennium itself returns us to the Bible, in which one person at least had an experience "as though scales fell away from his eyes": not a bad agenda for RE 2000.

Terence Copley is professor of religious education at the University of Exeter and edited "RE Futures", produced by the Professional Council for RE (1998), sponsored by the St Gabriel's Trust, about what RE might be like in the new millennium

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