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Mystical matters of the material girl

You have to take your hat off to Madonna. Not just out of respect for the creativity of the rock deity who shortened her name from Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, but also because she is capable of helping to teach a powerful lesson in religious education.

She, more than any other singer I can think of, understands the power of religion. And there's no better example than the video of "Like A Prayer", which drips with eroticised religious references. Sex and the opiate of the people and rock'n'roll. Madonna was on to a winner and she knew it.

For a short while, the Catholic Church threw itself wholeheartedly behind her publicity effort, reacting with noisy and understandable rage. A whole lot of others marvelled at her audacity and bought the record. Or not, depending strictly on musical taste. And now, bless her, Madonna is throwing her weight behind the mystical practice of Kabbalah.

Good for her, I say. She knows that Britain, where she chooses to live, is the place least likely to give her a hard time, mainly because of people (apologies here for smugness) like me. The post-lapsarian agnostic-atheist don't-knows in whose congregation I'm proud to stand are in the majority.

And it's we, I believe, who are the unacknowledged guardians of British religious tolerance, a silent majority happy to let the minority who observe religiously go about their marvellously diverse business.

The key is tolerance. That single word forms key stages 1-4 of my personal religious education national curriculum. I think it is the only belief system that state education can and should properly encourage and promote.

Religious differences should be respected. And the freedom not to practise or believe should be given equal respect. Meanwhile, we should all be free to ask frank questions about all religions. The major ones each seem to manage to cover a huge spectrum of belief and practice from fundamentalist zeal to agnostic liberality. Listening to a Radio 4 series about trainee clerics from different religions, I was struck by the number of would-be preachers struggling with the notion of the very existence of God. No wonder enticing-sounding beliefs such as Kabbalah, especially given the support of enticing old pop stars like Madonna, seem so attractive.

There's soon, I understand, to be a Kabbalah school in Britain, and once again I doff my hat in admiration for the project. As long as it doesn't get big enough to warrant voluntary status, thereby meaning that my atheist tax-pounds might be spent on something I happily tolerate but don't actually believe in.

And this is where my and many others' single-word RE syllabus clashes with the current RE law on standard secondary schools: the collective worship "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character", so widely and wisely ignored by schools, spells intolerance to a growing number of non-Christians like me. "Since Christianity is the main religion to be taught, Christianity clearly has an important part to play in helping pupils to develop their own beliefs and values," says a 1994 government circular on RE. It's a somewhat circular argument that once again spells intolerance to my growing tolerance-tribe, and to other non-Christians who together form the vast majority.

Let's not forget the straight line of logic that can be drawn between the special status given to the state religion and the still-operative 1819 law of blasphemous libel, that makes it an imprisonable offence to say certain things about Jesus Christ, but perfectly acceptable to say exactly the same things about the prophet Mohammed. This is why BNP leader Nick Griffin won't be prosecuted for his secretly filmed, allegedly racist diatribe against Islam.

Has the 1988 Education Act had any effect on religious practice in the UK? Has it worked in Christianity or any other religion's favour? Afraid not. A newspaper survey this month said that two-thirds of 18 to 24-year-olds have more faith in astrology than in the Bible.

And let's not forget another pop-star story that offers a telling counterpoint to Ms Ciccone's. Madonna shortened her name to make it sound more striking and adopted - for publicity purposes - a religious theme for some of her songs, and is now free to promote a mystical minority belief.

She remains one of the most admired artists in music. Cat Stevens changed his name to Yusuf Islam and left pop behind to promote peaceful Islam ...

and got deported from the United States on suspicion of being a terrorist.

Nick Baker is a radio producer

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