Only law can ensure religious tolerance

Was your school's end of term more Jingle Bells or Away in a Manger, Happy Holidays or Happy Christmas? According to the MORI survey published in The TES today, the chances are it was probably more the latter than the former - but only just. We have, it seems, an uneasy relationship with the festive season. Or rather we have difficulty in knowing how to approach it in school, for most observe some kind of celebration on December 25.

As someone steeped in the non-conformist traditions of the Welsh chapel, which rigorously demarcates the role of the church and state, I remain ambivalent about the role of religion within education. The United States enshrined the separation of powers within its constitution. Across the pond, school prayers are banned and no public school can have a religious foundation. We, on the other hand, have bishops in our legislature, church schools, compulsory religious education and require all schools to have a daily act of worship.

Both those who advocate the separation of powers and those who want to include religious education in school do so on the grounds that it will enhance toleration and prevent offence.

The Founding Fathers of the United States were writing a constitution for a population that included many people who had fled religious persecution.

The overweening power of the church in affairs of state in Europe had made religious freedom difficult to pursue and the writers of the constitution were keen to prevent a recurrence in the New World. Faith was privatised.

In Britain, where 300 years ago we were a churchgoing nation, these days we are not only a more secular society but a multi-faith one, too. So, the argument goes, the majority of children are ignorant of all the world's major religions and need to be taught them better to understand each other.

How this should be done has, however, been a cause of controversy.

The most recent framework for RE, published in October, has taken a slightly different stand from previous curriculum documents. The latest guidelines suggest pupils should engage with claims of truth, be they religious or secular. In the past, most RE syllabi have taken what might be called an anthropological or phenomenological approach. Teachers have been encouraged to take broad religious themes, such as places of worship or festivals, and then examine what these look like in various religions.

Critics have complained, however, that to the child this approach might look more like pick and mix than a serious study of world faiths. For what it has steered clear of is any suggestion of belief and the claim to truth that, say, Islam or Christianity may have. It is a polite, dinner party approach to religion rather than one of true tolerance born out of an honest respect for differences in faith. Nor does the anthropological approach demand that individuals ask difficult questions of their own beliefs.

In the TESMORI survey, for example, 54 per cent of teachers claimed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God but only 46 per cent believed in the resurrection. Under the new guidelines children might be asked whether such beliefs were doctrinally consistent. The question still remains whether schools are the best places to ask such questions, even allowing that they should be asked.

Certainly, a collective act of worship in anything other than a faith school seems out of place and in the end I am not convinced schools need religious education to insist on tolerance. Our right to tolerance should come not from mutual knowledge of the Bible, Koran or Bhagavad Gita but through the law enshrining our rights to both religious and individual freedom.

Within this framework, faith communities - be they atheist, agnostic or religious - have a responsibility to contribute to public understanding.

Society as a whole, not just the captive audience of the classroom, needs to debate whether there is more to this life than the material. It is the job of the church, not schools, to wrest Christmas from an orgy of conspicuous consumption.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer in English at King's college, London

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