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Sacrifice religious observance in schools

Anne Pirrie's comments on the Scottish Executive's latest circular on religious observance (TES Scotland, July 22) make interesting but thoroughly depressing reading. She highlights the contrast between guidance issued in 1991 and the updated version published in 2004. According to the 1991 guidance, religious observance in non-denominational schools should be of a "broadly Christian character", whereas the most recent advice prioritises the need to recognise the diversity of faiths and belief traditions in contemporary Scotland.

Then, astonishingly, Anne Pirrie comes up with a stunning non sequitur. She claims that, in not locating religious observance clearly within the Christian tradition, the review body has failed to recognise that the major faiths generally see some merit in each other's stories about "gods, devils, souls and saviours".

This is clearly untrue - intolerance abounds in society, with extreme fundamentalists in all religions not allowing any validity whatsoever to other faiths, let alone finding merit in them. Further, she asserts, breathtakingly, that militant atheists fail to appreciate the value of these stories as metaphors for "human aspirations for transcendence".

This is skating on very thin ice. Do atheists not appreciate the drama of Shakespeare, the poetry of Wilfred Owen or the novels of D H Lawrence as reflections of mankind's striving to know the whole person, to unlock the key to the mystery of humanity? And might they not apply the same criteria to religious stories?

It's screwed-up religious fanatics who start imagining that they have a monopoly on the truth. I can think of no reason to single out Christianity as the focus of religious observance - the Bible, after all, as with other "holy" books, is no more than a record of a particular set of experiences of human endeavours to grapple with the mystery of existence.

Where does this leave us? How can we reboot our opinions on religious observance in Scottish schools in the light of recent terrorist bombs in London? Or ongoing ludicrous debates about the place of women in the various Christian churches? Or whether ferries should sail in the Western Isles on a Sunday? Or Christianity's seemingly irreconcilable difficulties with same-sex relationships?

Our pupils - in 2005 - would look out to the external world from the narrow religious observance apparently proposed by Anne Pirrie, and view, disconcertingly close to them, the results of some crazy, dark, irrational creed which is causing young men, worldwide, to blow themselves and their fellow humanity to pieces. Could it be that religious observance has led to this? I will never forget the insane devotion in the eyes of the Orange walkers when I once had the misfortune to stumble upon such a parade.

There is no legitimate place for religious observance in schools. More than at any other time in our history, it is clear that religion has a lamentable record. Think of all the crimes committed in the name of religion, the wars waged from the platform of religion, and the guilt and the agony heaped upon human beings as a result of religious dogma.

Religious observance in schools has failed miserably to create a climate of respect.

The fact is that religious observance in schools permits a progression of ministers, priests, rabbis, whoever, to monopolise morality and manipulate young minds. I know that parents have the right to withdraw their offspring but that brings its own difficulties in terms of organisation and peer relationships.

Cutting out religious observance from the Scottish school curriculum would be a step worthy of 21st-century progress. It could be replaced with the teaching of philosophy, which would focus on the development of critical thinking skills. This would equip our pupils to make their own decisions about religion. Such freedom would be a celebration of what is best about what it means to be human and we might just discover moderation, a commodity so urgently needed.

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