Civic talk

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Citizenship through Secondary Religious Education. By Liam Gearon. RoutledgeFalmer pound;19.99. International Perspectives on Citizenship, Education and Religious Diversity. Edited by Robert Jackson. RoutledgeFalmer pound;75

First, a reviewer's confession. I am a humanist. Actually a card-carrying humanist. But I also think of Moore and Erasmus when I think of "humanist".

And in terms of what Kant called the ethics of practical reason, I often have more sympathy with non-fundamentalist Christians and Muslims (they seem to be working among the poor and among exploited immigrants) rather than my fellow British humanists or the National Secular Society's obsession with (to them) the iniquities of religious broadcasting. I'm a backslider. I rate it low in my priorities for action.

More to the point, I am a political philosopher. A book that had a great influence on me when I wrote In Defence of Politics was Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian Realism and Political Problems which was based on a reading of Augustine that stressed the division between the City of God and the civitas terrenum. The myth or reality of Fallen Man has similarities to the view that while human betterment is always possible and a moral imperative, yet to aim at perfectibility has too often led to tyranny and been the basis of totalitarianism.

Niebuhr was much concerned with the long and inconclusive debate between Christians and secularists on the question of whether democracy is the product of Christian faith or secular culture. The debate has been inconclusive because, as a matter of history, he claimed, both Christian and secular forces were involved in establishing the political institutions of modern democracy. The cultural resources of free societies today are jointly furnished by both the Christian tradition and by secular or deist enlightenment. There were, he said, enough non-democratic Christian cultures to show that Christian faith does not inevitably yield democratic historical fruits; and equally obviously there were totalitarian secular regimes that claimed to be democratic simply because they claimed to be working in the interests of the majority. "The evidence for each position is mixed," Niebuhr said. Indeed. He wished to build bridges between the two positions. In so doing, of course, he had to ignore or reject the early history of the church, which was largely hostile to classical democracy and civic republicanism - a few medieval monks electing their abbots was hardly a general incitement (a bit like some school councils).

But he also, unlike the two books here, acknowledged that the civic republicanism of Greece and Rome, long before either Christianity or Islam, was an essential precondition of democracy. The educated few practised free politics long before the many were deemed to have a right via conscience (Protestantism) or via authenticity and individuality (Rousseau).

Politics is a secular activity mediating between conflicting values and interests, but always according to some moral standards. However, standards are not aims; they are rules of conduct by which we pursue divergent aims alongside others. Liam Gearon seems oblivious to this. One word in the prescriptions of the new English citizenship curriculum gives him an evangelical opening for religious teaching to dominate all citizenship:

"Pupils should be taught to think about topical political, spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues, problems and events."

Nearly every page has PowerPoint-like boxes crammed with ground to be covered, concepts to be learned or websites to be consulted if there is enough time. There are enough pointers to swamp with zeal a whole national curriculum.

I find it extraordinary that a teacher of education (and his editor) should go for such unapprised and uncritical overload. He endlessly repeats the need to understand and tolerate other religions, without giving the least bit of guidance as to what it is to understand what we have in common and what we (both Christians and humanists) should not tolerate. I heard a preacher once who mentioned loudly and earnestly every difficult problem of the day, but actually said nothing about them.

Liam Gearon calls the Citizenship Order "undemocratic" because, it seems, it did not arise from a consensus of all teachers. Let me try shock therapy. Beatrice Webb once said: "Democracy is not the multiplication of ignorant opinions". She was right. But it is the essential arena in which clear and well defined beliefs and policies have to contest for support.

Robert Jackson's gathering is of a different order. Scholars specialising in comparative religion in different cultures grapple with problems arising from diversity, very often concluding that it is the practices of citizenship that enable very different faiths to coexist in one state. Here there is little of the rhetoric of "what we have in common" (usually the modern belief in human rights arising not from the scriptures but from 18th-century enlightenment) but a more serious appreciation that specific knowledge of differences usually helps both peace and common morality. But the price of the book is an insult to both citizenship and religion.

Professor Sir Bernard Crick chaired the citizenship working group

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