The end of religious education? God forbid

21st March 2014 at 00:00

God. What's that all about then? I haven't really got a clue.

I know very little about religion. I'd probably call myself an atheist if I got around to thinking about it, but I can't spare the time. Deal or No Deal isn't going to watch itself. God - or a lack thereof - rarely impinges on my life. And it certainly isn't about to impinge on my Sunday morning lie-in.

The simple fact is that most people in Britain are the same. They may have a rough grasp of the basic tenets of Christianity but I challenge you to ask your friends and family to take a short break from ramming Easter eggs down their gobs to speculate about the nature of the Ascension. You'd get quite a lot of blank looks, I'll warrant.

Of course, in other less heathen countries you'd find more informed answers, but ignorance of Islam is still widespread. Ask most people in the developed world about the nature of Muhammad's relationship with Allah and you'll more than likely be met with a vacant gaze, despite the religion being practised by nearly a quarter of the global population and central to so many recent international developments.

So what should schools do about it? In this week's cover feature, religious education teacher Tom Bennett makes a convincing case for the importance of teaching about religion. It should never be for the purposes of indoctrination, he explains, but about understanding society and its philosophical and ethical backbone. Without a grasp of Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Hinduism, it's impossible to conceptualise our collective cultural roots. To be clear, we are talking about religious education, not religious instruction. Most schools even manage to cover the pesky issues of atheism and agnosticism in their RE curricula, too. Everyone's a winner.

That was easy. Case made. Let's all go down the pub.

Not so fast. What about John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx and Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes? Figures who rarely impinge on lesson time until post-16 economics, politics and sometimes history. In an increasingly secular society - one where bankers' decisions and bonkers housing markets have a huge impact on the lives of ordinary people - surely Adam Smith is as important to the daily life of the man or woman on the street as Jesus Christ?

OK, OK, please don't write in. But in some ways any upset caused by this statement would prove Tom's point. For although many more mortgage-holders pray at the altar of interest rates than go to church every Sunday, the governor of the Bank of England fails to have any kind of philosophical or ideological hold on people's imaginations.

Religion does. Religion, and the ethics that spring from it, do matter. They help to explain how ordinary people live their lives and what we believe to be the fundamentals of human decency. Economic theory doesn't match up.

So Tom is right. All children should learn about religion and why, as a society, we believe what we believe - it's part of their intellectual birthright. Let's tell those secular naysayers what's what.

But a little light Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill wouldn't hurt either. Between them they invented the free market and liberal democracy. Not many people know that. Perhaps they should.


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