Faith in the future

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Britain is undergoing a spiritual climate change. David Self examines the challenge that the growth of fundamentalism presents to teachers

We live in disturbing times, especially for those who thought that religion was a dying force. The fundamendalist revival is baffling to many Britons, accustomed to viewing religion as a low-key affair. And fundamentalism is not confined to the Islamic world. In the United States, another equally committed movement has returned a born-again Christian to the White House for four more years.

Less obvious examples can be found as well. Religious stories regularly dominate the news pages of our papers in a way that would have seemed incredible 30 years ago. Inevitably, the world of education becomes embroiled in such radical social change.

Go back 60 years and it was all so much simpler. Britain may have been an overtly Christian nation but church-going was undemanding. Some people were more regular than others but most would drift into church at some time or another during the year. For those drafting the 1944 Education Act, therefore, it was natural and non-controversial to order that the one compulsory subject on the school timetable should be religious education (then often called divinity or scripture) and to equate religion with Christianity.

Thirty years after that, surprisingly little had changed. In 1974, I applied for the post of RE producer with BBC Schools. Asked about my own beliefs, I trotted out an over-rehearsed answer intended to define my Church of England credentials but also to show empathy for Catholicism and the Free Churches.

The head of department looked over his half-moon glasses. "If you get the job, your first programme will be about Sikhs in Bradford." It says something about those days that a few minutes' (probably patronising) waffle about "minorities" was enough to get me the job. But then, even as recently as 1988, the Education Reform Act was insisting that RE should be "predominantly" Christian.

In 2005 Britain is far from being an obviously Christian society. Church attendance (as throughout Europe) has declined spectacularly in the last four decades. What may not be immediately obvious to non-churchgoers is that it has steadily demanded greater commitment - be it in giving, active participation in services or profession of faith. Many parish churches are much more like members-only clubs than public institutions. Add to this the fact that the evangelical tradition, with its emphasis on personal salvation rather than social involvement, is in the ascendancy.

As the other faiths have established themselves, they too have strengthened their traditions and demands on their members. This is especially so for some Muslims who feel that British society at large is hostile to their way of life. Naturally, these "conservative" believers (be they Christian, Muslim or Sikh) have become increasingly vociferous. The anti-abortion, right-to- life movement and the evangelical anti-gay lobby have forced socially "progressive" bishops and even the Archbishop of Canterbury to change their minds. Woe betide the theatre or televsion production that mocks religious groups. Even the school nativity play is suspect.

In this atmosphere, there is a growing demand for faith-based schools.

These are not on the model of the traditional rural, voluntary-aided church school, where the rector chairs the governors and takes the occasional assembly, but where the school aims to be all things to all villagers. Nor are they like the more thrusting urban version, courted by middle-class parents for their ethos or results.

The new demand is for independent faith schools. Already there are about 100 Muslim and 100 evangelical Christian schools of this type, along with 50 Jewish ones. This trend is also illustrated by the new city academies.

Of the 55 already approved or being planned, 22 will be controlled by Christian organisations with full power to decide what is taught. Six of these are likely to be headed by the evangelical Sir Peter Vardy who maintains that evolution is only a theory.

This then is the paradox. Society overall may be considerably less religious than in the past, but among those who are religious, many are fervent in their beliefs. This may not be a problem for teachers in some faith-based schools. There, a dogmatic approach may be acceptable, even desirable. But people outside such schools, such as chief inspector David Bell, may worry about their divisive effects. In mid-January, he controversially expressed his worry (of private Islamic schools) that "Many young people are being educated in faith-based schools with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society" - a concern these schools' representatives firmly dispute.

Meanwhile, Ofsted figures showed evangelical Christian private schools were more likely to fail in their duty to promote tolerance and harmony by teaching respect for other cultures.

It's even more complicated in secular schools. For many, the unspoken purpose of religion within the school is simply "to make us good". As tabloid columnists and others put it, "Without it, the country would go to the dogs". This attitude is exemplified by the old story of the headteacher invoking Christ to improve playground behaviour. "I want you to have a happy term and Jesus wants you to have a happy term, but we won't have a happy term and Jesus won't have a happy term if you climb on the toilet block roof." But religion is more than morality - and many with no religious commitment accept this. Many parents who don't attend public worship are happy for their children to participate in RE lessons and assemblies.

Over the past 30 years, some consensus has developed about the nature of religious education. In the majority of schools, the great world religions (especially Christianity) are properly studied as shaping forces of our history and culture. The profound influence on society of their founders and followers is explored. We demonstrate the ways their sacred texts and rituals continue to shape the daily lives of millions. For these reasons, religion is regarded (ironically, given it is theo-centric) as one of the humanities and worthy of objective classroom study.

Quite where we shall be in another 30 or even 10 years' time is impossible to predict. Consider the United States. There, many schools are buckling under pressure to teach creationism (the idea that God created the world in six earthly days) alongside evolution. At the same time, US teachers have learned to refer to "holiday trees" rather than Christmas trees, because of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Despite this, it is easy to imagine the religious right gaining ever greater political clout in the States - and, more slowly, here. This may preserve the right of private faith schools to go their own way. Should that happen, secular schools and curriculum officials may decide religion is simply too dangerous a subject for the classroom. That would be a tragedy.

In the short term, we must rely on the new framework for RE (launched last November). Among other things, it encourages analysis, discussion and evaluation of beliefs and, hopefully, increased tolerance. For its effective implementation in the classroom, many teachers will require more rigorous training. For example, in order to counteract fundamentalist claims, RE teachers may need to study the Bible and the Koran in greater depth than is now the case. They will also need to remember that, besides causing many a war, religion has been the inspiration behind much human endeavour. Most importantly, they must teach that faith, while often laudable, is indeed faith. It is not certainty.

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