God has never been more popular. The British might not go to church in huge numbers, but they love reading about him, blaming him and studying him. His staunchest critics - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and AC Grayling - have had their careers made, thanks to their headline-grabbing articles and bestselling books about God. And schoolchildren appear to love learning about him.
The figures are remarkable. At a time when the numbers taking foreign languages and geography are dropping far and fast, religious studies has enjoyed year-on-year increases throughout this decade. More than 20,000 pupils sat A-level this year, a 6 per cent rise on the previous year and a doubling of numbers since the turn of the century. The numbers taking GCSE are even more striking. More than 179,000 sat the exam this year, an increase of 8,000 on 2007, which took the numbers to an all-time high.
Small wonder, then, that humanists are up in arms, furious that Ofqual, the qualifications regulator, has barred the OCR exam board from setting up a syllabus that would have allowed pupils to study humanism alongside six major religions. Ofqual judged that humanism is not a religion but a body of belief, and that it would therefore be unacceptable for pupils to study it to the exclusion of any religions in all four modules of the new GCSE.
Today's GCSE has come a long way since the days of my own O-level. Thirty years ago, my syllabus consisted of studying the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, plus one of Paul's epistles. There was no Old Testament, no reference to philosophical concepts such as good and evil, and certainly no mention of Allah or the Torah or the Bhagavad Gita. But it was a useful primer, giving me a solid grounding in the writings of Christianity. At that time, the Catholic Church was notoriously hopeless at encouraging study of scripture. The rigorous and coherent syllabus was set by the examination board, and the nun who taught me embraced it with relish. While it gave pupils sure foundations in their faith, it was first and foremost an academic subject and had to be taught as such.
This is certainly the case today. But there is so much more to the subject, which explains its popularity with young people. At just the age when they are increasingly interested in the big questions - What does it mean to talk of God? Do we survive after death? If there is a benign deity, how can there be evil in the world? - religious studies provides an opportunity to explore them. The syllabus is much broader now, and the chance to study the six major religions reflects the multiracial, multicultural make-up of contemporary Britain, and the need for us to also become informed global citizens in the 21st century. It also enables pupils to begin grappling with complex ethical topics such as abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia and just-war theory.
The idea that the subject is in some way a form of indoctrination in religious belief is way off the mark. The emphasis is on knowledge and inquiry, and this is a challenge for the churches and other religious institutions. But those practising a religion will be better informed for having studied the basis of their beliefs and will become far more aware of any weaknesses and lack of education among any clerics they meet. Like those who come to the subject fresh, without prior knowledge, they will start to encounter the richness of thought behind religions. Certainly those who go on to A-level will become aware of the great thinkers who have influenced Christianity - from Plato and Aristotle, to Aquinas and Anselm - and modern thinkers such as John Hick and Keith Ward.
It is this richness of thinking that makes up a religion, as well as the personal and communal belief in God, and to which humanism does not fully compare. That is why Ofqual was right to say that humanism may well have a place in the religious studies syllabus - after all, one can trace its roots in Christianity - but not to the exclusion of any religions.
But there are other, vital reasons for studying it. For those pupils attending a religious school, it helps underpin the ethos of the school, the common set of values shared by the head, the pupils, parents and governors. Think about the way parents resort to church schools for education; it is the strong ethical narrative that religion provides that attracts them and makes the school successful. Secular humanism doesn't offer that - and that lack is key to why it is not a subject worth studying to the exclusion of other religions.
Above all, an introduction to religion is an introduction to the world today. In our post-September 11 society, young people need to understand the faiths, distorted or otherwise, that unite and divide us. They need to make sense of the beliefs that inspire such good and evil. And they need an insight into their cultural heritage. A child who has no grounding in religion has no hope of understanding Chaucer, Milton or John Donne; no notion of what lies behind the work of Bach or Beethoven; no key to the world of Da Vinci, Botticelli or Michelangelo. A child who knows nothing of religion is a child without roots.
Catherine Pepinster, Editor of `The Tablet', the Catholic weekly.