Let atheists breathe life into all religions

5th March 2004 at 00:00
The barbarians are at the gates. This is how many religious educators will view the prospect of atheism being taught alongside religion in schools.

They need not fear, and not just because atheists are not barbarians. What should really be worrying the devout is that too little is due to change about religious education, for the believers themselves have a great deal to gain from letting the secular in.

Last month, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think-tank close to Labour, called for religious studies to be renamed "religious, philosophical and moral education" and to include a large dollop of atheism. But this is simply not going to happen any time soon, not least because the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is in the advanced stages of its own review of RE and atheism does not appear in its draft guidance, although humanism does. Since humanism is nothing more than moral atheism which sees meaning and purpose in human life, the avoidance of the "A word" seems a little coy. Even humanism is only to be included in small doses, alongside religions such as Baha'i and Zoroastrianism. That there are many more atheists than all these minority religions combined seems to have passed the QCA by.

Any sighs of relief from those who wish to see RE reserved mainly for the major faiths are misplaced. When RE is kept "pure" it becomes uninspiring and irrelevant to most students. Adding atheism and secular philosophy revitalises the subject. For instance, more candidates are now sitting the OCR religious studies AAS-level, largely because selecting its two most popular options - the philosophy of religion and ethics papers - produces a combined religion, philosophy and ethics syllabus in all but name. In Scotland they have renamed the religious studies Higher examination "religious, moral and philosophical studies".

Yet the QCA still seems set on teaching religion as though it were a comfortable "spirituality zone", where different beliefs are paraded as a kind of transcendental pick and mix. "Pupils should be encouraged to see diversity and difference as positive rather than potentially threatening," it says.

But if religion matters, how can this be so? Christians often quote John's Gospel, where Jesus says: "I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." If this isn't threatening to Hindus, atheists and Sikhs then I don't know what is. Or should we rewrite the Bible to fit the cosy world of the QCA? "I am one way. But you can go to the father, or mother, or whatever, in any way you want."

As the 19th-century Christian existentialist S?ren Kierkegaard said of the churchmen of his own time: "They have changed Christianity and have made it too much of a consolation, and forgotten that it is a demand upon man."

If you are a Christian, Islam is potentially threatening, since if it is right, then Jesus is not our saviour. If there is no truth at stake, only optional "truths", if religion isn't a threat, or at least a challenge, then why should it matter?

This is why atheism should be welcomed into the fold. As one religious believer said: "I like atheists, they take religion seriously."

Whether or not God exists should be a question of great concern. Morality matters. If religion is taught in the context of ethics and philosophy, its importance becomes far more apparent. If it is taught in a hermetically-sealed, atheist-free environment, then it just looks like some quaint relic. Religions become exhibits in an anthropological museum, not living belief systems which challenge how people live.

It is precisely the comfortable, non-threatening nature of much RE which stops people taking it seriously. Let's inject a bit of vitality. If religion matters, it is because on its truth or falsity much is at stake.

If ethics matters, it is because it concerns everyone, and not just those who sign up to the Ten Commandments.

Bring in atheism and philosophy and these truths become instantly illuminated. Keep them banging at the gate and you are left only with the sterile, empty shell of religion.

Letters 27; FE Focus 3

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine

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