Noah's ark has no room for religion

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
Anne Pirrie reflects on the consultation on religious observance in Scottish schools

The Scottish Executive issued its circular on religious observance in Scottish schools at the beginning of the year. This followed the publication of the report from the religious observance review group in 2004. Both documents raise interesting questions about social inclusion, culture and identity in education, only some of which I shall address here.

The challenges faced by the review group were manifold. Anne Wilson, director of education in Dundee and convener of the group, stated in the foreword to the report that "ours was not an easy task, as religion is a topic that always provokes a variety of often very emotive responses and views".

She then alluded to what seemed an unbridgeable divide between "those who wish no religious observance at all in schools" and "those who wish to see much more". In the best liberal tradition, the review group "recognised the importance of listening to and considering all views" during its deliberations.

The consultation paper - designed to provide a focus for discussion and debate - bears all the hallmarks of this liberal approach. It is a benign Noah's ark of a document, freighted with references to "community acts", to "expressing and celebrating shared values" and to "spiritual development".

And yet the word "religion" appears just once in the entire document. Why?

There are, I suggest, two main reasons. The first is that the members of the review group were intent upon overcoming any ideological differences between them, and building on the group dynamic that had rapidly developed as they began their work. It is, of course, entirely laudable that this disparate group considered "getting along" to be so important, and that they were so studiously reluctant to cause offence to those of different faiths.

The scant references to religion in the text of the consultation paper betoken a deep reluctance on the part of the review group to engage with a fossilised species of atheism that has its origins in the 19th century. In a recent article in the Guardian (May 2), Dylan Evans described this type of atheism as "virulently anti-religious, passionately pro-science and artistically illiterate". Evans's observations bring into question whether Noah's ark was a suitable vessel in which to negotiate the darksome narrow strait that separates non-believers from believers. I believe that, despite all its good intentions, or indeed precisely because of them, the review group engaged in a collective act of self-deception or "bad faith".

It simply refused to take responsibility for its choices. Sartre's famous example of bad faith illustrates the point perfectly. In L'etre et le neant, he conjures up an image of a girl sitting with a man she knows full well would like to seduce her. When he makes the first move and takes her hand, she pretends not to notice. This is her way of avoiding the painful necessity of deciding whether to accept him or to reject him. She pretends to herself that she is a passive object rather than a conscious being that can make a choice - and can even make a mistake.

In trying to be "inclusive", "sensitive" and "tactful", the review group has put undue emphasis on the spiritual development of the individual while invoking the notion of "shared values". However, no clear definition of "shared values" is provided. Nor is there any attempt to address the question of how these values are enacted, or to invoke the very framework that gives them meaning.

Previous guidance issued in 1991 stated that religious observance in non-denominational schools should be of a "broadly Christian character".

The current circular takes a step back from that position, and puts forward the view that "religious observance needs to be developed in a way that reflects and understands (the) diversity (of faith and belief traditions in contemporary Scotland)."

By choosing not to locate religious observance clearly within the Christian tradition, the review group has failed to recognise something quite elementary: that the major faith groups generally see some merit in each other's stories about "gods, devils, souls and saviours". Militant atheists, on the other hand, usually fail to appreciate the value of these stories as metaphors for "human aspirations for transcendence". But in my view, telling stories - at which most religions excel - is a basic human activity that enables us to organise, evaluate and transform the world around us.

I find myself in broad agreement with Dylan Evans, who says that "the only mature attitude to religion is to see it for what it is - a kind of art, which only a child could mistake for reality, and which only a child would reject for being false."

Anne Pirrie is a researcher at the SCRE Centre in the education faculty at Glasgow University. A fuller version of this article will appear in the journal Scottish Affairs later this year.

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