We don't need God to teach us morality

27th February 2004 at 00:00
As convener of my school debating society in the early 1960s, I proposed that we should consider the motion that "this house would abolish religious education in schools". The supervising master would have none of it. "We cannot provide a platform for atheism," he said, with as much venom as a 17th-century cleric. But we were on the eve of the Beatles' first LP. The year after I left school, the society debated this very motion and, later, the God-fearing master ran off to the West Country with a woman not his wife.

I see no point in children studying atheism, as some newspapers have reported (perhaps not accurately) that the Government proposes. Atheism is simply non-belief and therefore uninteresting. But I would support the motion to abolish religious education on much the same grounds that I would have supported it in the 1960s - that it misses out almost everything that is important about religion. Since schools stopped trying to induct children into the Christian faith, RE has been justified on the grounds that it is morally educative. This implies that morals can be drawn only from religious belief and that, if you don't believe, you are free to act amorally.

It also implies that the important thing about a religious tradition is its moral teaching. This is quite wrong. Until recently, religion was the medium through which humans interpreted the world, conducted social relations, expressed themselves culturally, wielded political power. The world's great religions were astonishingly successful in inspiring art, music, literature and architecture. To this day, they provide the rituals that mark birth, marriage and death. The power of the Roman Catholic Church is the most durable on Earth. Yet religion has failed to persuade people to behave morally, or even to provide very coherent guidance. The reduction of religion to a code governing private behaviour is a recent and mostly western development.

To ghettoise religion into RE, therefore, is to trivialise it. Here is an example. The King James Bible is one of the glories of our language. It had an influence on English prose style comparable to that of Mozart on European music. It should be studied alongside Shakespeare and Milton. Its replacement in most churches by the New English Bible was an act of barbarism, the direct result of the belief, encouraged by schools, that religion is purely a vehicle for doctrine and moral teaching, and that its texts need to be made "accessible" so that children know not to go shoplifting.

As RE's defenders point out, history, culture and much of the contemporary world are impossible to understand unless you appreciate how religion moves human beings. But will children get any sense of that from RE lessons on how far they can go with their boyfriends? Will they grasp how religion functions as myth and symbol from learning that Christianity, Islam and so on represent "different kinds of truth"? Will they understand why men built Chartres Cathedral and fought the Thirty Years War if they think religion is about using condoms or wearing turbans?

Religion should play a role in history, literature, art and music lessons.

It should feature even in science, so that children understand the intellectual framework in which science proceeded for hundreds of years. It should feature there, too, so that children can see that, for the big questions about the universe, a god is as good an explanation as any other - though one that places moral requirements on us.

So where should moral and social behaviour come into the curriculum? I propose a subject called "philosophy and values", teaching children to think about how we form codes of private and public behaviour and how we decide what is right and wrong. Religion would naturally play an important role in this subject, but not necessarily a dominant one.

Heaven and hell

Inside story, Teacher magazine

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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