Why atheists ought to embrace religion

24th June 2005 at 01:00
Although it may be somewhat of an exaggeration to say that A-level religious studies changed my life, it did make a contribution to one of the most significant shifts of opinion I've ever had. As a teenager I was a church-going Christian, not of the evangelical or smugly saved kind, but serious and sincere nonetheless. So, to the disappointment of some who saw it as a soft option, pure interest led me to choose religious studies as one of my sixth-form subjects.

Two years studying John's Gospel, however, convinced me that not only was the Bible not the word of God, but that no one who had spent time studying it could seriously believe it was. More generally, I was examining my own beliefs more closely than at any other time, and gradually I found the doubts and questions I had could not be answered to my satisfaction. In short, over the course of my A-level studies, I lost my faith.

As a born-again atheist I have good reason to be unperturbed by the news that religious studies is booming so much that teachers are being offered "golden hellos" to help meet the demand. However, according to The Observer, this has prompted anger from secular organisations.

Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society, was quoted as saying that "The reason why a GCSE in RE is popular is that you can do it in half the time," adding "There is no resurgence in interest (in spiritual matters)."

I think Sanderson's agitation is misguided. Secular humanists have many reasons to be delighted at the popularity of religious studies. After all, if atheists and believers have one thing in common it is that, in a culture where people are more comfortable talking about orgasms than they are about God, they at least take religion seriously.

The fear that RE lessons are vehicles for clandestine indoctrination is grossly exaggerated. It is true that many RE teachers are religious and their biases will come through. But on the whole they are professional enough to be respectful to all beliefs, including unbelief. Also, the more evangelical are such a bad advert for religion that any attempted proselytising is almost guaranteed to backfire. I had a very nice RE teacher who would occasionally punctuate a sentence with "alleluia", which simply confirmed the view that he was a bit touched, and not by the divine.

Humanists really ought to be more confident of the intellectual basis of their position. If non-belief is the most rational thing, as they claim, then the more people think about religion, the more likely they are to join the atheist throng. Maybe I am unusual in actually being unconverted by my own studies, but on the whole I can't see how an in-depth examination of religious belief is going to make people more susceptible to dogma.

The young people who are most vulnerable to wacky happy-clappies are those who never think about religion seriously and are therefore shocked when they meet people for whom it has had a life-altering effect. In contrast, those who have learned about religion will, if they do become religious, almost certainly have a more open and intelligent faith as a result.

What is more, RE has never been as atheist-friendly as it is now.

Government guidelines published last year make explicit mention of atheist and humanist beliefs. And at A-level, the most popular options are ethics and the philosophy of religion, which both encourage an open attitude to religious belief. The latter, in particular, is almost guaranteed to disabuse students of any idea that there are logical reasons for postulating a god as the first cause, the source of morality, or the designer of the universe.

While secularists are right to argue that the RE syllabus still includes far too little on atheism, the solution is to lobby for change, not to try to decrease the amount of RE in schools. We atheists must accept that religious belief is highly resilient and speaks to the needs of millions.

And when religion is marginalised, it tends to become more radical and fundamentalist. Religion will not go away, and one effective barrier against fundamentalism is making sure that young people take the time to study it in a liberal, tolerant environment.

Julian Baggini's latest book, The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments, is published next month by Granta

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