An American friend of mine said it was striking that, while religious expression and ideas are built into the fabric of British political culture, the expression engages with a non-religious audience. He pointed out that Thought for the Day is actually thoughtful about 50 per cent of the time. He regarded this as a staggeringly high percentage.
In the United States, he thought, an equivalent spot would be a mix of bland sentimentalism and religious bigotry. I suspect he is right and that the UK has an enviable level of religious reasonableness. The state's collaboration with religious organisations in the provision of schooling is a cause of this. The architects of the 1944 Act intended state schools to be secular, but funding and the high level of existing Roman Catholic and Church of England school provisions forced them to compromise.
As a secularist and atheist, I think this was a very happy accident. Some secularists oppose state-supported faith schools. People like philosopher Anthony Grayling and scientist Richard Dawkins argue for something closer to the US model of separation of church and state. They think that all government-funded institutions should be secular, and that it is wrong to implicate taxpayers in promoting religion.
But, like my friend, I think the UK has a precious resource - reasonable religiosity - and that taking funds from religious schools would jeopardise this good.
I regard a society in which religion is not a divisive feature of political life as better than one in which it is. Every child should be educated to subject parents', and society's deepest commitments to critical scrutiny, and reject them if they are found to be wrong.
What arrangements best facilitate those goals? Think about how the US system really works. State-supported schools must be entirely non-religious. So parents who want their children to have an education with a spiritual dimension have to seek it in the private sector, in schools almost completely unregulated and often deeply sectarian. About 12 per cent of US children attend private schools, the majority of them relatively inexpensive and religious.
The children in private religious schools are separated from non-religious peers and, in some cases, are highly indoctrinated. Many children in state-run schools have no exposure to sincere religious belief. On top of that, strict separation throws up horror stories that can be used by religious entrepreneurs to alienate believers. The most famous of these is a case in Tennessee of a primary school boy who was sent home from school because he brought the Bible to read in his free period. Of course, the Courts found against the school. But the damage was done; the story is frequently repeated in fundamentalist circles as an example of the public schools' irrational hostility to religion.
There is a tendency for religious and political divisions to coincide. This exacerbates the sense of alienation many believers experience from a public culture which relentlessly celebrates material success, promotes sexuality detached from meaningful personal relationships, and denigrates familial ties. They see this culture as anti-religious, whereas I see it as the inevitable consequence of abandoning power over our culture to big business. This materialist culture is much more of a threat to the autonomy and well-being of most of our children than religious schooling or religious upbringing; and I think secularists who care about personal autonomy should be finding common cause with religious believers in resisting the influence of corporations on culture.
Of course, this does not mean there is no room for reform in the UK; faith schools should not have special privileges of selection, and they (and non-faith schools) should be regulated to encourage more mixing of children. But if you really share the secular goals of fostering autonomy and making religion less divisive you would do well to steer clear of the US separationist model.
Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the United States