The presence of religion in education brings up three major problems.
One is the nature and purpose of "religious education", either in the form of secondary-school RE courses or the A-level version that operates under the label of "philosophy and ethics". The second is the act of worship in schools: chaplains, prayers and hymns or the so-called "interfaith moments of reflection" in assemblies, for example - in short, religious practice and the example it sets. The third issue is the existence of faith-based schools and sectarian education.
I will consider each in turn.
The website RE:Online explains the purpose and value of the subject in the following terms: "Studying religion and belief has a claim to be an indispensable part of a complete education because of the influence of religions and beliefs on individuals, culture, behaviour and national life."
It continues: "Most religions and beliefs offer answers to life's deepest questions. And most young people are seeking answers to those questions, as they grow into independence and work out how to live a good life."
This is right - as far as it goes. But the study of religions and religious beliefs is only one small and tendentious part of what should be a much bigger story: the history of all ideas about life, ethics, society and the natural world, including the growth of science, which is relevant not only for its own sake but because human beings and their societies and ethics are part of the natural world too. This story throws a different light on the existence and nature of religions.
Suppose that instead of RE, schools taught the history of humanity's attempts to make sense of itself and the world around it. This would start with the many creation myths of different cultures, and proceed through the mythologies of the early civilisations to the rise of the few and relatively young religions that still exist (out of many that have died away) and the philosophical schools of both West and East. It would include the development of science out of philosophy, the competing world views of different traditions and how they compare with science on such matters as the origin and nature of the universe, the evolution of life, and understandings of human biology and psychology.
In this system, it would be seen that religions are just part - and, truth be told, a rather primitive part - of a much larger and more complex adventure of thought, from reliance on stories and legends to help make sense of things, to the development of techniques of enquiry based on empirical observation and experimentation.
The scientific approach does not start with conclusions and then try to support them (as religious apologetics do), but is prepared to accept whatever conclusions are reached by evidence and publicly repeatable experiment. This approach has given us computers, aeroplanes and vaccinations. The religious approach is stuck with its scriptures from millennia ago.
Bigger than Jesus
Placing religion in this much larger context dramatically changes how it is viewed by students. How would our schoolchildren react to the Christian story, for example, if they knew that it was an iteration of commonplace tales abounding in Egyptian and Greek mythology? Think of this one: a god makes a mortal maid pregnant and she bears a child with prodigious powers, who visits the underworld and posthumously joins his father in the divine realm.
Where would you find this story? In the New Testament, yes. But before that, repeatedly in the myths of Zeus impregnating any number of mortal maids who subsequently gave birth to figures such as Hercules, who performed great feats and visited the underworld before joining his father on Olympus.
Likewise, the stories of resurrection involving Isis and Osiris, Asclepius, Alcmene, Castor, Melicertes and many more place Lazarus and Jesus merely at the end of a long line of such characters.
One could show how every feature of the Christian story is lifted from earlier mythologies, just as one could show how the makers of the New Testament constructed it to fit with Old Testament stories. For example: Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness, Elijah's 40-day fast on Mount Horeb, Moses' two spells of 40 days on the mountain, Noah's 40-day wait to open a window in the ark, Jonah's warning to Nineveh that it had 40 days to repent - and so on, demonstrating the formulaic nature of the trope, as with so much else in the scriptures.
Viewing religion as part of humankind's early efforts to put its experience into an explanatory framework reveals the process for what it is. Without this knowledge, religions appear to be self-standing and to some degree authoritative. But a frank look at them in context shows otherwise.
Moreover, the "answers to the deepest questions of life" offered by religions are often very bad ones, and it needs to be made clear that much better answers exist in the secular traditions of thought. Humanist ethics - stemming from Socrates and Aristotle but suppressed by Justinian in the 6th century AD, making Christianity the only permissible outlook and thus inaugurating the Dark Ages - offers a vastly more humane and sympathetic viewpoint, according with the grain of human nature.
Look, for example, at views about human sexuality in the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is much that is flatly unacceptable in what it enjoins, such as stoning homosexuals to death. The conspiracy that says religions are all about peace, concord and brotherly love (of the non-sexual kind, of course) is a dishonest one. As history bloodily attests, religions can be militantly hostile to each other, and between them they have been one of the greatest sources of division, bloodshed and oppression in the world. This part of the history of religion and its impact on people and societies should be frankly examined.
Indeed, contextualising religious traditions more broadly would show that they are just one example of a common phenomenon - namely, monolithic ideologies claiming to have the one great truth, the one right answer, to which everyone must submit and conform. In this respect we see the exact parallel between Spain's first grand inquisitor Toms de Torquemada and Joseph Stalin.
Accordingly, RE should be replaced with a far more general history of ideas, in which the various religious beliefs of the world are merely one strand. Knowing something about religions is good; it is often remarked that otherwise one could not make sense of paintings in a public art gallery, and this is true. But to enjoy a public art gallery one also needs to know Greek mythology and history, to understand epic scenes of sea battles and imperial coronations. Again, the current model of RE helps with only one part, not nearly all, of what art appreciation requires as background.
My second concern is with the act of worship in school life. Institutions with a secularising bent, or with too many different faiths represented in their student body, get around the problem by minimising any religious aspect to their collective moments. Others do not - and this is not just an insidious matter but a deep wrong.
It is insidious because it puts the weight of the school's authority behind belief in religion, or some vague version of it. Religion is organised superstition, and setting an example for children to respect superstition is wrong. It is wrong to lead them into these beliefs before they are in any position to evaluate the claims and requirements of a religion for themselves.
Religions know that if they attempted to sell their wares to adults who had no predisposing introduction as children, they would get nowhere. The stories are silly, the promises vague and the concepts largely undefined. But plant the seed in the soft and receptive mind of a child and it might take root (or sprout later). It is a form of intellectual abuse to indoctrinate children by making it seem as though religious beliefs have the truth status and credentials of, say, chemistry or geography.
Crisis of faith
Finally, the unacceptable concept of faith-based education should scarcely need explanation. The very phrase is a paradox all on its own. Think of Northern Ireland. Think of Sunnis and Shias. Think Hindus and Muslims. Think accordingly of the risk of going ahead and "educating" hapless children (no baby is Christian, Muslim or Hindu until made so by the surrounding adults) in their separate sectarian schools, indoctrinating them with the view that theirs is the true and proper faith, and then letting them out on to the streets to encounter infidels, apostates and the damned.
Any country that levies a tax on all its citizens to pay for the faith-ghettoising education of minorities is making them bear the cost of creating serious future problems. Worse, allowing a school - where children are learning science, history, languages - to be predicated on a religious view about what such knowledge means and how much of it one is allowed to have or to accept is a perversion.
There is another issue here, in addition to my three key problems with religious education. It has become common for the phrases ``religion and philosophy'' and ``philosophy and theology'' to be bandied about as if the subjects were related, perhaps even overlapping. This is a corruption of the idea of philosophy.
Religious observance is about faith and obedience, based on the authority of scripture and tradition. Philosophy is about open-ended enquiry, scepticism, challenge, investigation and reason. Philosophy is about testing beliefs, religion is about accepting them. The word "Islam" means submission. Christians are urged to regard pride - standing on one's own judgement - as a cardinal sin and are told that pretensions to wisdom are accursed.
Philosophy is precisely the opposite of all this; it is the refusal to forgo thinking in favour of blindly believing. How can philosophy and religion be equated or even linked?
As to the intrinsic intellectual respectability of philosophy and theology, they bear exactly the same relation to each other as do psychology and astrology. People who would not dream of conjoining psychology and astrology talk blithely of "philosophy and theology" in one breath. But there is not a jot of difference in the fallacious juxtapositions in both cases.
Philosophy is a label that works like science in covering a number of different pursuits: "science" denotes physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, geology and more, just as "philosophy" denotes metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic, political theory and more. "Theology" has a single topic: discussion of the supposed existence and nature of a god or gods. To link theology to philosophy is like linking the phrase "growing tomatoes" to the word "agriculture", as if there could be a subject of study called "growing tomatoes and agriculture".
The small target of theology and the universal target of philosophy are completely different. Theology's sole subject matter is suppositious (is there anything to talk about other than an ill-defined concept from humankind's superstitious past?), yet philosophy's many subject matters include the world itself, human nature, the good, social institutions, our choices, interests and desires, the exercise of reason and the ways we can best pursue truth.
In addition to replacing RE with an inclusive history of ideas, I would also emphasise how misleading it is to talk of "philosophy and religion" in the same breath. Although education about various religious beliefs and traditions should certainly be a strand in the history of ideas, I would be loath to treat theology as a serious subject of study any more than I would so treat astrology or the divinatory tarot.
Philosophy, however - philosophy proper, philosophy as such, in all its branches - should be a major school subject. It should start early, in primary school, and be offered right the way up to A-level. It should be taught by people who have degrees in philosophy. In the same way that the theory of knowledge powerfully supports the rest of the curriculum in the International Baccalaureate, so philosophical styles of thought and enquiry - challenging, sceptical, exploratory, analytic - would powerfully support the rest of schooling. And, in the process, produce strong and adaptable minds capable of thinking for themselves, and doing it well.
A C Grayling is master of the New College of the Humanities in London and a supernumerary fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford