The long car journeys of the summer holidays are a great opportunity for rambling family conversations, which go to places that more direct approaches fail. This year’s highlights have included: How does a nuclear bomb work? What is better, a Ferrari or an Aston Martin? Inevitably, there is some version of the birds and the bees — and whether God exists.
It was during this last conversation that my eldest ventured that she wasn’t all that sure about God; indeed, that the God she was learning about in her RE class at school seemed both implausible and irrelevant. She explained what sort of God was being described, and I couldn’t help but agree that implausible and irrelevant seemed fair descriptions.
Now it is true that plausibility and relevance occupy a fairly narrow bandwidth when you are 13. Unless something has an immediate connection to boys, fashion, music, or dancing, it easily fails to meet those criteria. Even so, the idea that one might sustain a lively and passionate faith on the back of dusty discussions of the historicity of Jesus is quite beyond her, and indeed me.
All of this bolsters me in a thought that I have had for some time, but have been too wary to voice. Wouldn’t it be better if we finished with the whole idea of teaching RE in schools? I know the Church spends a great deal of its energy defending God in school, and I am wholly in favour of faith-based assemblies.
Yet the way most RE is taught seems to be often little more than an academic sausage machine for producing atheists. There, I’ve said it.
Compulsory God, especially for those kids who are the slightest bit independent-minded, is a gift to the Dawkins brigade. It makes atheism seem attractive and edgy, an assertion of individual wit and free-thinking intelligence over the staid religious/ school establishment and its dull assertion of ancient stories. Of course, in reality, atheism is about as alternative as Big Brother.
The background default position of contemporary culture is wholly secular, and takes religion to be a dull joke. The only effective way to challenge this is for Christianity to reclaim its position as something counter-cultural, and a form of resistance to the dominant assumptions.
Ironically, compulsory God makes those dominant assumptions look like independent-mindedness, dressing up the attack on God as though it were the reverse of what it is: a staid capitulation to prevailing norms. Challenging the pervasive secular orthodoxy will require more rebels. Yet these are lost to us, as they react against the schoolroom arguments of RE teachers on a wet Wednesday afternoon.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser will be installed as Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral later this month.