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More and better religion, not less

19 June 2015

Schools need to teach about the real thing now more than ever, says Paul Vallely

Scrap the compulsory act of worship in state schools, the headlines said, after a pamphlet was issued, written by the former education secretary Charles Clarke and the sociologist Professor Linda Woodhead. Their document got a significant amount of coverage - perhaps more than might have been expected from a report that was, as its authors admitted in their conclusion, just the private view of two individuals, albeit informed experts.

We learned two things from this. The first was that the media are always eager to give space to views with which their editors privately concur. The idea of abolishing acts of worship chimed well with secular editors whose agenda is broadly antipathetic to the idea of faith in schools at all.

For all their pretence at objectivity, many secular journalists freight their articles with unexamined assumptions of their own. The Guardian carried a leader in support of the proposal, which declared: "Humanism is becoming, if it has not already become, the default position of our society, much as 'C of E' used to be in England."

Humanism can, of course, indicate a rich tradition within Christianity, of which the current pope is a prime example. Or it can mean the narrow anti-religious sentiment for which some aggressive secularists have hijacked the word "humanist" in recent decades. I suspect that there is more of the former around in Britain today than the latter. The real default in England today is, rather, a self-absorbed hedonistic individualism that is far from humanism in any sense.

The second striking element was that the media gave hardly any coverage to the report's clear defence of the status quo with regard to faith schools. Mr Clarke and Professor Woodhead are unequivocal in their defence of the right of religious families to choose faith schools for their children. They issue reasonable caveats about the need to ensure that school-admission policies are not disguised forms of selection to cherry-pick clever or middle-class pupils. But the right to reserve places for faith members in faith schools is defended. The media failed to headline this.

The document's authors are stout, too, in their advocacy of the need to improve the teaching of religion in schools rather than dilute it. A proper understanding of what faith teaches is the best immunisation against extremism. There are arguments to be had about how best this is to be achieved. There will be reservations about the authors' suggestions of a national religion curriculum to be imposed on all schools, including independent ones, which seems to run counter to the principle of devolution which Professor Woodhead advocates over the act of worship, which she wants left to school governors to determine. And there are clear downsides to the pamphlet's suggestion that parents should lose their right to withdraw their children from state RS lessons.

Yet the central argument - that Britain needs more and better religion - is persuasive. At a time when the nation is worrying about how to combat the seduction of its youth by religious fanatics abroad, the need to know what true religion really teaches is greater than ever.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.

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