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
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.