Educate, don't indoctrinate
This is a country that has always preferred looking backwards rather than forwards: hankering after Empire, viewing our relationship with Europe through the lens of the Second World War, and imagining that we still live in a Victorian era of moral certainty and ideological purity.
Never mind that our collective memory is tainted by wishful thinking: Britain as an island, homogenous and unchanging, pluckily defending its heritage from the barbarian hordes who batter its shores.
So when a recent seminar, organised by the British Humanist Association and the influential Institute for Public Policy Research, came to the conclusion that one school subject, Religious Education (RE), should be adapted to reflect our increasingly secular and multicultural times, the guardians of the past rushed to their battle stations.
Few of those who objected to the inclusion of nontheistic worldviews in school are actually involved in the teaching of RE. This did not stop them resisting a proposal that largely formalises a de facto state of affairs. In the pundits' minds, the proposals were tantamount to handing over the education of our children to Beelzebub himself.
"But where are the stories?" cried one defender of the faith, as if only the Bible contained any poignant morality tales. In fact, the world is rich with stories which introduce children to notions of right and wrong, good and evil, passion and duty. Take, for example, Aesop's Fables, Roman poetry, Shakespeare, the Arabian Nights, Anansi Spiderman and the novels of Jacqueline Wilson.
What is more, there is nothing intrinsically wrong about drawing on the Old and New Testament, or the Koran, to start a debate on contemporary ethics. But presenting them as sacred texts rather than manmade stories is disingenuous. Democratic societies has long ago rejected their outdated moral commandments and merciless view of transgressors: these days we try to reconcile our differences rather than exacerbate them, and seek practical solutions rather than rigid certainty.
Why, then, should one subject, and arguably one of the most important if it is the only lesson that deals with ethics and morality, continue to be detached from reality? Those who complain about postmodern uncertainty in school education surely cannot want what children learn in RE to be incompatible with what they learn in Biology, English, and History, let alone the outside world. Not only is this a waste of time, it makes for very boring lessons.
Until recently, Religious Education teachers struggled to keep their pupils awake during class. Then they began tackling contemporary ethical and philosophical questions such as racism, world poverty, and inequality.
Today, RE is once again a popular subject. Last year, for example, almost 27,000 pupils chose to take RE papers at AS level, and nearly 19,000 at A level, according to the Journal of the Professional Council for Religious Education (Summer 2003). Proponents of a purely religious moral education often cite these figures to argue that increasing numbers of pupils want to learn about religion. What the figures hide is that the vast majority of these chose the 'Philosophy and Ethics' options over the religious ones, presumably because they wanted to look beyond the narrow framework of the scriptures when debating ethical questions.
Replacing RE with Religious, Philosophical and Moral Education, as the participants at the IPPR seminar suggested, would give teachers a wider scope to tackle important issues which relate far better to their pupils' lives than ancient stories about nomadic tribes.
Fewer than one in ten of us attend religious services with any regularity, but that does not mean we do not have strong moral convictions that we wish to see passed on to our children. Lack of belief in the supernatural should not disenfranchise parents from the moral education of their offspring. Teaching humanism would be one important step towards ensuring that school education reflects their views.
Over the next few months the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), and its counterparts in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, will be working on the new national framework on religious education for England and Wales. Around May it will present its findings to Charles Clarke and start consulting interested parties. These, one would hope, will include anyone involved in education, be they teachers, parents or pupils. It is vital that those who wish to see a change in one of the most rigid school subjects make their voices heard, so that the majority is not drowned out by the dependably vocal opponents of progress.
Meanwhile, those who do wish to subject their children to religious instruction can still do so outside of the national curriculum. That is what Sunday Schools are for.