A cacophony of views on what to teach children about God

IT IS becoming a commonplace that in matters of belief and religion, Western societies are disintegrating into micro-communities that struggle to understand each other. A Babel-like array of introverted faith groups and a secular majority struggle to co-exist, without knowing or even wanting to know much about one another.

Awareness of that danger underlies a report published this week by two influential figures in the field of religious education in England: Charles Clarke, a former education secretary, and Linda Woodhead, a sociology professor. As they put it,

We are living through the single biggest change in the religious and cultural landscape in Britain for centuries, even millennia. It is not simply that the number identifying with non-Christian religions has been growing and the number who identify as Christian falling, but that those who say they have “no religion” (but are not necessarily secular) are now the majority. 

Focusing mainly on England (which stands out from other parts of the United Kingdom because it has an established church that oversees thousands of schools), the authors propose that there should be a nationally agreed curriculum of teaching on “religion, beliefs and values”. This would be compulsory for all pupils in state-funded schools. At the moment, religious education is largely determined by local authorities, and parents have the right to withdraw their offspring from religious-education classes. However, the report suggests that schools with a religious character could supplement this core curriculum in line with their own beliefs. The minimum teaching programme would be determined by an advisory council representing a range of religions and belief systems, including humanism.

The National Secular Society (NSS), which campaigns for an end to religious privilege, said that the report contained some steps in the right directions, but that it was still much too deferential to religious communities. The NSS wants a clearer distinction between religious knowledge and confessional instruction.

To put it mildly, this is an area where it is impossible to please everybody. The government was reminded of this after it attempted in recent days to make a Solomonic judgement on the question of admission to faith-based schools. The question of how much religiously inspired schools can favour their own kind when selecting pupils is highly controversial. As of now, there is a cap of 50% on the number of faith-based admissions to so-called free schools: these are establishments set up by parents, teachers and faith groups that answer to the central government rather than local authorities. Theresa May, the prime minister, had pledged in deference to Catholic pressure to remove the cap. But that promised concession has been reversed, and a different one offered instead. The government has promised to encourage the creation of more voluntary-aided schools: this category of school falls under local authorities’ purview, but has the right to allocate 100% of its places on a religious basis. 

England’s Catholic bishops complained that the government was breaking a clear electoral promise, whereas secularists retorted that the government should not fund any form of education in which pupils are chosen according to a religious criterion. The NSS points to opinion polls showing that a huge majority of people oppose the use of religious yardsticks for admitting pupils to taxpayer-funded schools.

In fact, the British public’s attitudes to all matters spiritual are a bit confused, to judge by an opinion poll on a slightly different topic, published this week by Theos, a religious think-tank. Nearly half (47%) the respondents agreed that the world would be a more peaceful place if nobody was religious. But a clear majority (61%) also agreed that “the teachings of religions are essentially peaceful”. Perhaps some education is needed to clarify people’s thinking.

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