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Time to Rethink Religious Education?
Derek Gillard
September 2000

copyright Derek Gillard 2001
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The 1944 Education Act made religious education a legal requirement in all schools in the United Kingdom. As students get down to work for the autumn term, it is perhaps worth asking the question, What exactly is the purpose of religious education as it is currently taught? Two commonly held views deserve exploration.

Good and evil

First, RE has traditionally been seen as a vehicle for teaching children about questions of good and evil, right and wrong. But is religion good and right? Consider some recent events.

A Muslim fundamentalist, speaking in 1998 on Radio 4, explained that the deaths of innocent people in terrorist bombings in Africa were justified because Mohammed would have approved of the fight against the enemies of Islam. I wanted to ask him to explain this - face to face - to the two children who were brought to London after the bombings, one to have an operation which, it was hoped, would save his sight, and the other, a three-year-old, to have shrapnel removed from his kidneys.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban execute academics and enforce bizarre rules and regulations which require women to be punished for showing almost any part of their bodies and men for not having the required length of beard.

Pakistan's Islamic hardliners seek to prevent children learning about science and computing.

A Turkish Muslim handbook says that men may beat their wives.

Christianity is no better. Consider the churches' attitude to gay people. The Anglican Communion's bishops, following shady deals between American fundamentalists and representatives from Third World countries, agreed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference to uphold 'the Biblical teaching on homosexuality'. By which they mean a couple of verses from Leviticus and one or two more from St Paul. If those verses from Leviticus are so important, why isn't the rest of the book? Why aren't the Bishops insisting that lambs should be sacrificed on the altar in St Paul's? Full instructions are contained in Leviticus.

The Roman Catholic Church is even worse. The Pontifical Council for the Family suggests that homosexuals 'can benefit positively from appropriate therapy' and goes on to advise parents to watch their children for signs of homosexual tendencies and to get professional help immediately. Father Bernard Lynch, a gay American priest, says, 'The first thing the Church teaches gay men is to hate themselves.' So much so, in fact, that in January 1998 Alfredo Ormando set fire to himself and died in St Peter's Square.

The hypocrisy of the Catholic Church on this issue is grotesque - a recent report by an American Catholic suggests that a majority of its priests in the States are gay. But then homosexuality isn't the only issue on which the Catholic Church is hypocritical. It preaches sexual morality to its followers while protecting its child-abusing priests from the law. It continues to insist that contraception is evil, thus ensuring the continuing poverty of much of the Third World and the rapid spread of AIDS in parts of Africa.

Why do we allow certain practices to continue because they're religious rituals, when they'd be banned if they weren't? Take circumcision, for example. Fine if it's done for sound medical reasons in appropriately hygienic surroundings by a trained professional. But a Channel Four programme a couple of years ago showed how it's done ritually. It isn't nice. Ask my sister (who's an operating theatre nurse) how many babies end up in hospital each year with deformed genitalia as a result of ritual circumcisions that went wrong. This is obscene - if it wasn't a religious ritual these people would be prosecuted for child abuse. Then there's halal meat - again, a practice which would be illegal if it wasn't for our political - or perhaps I should say, religious - correctness.

And what about the Sunday-school teachers who upset the children in their care by telling them that Princess Diana had gone to hell because of her marital unfaithfulness? Have they read the New Testament? Do they know what Jesus said about not judging others? About hurting children? What sort of sad, distorted world do these people inhabit? And why on earth do parents allow their children to be polluted by such rubbish?

So, as a vehicle for teaching children about right and wrong, good and evil, religious education has much to offer - but not in the way it is currently taught. Shouldn't we be giving children the whole picture - that religion is a cause of evil as well as good?

Tolerance and respect

The other commonly held view is that, in a multicultural society, religious education can help children to develop tolerance and respect for other people's beliefs and practices. The problem here is that the major world faiths don't seem to have much respect for each other. Again, consider some recent events.

A couple of years ago, there was an unholy row between Polish Catholics and Jews. The Catholics were protesting about the proposed removal of crosses they'd erected outside Auschwitz - one was even threatening to burn himself alive. Given the history of Auschwitz, it seems to me extraordinarily insensitive, to say the least, to choose to erect Christian crosses there. But then there's no love lost between Catholics and Jews.

Come to think of it, there's little love lost between the followers of just about any two religions you care to mention. In the past year alone there has been violence between religious groups in Indonesia, India, Nigeria, Lebanon, the Philippines ...

Jews and Palestinians (the latter mostly Muslim or Christian) are still arguing about land. This one's been going on for four thousand years, ever since Abraham believed that God was doing a land deal with him - if he kept God's laws, he could have Palestine. Never mind that there were already people living there - kill them, chuck them out, take their homes, rape their women. (No, I'm not making it up - read the account of the storming of Jericho in Joshua 2ff, or the taking of Ai in Joshua 8:25). Actually, much of the Old Testament is taken up with such brutalities. What a bizarre notion, that God would give a particular piece of land to a particular group of human beings. And what pain and suffering that notion has cost over the centuries - and is still costing today.

To cap it all, the Roman Catholic Church has just announced that all other faiths are flawed and inferior. So much for tolerance and respect.

The problem with religion is that it encourages you to believe that your truth is better than theirs. This leads to exclusion and so, inevitably, to conflict. St Paul wrote, 'Do not unite yourselves with unbelievers' (2 Corinthians 6:14) and, 'If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be outcast' (1 Corinthians 16:22). But then Paul wrote an awful lot of rubbish.

There is, surely, something incongruous about trying to teach children respect for organisations which, given half a chance, deny it to everyone else. Why, for example, should a gay man fight for the rights of religious groups who, at the first opportunity, will deny him his?

So the proposition that religious education is a vehicle for teaching children tolerance and respect is problematical, to say the least.

Education and religion

But isn't there an even bigger problem? Isn't the very term 'religious education' a contradiction? Isn't education about learning to ask questions and think for oneself? Aren't religions about accepting what has been divinely revealed or decided by religious authorities?

If we want our children to think rationally, why do we teach them religious nonsense? And there is plenty of nonsense - remember the Muslim holy tomato of Huddersfield? Hindu statues drinking milk? Catholic statues of Mary weeping oil? Californian tortillas showing Christ's head? Then there are the cults - Scientology, whose members seem to be required to believe twenty bizarre impossibilities before breakfast every day; Jehovah's Witnesses, an organisation founded by a conman; and on and on ...

And what about miracles? A recent Channel Four programme showed how the Roman Catholic Church is busy creating new 'saints' around the world - mostly in countries the Pope is about to visit or where membership is falling - based on so-called miracles. I was reminded of the occasion when I attended a service a few years ago at St Aldate's Church in Oxford - the home of happy-clappy, huggy-feely Christianity in the city. The vicar preached a sermon in which he sought to 'prove' that miracles still happen. Miracles, it seems, are the direct intervention of God in human affairs. I wanted to ask him, 'How do you explain, then, why God intervenes in particular cases and miraculously cures particular individuals, while he goes on allowing millions of children to starve and die around the world?' Not the sort of God I'd be interested in. Miracles simply don't make sense. God does not intervene in human affairs. He doesn't cure the sick or feed the hungry. He expects us to do it. Christ has no hands but ours. So often, religion seems to be an excuse for humans not to do the right thing.

The idea that God will look after us is a powerful concept in Christianity. Jesus himself said, 'You are not to set your mind on food or drink; you are not to worry ... you have a Father who knows that you need them' (Luke 12:29-30). St Paul wrote that 'there is nothing in death or life ... that can separate us from the love of God' (Romans 8:38-39). And hymn-writers maintain the theme: 'Daily doth th'almighty giver Bounteous gifts on us bestow' (Robert Bridges). Try telling that to the dying children in Sudan. What arrogance to assume that God will see we're all right, while he ignores the desperate plight of so many others.

But perhaps the most worrying aspect of religion today is the rise of fundamentalism. In Christianity the evangelicals are in the ascendant, so we see apparently intelligent people claiming that the Genesis account of creation, the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Christ are all literal truths. In some American states they've even banned the teaching of evolution. Have the creationists never heard of allegory? God gave us our brains: presumably he intended us to use them.

Most religions are based on sacred texts. For fundamentalists in particular, these are divinely-inspired works which state absolute truths. Well, I've read the whole Bible, cover to cover, including the Apocrypha, and the whole Qu'ran (at least, an English translation of it). I wasn't impressed by either. I don't regard them as sacred, whatever that means. They're the products of human beings. Flawed human beings like me. They're interesting in a historical sense. But they contain much to be ashamed of - massacres of innocent children in the name of God, for example - and many rules based on a primitive understanding of the world and humanity. They are no more important than any other piece of writing in which people have attempted to answer fundamental questions about human existence. A good novel would be a better read.

Fundamentalism is diametrically opposed to education. Fundamentalists are certain they know the answers and are determined to force those answers on the rest of us. For me, being human is about learning to live with the questions.

So, should we teach religious education at all? If so, what should be its purpose? Should it be a means of ensuring that today's children are made aware of the evils of religion? Before it's too late?

I don't have the answers. I only ask the questions.