Children should learn about atheism in religious education lessons as part of moves to make the subject more relevant to the modern world, according to a report from a think-tank with close ties to New Labour.
Indeed, the subject's name should be changed from religious education to religious, philosophical and moral education, says the study published this week by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).
Guidelines for schools on how to teach the beliefs of atheists, agnostics and humanists are being drawn up by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which is also working on the first national framework for RE with the Department for Education and Skills.
The IPPR report warns that the current "pro-religious" and "anti-science" bias of many RE lessons urgently needs to be addressed, and that since the vast majority of people do not attend a weekly religious service it makes little sense to teach children only about religious beliefs.
In 1980, only 19 per cent of the adult population belonged to a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. By 1990 the figure had fallen to 17.5 per cent and in 1999 only 7 per cent of British people were attending a weekly religious service.
Schools must provide RE for all pupils and it is the only compulsory subject not presently covered by the national curriculum.
Ben Rogers of the IPPR, argued that the subject should not be scrapped, just brought up to date. "Now that only 7 per cent of Britons attend a weekly religious service, many are arguing for the abolition of RE as a compulsory subject. We disagree," he said. "RE has an important place in the curriculum but only if it is brought up to date.
"Dropping religion from the syllabus, or banning the expression of religious beliefs from schools, as in France, won't make religious strife go away. If anything it will exacerbate it. But," he explained, "religious education too often has a pro-religious and in some cases anti-science bias. Young people are becoming more reflective and inquiring; philosophy is one of the fastest growing school subjects. RE should equip them to explore and assess religious and non-religious belief systems, encouraging habits of critical reflection and reasoned argument."