Why Philip Pullman wants to teach children about atheism

For the first time, pupils are to be taught about atheism as part of religious studies in a course devised by two of the UK's leading children's writers. Caroline Haydon reports

What are religious studies for? Is it our job to teach children to believe, or to teach them about all beliefs including those that don't involve a god? It may be that not many religious teachers believe the former, but outside the profession passions run high, with everyone holding a particular view depending where they sit on the spectrum of belief or unbelief.

For the past couple of years a remarkably peaceful truce has held as a range of groups from all points on that spectrum signed up to the first national framework for religious education. But as more faith schools open up in the state sector, and arguments over religion and the science curriculum gather pace, will it hold?

Atheists and humanists have not featured prominently in public discussions over the years. Now, however, following the trend for well-known atheists such as Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins to put their cases on television, two authors celebrated for their work for children, Philip Pullman and Michael Rosen, have produced a course on atheism for schools. It is the first time pupils have had a programme to teach them about it.

Called simply Why Atheism?, the DVD for 11-year-olds and older features "disbelieving" students talking openly about the reasons they don't believe in God, and a former Christian, Muslim, Jehovah's Witness and Hindu explaining why they rejected their religion. A Belfast journalist also details life in a community divided by religion, and humanist celebrants are shown conducting funeral, wedding and baby-naming celebrations.

It has caused ripples that betray some deep feelings over the issue of religion in schools, and whether atheism should be taught in religious studies at all.

It's certainly not an acceptable part of religious studies according to the Muslim Council of Britain. Tahir Alam, chair of the Council's education committee, says: "Of course it is indirectly discussed whether God exists or not, and as part of that discussion it's going to come up anyway. But creating space in the curriculum under the heading of atheism is not something we support. It isn't a religion and it shouldn't have that sort of space made for it".

The Muslim Council is a signatory to the framework, the non-statutory National Guidelines for RE produced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It mentions humanism, though not atheism, as a "secular philosophy" recommended for study.

Atheism is a sticking point, too, for the Network Of Sikh Organisations, whose director Dr Indarjit Singh says that RE provides one of the last remaining spaces for religion in an irreligious world, and should be left for those who have a firmly defined belief system. "Atheism is a negation of belief, so can't be taught in the same way as other belief systems", he says. "Humanism varies from individual to individual but is different in that it does define a set of beliefs, and children should be made aware of it in the same way as they should be made aware of other faiths, in order to avoid prejudice".

Atheists, if not humanists, would beg to differ. So are the guidelines a successful attempt to coordinate diametrically opposing points of view, or a cobbled-together treaty that might fall apart under future strain? RE, after all, has an unusual position in our schools. It is compulsory, but not actually part of the national curriculum. Parents are free, under a law dating back to 1870, to withdraw their children from lessons. What is taught is largely locally determined, with no fewer than 151 slightly different syllabuses in operation - hence the need for guidelines. But if it were to become part of the national curriculum, what should it incorporate?

Pullman has been at the centre of this sort of controversy before. The writer's His Dark Materials trilogy, with its dark depictions of Church hierarchies, whipped up a storm in conservative Christian circles. But anyone who saw the stage translation of the books knows his appeal to teenagers.

As the plays progressed, the average age of audiences at the National Theatre crashed to unprecedented levels, with hoodies and trainers replacing Barbours and sensible shoes. Theatregoers were even treated one memorable night to the sight of the Archbishop of Canterbury debating religion with youngsters in the interval.

The Church of England maintains this engagement with atheist dissenters, saying it has no protectionist views and is happy to look at a range of reactions to belief. Famously, the Archbishop of Canterbury engaged in public debate with Pullman about His Dark Materials. A spirit of debate also informs the DVD course, which both authors stress is about argument, not instruction. It features Michael Rosen actively engaged in discussion himself, with Catholic sixth-formers keen to hold their own. It's a debate which is all the more moving because Rosen raises the issue of how to manage crises in your life with or without God, and talks about how he tried to cope with the death of his own 19-year old son, from meningitis. The discussion, he believes, was valuable. "I quite like the idea that we did have common ground - we could agree for instance on ideas like "do as you would be done by", he says. "We could still talk to each other".

Pullman, too, thinks the course is important because of the opportunity it provides to stimulate classroom discussion, but also because it might hone critical faculties in other areas of the curriculum, notably science. With the argument over whether "intelligent design" is in fact creationism in disguise looking set to take off over here as it has in the USA, he sees it as important to "expose all kinds of philosophies and religions to argument, and to young people, and young people to argument."

He says: "What I fear and deplore in the 'faith school' camp is their desire to close argument down and put some things beyond question or debate. It's vital to get clear in young minds what is a faith position and what is not - so that, for instance, they won't be taken in by religious people claiming that science is a faith position no different in kind from Christianity. Science is not a matter of faith, and too many people are being allowed to get away with claiming that it is, and that my 'belief' in evolution is a thing of the same kind as their 'belief' in miracles. What we need in schools, really, is basic philosophy."

RE is not a subject on the decline. Despite Ofsted comments about shortages of specialist teachers, it's been judged to be most successful at post-16 level, with A-level entries up nearly 17 per cent last year, the largest rise of any subject. Not all modules have enjoyed the same rise in popularity, though, according to Lat Blaylock, the editor of REtoday, who says the recent rises at AS and A2 level have been overwhelmingly in the study of philosophy of religion and ethics, rather than religious texts or traditions.

That might explain why one local authority adviser thought Why Atheism? a helpful resource in an area where there are few materials. With a lot more teachers thinking about how they should teach secular life-stances, now that they are mentioned in the guidelines, it will fill a gap.

If attempts are ever made to transform religious education - very much changed from the old religious knowledge or religious instruction - into a national curriculum subject, there should be some very lively discussions indeed.

'Why Atheism?' is produced by Team Video at £44.65 ( www.team-video.co.uk)

What the pupils say...

Religion:

It makes it "them and us", doesn't it? And once you can see yourself as separate from another person it's easier to inflict cruelty on them. Look at the British Empire. It was very much the tribesmen, they had their gods, while we were "civilised Christians". And once you've got that, almost a way of believing that you're better than somebody because you believe in the right god and they believe in the wrong god, it's easier to justify your actions against them.

Often powerful leaders use it as part of their way of getting into government or as a way of fighting their war, saying that you can kill but only for a just cause, and then they make that just cause their cause. So I think a lot of people can use it as a weapon for power and money.

Marriage:

I've always wanted to get married in church because I think the vows are really nice and I believe that marriage should be for life and I like the Christian view on that, so I'd probably get married in a church, but then I'd feel a bit awkward because I know deep down that I don't really believe in God, so I'd have a bit of a dilemma. It would depend what my partner believed. If he wanted to go along with it, fine.

Faith schools:

I think they're a bad idea because they really narrow people's points of view. I think it's better if it's a multi-faith school or a no-faith school where you just learn about other religions and you can do what you want or what you feel is right, while still having the interaction with others who have different views.

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