Faith and Reason: Church, State and tolerance: This week John Webster argues against attempts to force English schools to teach Christianity as true. Instead, he says, we should take the Indian system as our model.

In attempting To enforce the provisions of the 1944 Education Act relating to religious worship in schools, John Patten has made a crude intervention in the debate on religious education today; I somehow doubt that it will be the last word.

British society has moved a long way since Henry VIII's marital problems provoked the division from Rome, and the British sovereign became head of the Church of England. The identification of Church with State has gradually loosened, and as Britain has evolved into the social democracy of today, the power of the Church of England to monopolise belief - and enforce it by law - has ended. Britain has become a largely secular society in which different religious minorities make varying demands.

While this is relatively new for us it has long been a fact of life in India, which set itself up at Independence as a nation in which different religions could co-exist under the umbrella of a secular state. It rejected the option of the theocratic state: India's constitution, drafted by Dr Ambedkar, the 'Untouchable' turned Buddhist, laid down 'a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic' with 'liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship'. So how do they handle their variety of beliefs? Does the Indian experience have anything to teach us?

India of course, has an immense stake in creating a state which can achieve unity in diversity. It is like the whole of Europe - with all its differences of language and culture - become one country. The difficulties of division that arise are almost invariably political in origin, but they often split on religious fault-lines. Hindus and Muslims lived together in the Punjab quite amicably until Partition: it was a political issue that provoked the bloodshed at Independence.

So part of the thrust behind Indian education is to produce a spirit of unity amongst its variety of peoples. All religions are free to open their own schools, though there is an element of government intervention to ensure fair play for the disadvantaged 'scheduled classes'. A Christian Medical College will have the majority of its candidates drawn from church nominees, but there will also be 'open candidates' resulting from government decree.

A friend recalls an upbringing in Kerala that was both enriching and harmonious. In her 'Hindu Mission' school the day would begin with an assembly at which hymns in Sanskrit and the local dialect would be sung. There would also be a song of national unity in the national language, Hindi. At the end of the day, before dispersal, the children would all sing the national anthem, which again stressed the unity of the peoples of India - the 'land of temples and of mosques'.

What might seem extraordinary to us was that children from different religious backgrounds also attended and joined in the hymns, and throughout the year the school celebrated the festival days of each major religion - Sikh, Jain, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu. So schoolchildren are brought up in a more syncretist tradition than here - which also manifests itself in adult attitudes. Many people think nothing of dropping into a shrine of a different religion to pay their respects, while a typical teashop in Madras will display a variety of religious icons: Gandhi, Jesus, and Shiva. They were not competitors. They complemented each other.

One Christmas I spent in India the President, a Hindu, visited a church in Delhi to pay his respects, and commented on 'the compassion of Jesus'; on Hindu festival days Hindus will often bring presents of sweets or other delicacies to a neighbour of a different faith. This admirable tolerance still exists despite the rise of fundamentalism since the early 1980s; it is tested but it survives.

So the principles behind education in India seem to be, first, to recognise and encourage national aspirations and, secondly, to encourage a spirit of unity amongst different faiths and peoples. What should our principles be?

To arrive at a society where: 'the Mohametan, the Jew, the Christian, the Deist and the atheist will live together in one community, equally sharing the benefits which arise from its association, and united in the bonds of charity and brotherly love'.

To ensure that there is equality of treatment for all religions. 'The government of a country ought to be perfectly indifferent to every opinion. Religious differences, the bloodiest and most rancorous of all, spring from partiality.'

Such clear principles, put forward by the poet Shelley in the early 19th century, and anticipating JS Mill, are still useful despite the passage of time.

There are the obvious dangers: religions have a negative as well as a positive side, and children can become pawns in the political/

religious machinations of others.

There are difficult puzzles to solve, such as the clash of principle on the status of women, which arise when some Islamic groups claim the right to give Muslim girls an education which many would regard as a preparation for a lifetime of subservience. Are their claims that this is validated by their culture genuine, or is this just another patriarchy with authoritarian designs, which has to be resisted in the name of human potential?

When Islamic and Western cultures clash it may be helpful to look to times when Muslim and European societies lived together relatively tolerantly and fruitfully, as in Cordoba during the period of Moorish rule in Spain.

Then there is the fundamental question - is it right for any child to be brought up in any single system of belief before his or her mind has developed to be able to make a judgement on what is being offered? Why should not specific religious teaching be replaced, as often happens in India, by the teaching of 'moral science' - a neutral ethical learning programme which does not tread on anyone's toes?

All in all the whole issue needs to be addressed with a far greater sensitivity than John Patten and his advisers have displayed so far. To lay down a blanket injunction is not exactly helpful; it overrides local needs and perceptions.

And on the journey towards accommodating the different faiths in our society it will be helpful to remember India's syncretist spirit - perhaps even as a goal to aim for. It might seem odd to have to campaign for something as intangible as that, but it may be exactly what we need.

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