FAITH AND REASON:When it is difficult to know where to stop

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The Independent Online
The Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, is one of the most thoughtful and fluent defenders of the privileges which establishment confers on the Church of England; and, through it, on Christianity generally. So when he seems ready to abandon a pr ivilegeit is a good sign that it has become indefensible. His remarks earlier this week about acts of worship in schools are a graceful acknowledgement of reality.

Religions claim to expound truth in their teachings, and to display it in the lives of their adherents. Neither cause is advanced by compulsory religious services when both those leading them and those attending are too thoroughly secular for their observances even to rise to the level of hypocrisy.

It may be the duty of schools to impart some kind of familiarity with religious beliefs. But this is best done indirectly, as the Archbishop also pointed out. I spent, or served, some time in a notably religious public school, where chapel each Sunday was compulsory. I gained from it a rich and keen appreciation of the scene at the end of If where three boys with a machine-gun massacre the rest of the school and the parents on the chapel steps. Conversely, the Dragon School in Oxford used to have assemblies almost devoid of religious exhortation (Leonard Cheshire did exhort us a bit, but we would have taken anything from a man who had killed so many Germans). Yet they were full of singing. The full-blooded orthodoxy of Victorian hymns and carols slipped into my bloodstream. They even, one year, had a "beat group" of Christians with electric instruments. Halfway through their performance I underwent a sort of conversion experience and have ever since been fanatical about electric guitars.

The point is that religion must be introduced to children as a set of emotions and habits, whose philosophical underpinnings may only become explicit much later. Compulsory assemblies inflicted on schools against their wishes and better judgement are hardly likely to have any good effect.

This has been obvious, of course, for many years. Dr Habgood is intervening in an old quarrel between different sorts of Christians; and it is easy to suppose that his opponents, among them, apparently, the Archbishop of Canterbury, are simply blinded bytheir own self-importance.

Alas, the matter is not quite so simple. The difficulty with abandoning fixed positions too late is that a retreat then all too easily turns into a rout, which is when the real casualties occur. The pretensions expressed by the establishment of the Church of England are now so far removed from the reality of this post-Christian country that any step towards reality is fraught with the kind of dangers that attend a fisherman who has waded too deep into a fast- flowing river. It is not until he tries to regain the shore that the real difficulties begin.

When a bishop talks common sense it has a certain news value. But in the long run, if all bishops talked common sense, we would ask what was the point of having such exotic creatures to perform such a commonplace function. However, that may seem a distant danger. The more urgent problem is that, once you start unpicking the place of religion in schools, it is very difficult to know where to stop. Religious education has a unique place in the school syllabus. All other subjects are taught because they are true. The maths teacher does not offer his pupils "2+2=4" as a faith stance, something to be accepted or rejected as they see best. The geography teacher does not say "The French believe that Paris is the capital of France." He says "Paris is the capital of France", because it is.

Religion, on the other hand, is taught not because it is true, but because it is widely believed. Some of the best arguments for teaching religion in state schools take for granted that it is untrue: that religions are, in John Bowker's phrase, "licensedinsanities", which we must understand if we are to make sense of the ways that humanity has wrecked itself.

Religious education, in this perspective, becomes a branch of sociology, of history, or of anthropology. These are all admirable and important subjects, but their study does not have the good effects that are generally, if vaguely, expected from religious observance.

Yet even to talk about religion from the outside like this is to betray it by translation: believers are not "religious"; they are Christians, or Muslims, or Sikhs, and those who disagree with them are not so much different as wrong. The Church of England, historically, owes its position and its power to a willingness to suppress other beliefs. It may well be better Christianity, as well as better manners, to rely on persuasion rather than force, as the Archbishop would have us do. But a church which has wholly abandoned the use of hypocrisy may not be long for this world.