The effect of the guidelines, it was claimed, would be to set one faith against another. John Naylor, secretary of the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education, said: 'The Muslims will never accept it. I may be pitching it strongly, but with these syllabuses we may be starting a new crusade.'
But how much impression does religious education make? What do British people really know about religion? Many would say it was a Christian country, but can they remember their Bible stories? And what about other religions?
We conducted a modest survey, putting the 20 questions listed above to 41 people in four different categories: pupils aged 10 and 11 from Northside, a multi-cultural state school in north London; students aged 16 and 17 from Woodhouse Sixth Form College (also state-run); undergraduates and postgraduates (21-26) at City University, London, and a random selection of people from the professional classes (22-49).
Their answers yielded varying degrees of ignorance or misunderstanding. Average scores were 2.4 (out of 20 questions) for the youngest group; 7.2 for the sixth-formers; 8.8 for the university students and 13.8 for the professionals.
While six out of seven of those interviewed knew who killed Goliath, fewer than half were able to quote five of the Ten Commandments. Only half could respond correctly to all the Christian questions, and only a quarter could answer all the questions on non-Christian religions.
All the professionals knew that God made the world in six days, but only a third of university students seemed aware of this. Three-fifths of sixth- formers got it right, while only one of 10 younger pupils answered correctly. Whereas this group was strongest on Bible stories (David and Daniel); the sixth-formers scored highest on the Commandments.
The primary school children had trouble with many of the questions: one wrote that 'God' betrayed Jesus; another that it took God 365 days to create the earth. Few knew that Hinduism was the oldest religion and Sikhism the youngest. Sixth-formers were the most ignorant about other faiths, even though half of them had a GCSE in religion.
We also asked people about their experience of religious education and their views on how it should be conducted.
All had had some form of Christian teaching, but only the younger pupils had been taught the basics of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. However, there was evidence that adults with a traditional Christian education made up for this by dipping into 'alternative' religions for one reason or another.
Unlike sixth-formers, most of whom believed that social issues such as abortion, war and euthanasia should be discussed within a religious context, university students thought religious studies should be as 'rigorously academic' and objective as philosophy or history. The primary school children displayed an impressively sophisticated 'all-round' understanding (Northside school makes a point of celebrating all the religions particularly at festival time).
The 'adults' agreed that Christian teachings provided a useful set of morals, but there was some argument as to whether using the Bible as a 'source' was a 'cop-out'. It was 'too convenient' to teach ethics using the Bible, said a father. Besides, there was a danger in 'reading too far' into the Biblical teachings. Fundamentalism was not to be encouraged in a 'religion-tolerant' society. One man said he would never refer to the Bible for his code of ethics. If he ever had children, he would not let them near this 'terrifying' book. Far from being a book of 'wisdom' it was a book of 'barbarianisms', he said.
For a nation whose monarch is head of the established Christian Church, and whose citizens are often criticised for xenophobia, the responses suggested a surprising degree of tolerance. While most wanted religious education taught compulsorily in schools, they disagreed with the suggestion that Christianity should dominate the curriculum.
This is in sharp contrast to the view that would have prevailed 50 years ago, when religious education, the only subject prescribed by law, was known as 'religious instruction'. The explicit aim of the lessons, and of the daily acts of worship that the 1944 Education Act also required, was to help bring up children in the Christian faith. The Churches helped to draw up syllabuses in each local authority area, though these were frequently ignored. Parents always had the right to withdraw their children from the lessons or assemblies.
Since then, the purpose of RE has been through various re-interpretations. One view was that the lessons should be about moral and social behaviour generally; another that they should provide a sort of Cook's tour of world religions; yet another that they should introduce children to the 'spiritual' side of life without pushing the merits of any particular belief. A further view is that religion is important mainly for its historical, political and cultural influences - some schools, therefore, merged RE into general humanities lessons.
Within the last 20 years, almost everybody has agreed that the number of children of Asian origin in British schools requires some attention to be paid to their faiths. Beyond that, the teaching profession is confused and uneasy. In some state-maintained schools today, 'religious' assembly may mean a multi-faith discussion without prayer, or a studied attempt to ignore the subject altogether. One London RE adviser stated a preference for the ANC 'Freedom Song' to a hymn. Many head teachers recently have warned against mixing religious education with moral education. Others want a return to 'basics,' associating these with Christianity.
Our survey suggests that knowledge of Christianity is weak but that the trend to 'multi-faith' teaching is not to blame: knowledge of other faiths is weaker still. In any case, knowledge, teachers will say, is not the same as understanding. The results may have more to do with the reduced emphasis on learning facts in schooling generally than with reduced emphasis on RE.
Last week's publication of national syllabuses is an attempt to reduce the confusion. But a solution with which everyone is comfortable will be hard to achieve.
Luci Norton, of Wakefield, is one of the optimists. She and her husband, Christopher, removed their five-year-old daughter from a school in 1991 because the school's act of worship was multi-faith. The child was sent to a Church of England instead. Her parents have no complaints.
Mrs Norton, 40, said the new syllabuses might rectify a situation where 'the Christian festivals are neglected in favour of Muslim festivals', and 'children are not taught morals any more'. She said: 'I know how I was brought up and I'd like to think I was fetching my children up the same. I don't think it's my generation that's gone wrong. It's the generation just starting to have children now that's slipping. I hope these new guidelines improve matters.'
The 'de-Christianisation' of religious education appals some teachers. Six years ago, the Educational Research Trust published The Crisis in Religious Education, concluding that Christianity in RE classes was being submerged by the rise in the study of world faiths, comparative religion and 'militant atheism'. The debate has intensified ever since, fuelled in part by Muslim demands for state funding for exclusively Islamic schools.
In 1992, Social and Community Planning Research surveyed 2,400 Christian parents, discovering that three in five wanted their children to take part in school prayers. Negative motives are not ruled out - 'not so much devotion for Christian teaching as a reaction against non-Christian influences', said one teacher last week. Mrs Norton is well aware of this. 'A lot of people said we were racists, but it had nothing to do with that.'
John Andrews, general secretary of the Derby-based Professional Association of Teachers, says he is all for 'flexibility', but thinks schools should 'take account of the fact that we are a fundamentally Christian country'.
Some adults hold religion to be fundamentally essential to human welfare; something which, in its Christian form, enhances a pupil's understanding of British history. But defining religion for the classroom is a puzzle. Is it, as Kant said, a recognition of God's commands? Or 'the performance of Church ceremonies and preaching of soporific truths (or untruths) to keep the mob quietly at work while we amuse ourselves'? (Ruskin) Or poetry mistaking itself for science? (Santayana).
In practical terms, the Government hails religion as a barrier against moral corruption and intolerable anarchy. Can the barrier be erected by RE alone? 'One has to be in favour of the overall objective of wanting to make sure we bring our youngsters up with moral awareness,' Mr Andrews said. 'But one can't say that only education can put the problem right.'
Additional reporting by Lorien Haynes and Cal McCrystal
Twenty questions designed to answer one big question: how ignorant about religion is modern Britain?
1. Who killed Goliath?
2. What happened on the road to Damascus?
3. Who went into the lion's den?
4. Who was turned into a pillar of salt?
5. Who was the father of Cain and Abel?
6. What feast was prepared for the prodigal son?
7. Name the first and last books of the Bible
8. Name five of the ten commandments
9. Who betrayed Christ?
10. Who gave the sermon on the mount?
11. Complete the following: 'Blessed are the meek for . . . '
12. Where was water turned into wine?
13. In how many days was the earth created?
14. Who was the founder if Islam?
15. Which is Islam's holiest city?
16. Which is the holy book of the Sikh faith
17. Name three Hindu deities
18. Where was Buddah born?
19. The laws of which religion are set out in the Talmud?
20. Which is the oldest of these beliefs: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism? and which the newest?
Answers to the questions:
1. David; 2. God spoke to Saul, or Paul, leading to his conversion; 3. Daniel; 4. Lot's wife; 5. Adam; 6. A fatted calf; 7. Genesis and Revelations; 8. Look them up; 9. Judas Iscariot; 10. Christ; 11. ' . . they shall inherit the earth'; 12. Cana; 13. Six; 14. Mohamed; 15. Mecca; 16. The Guru Granth; 17. Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna (for more, look them up); 18. India; 19. Judaism; 20. Hinduism is the oldest (at least 10th century BC), and Sikhism the newest (15th century AD).