Yes, our children should learn about religion

I skipped RE at school, but wouldn't want the same for my daughter


Looking through some old family photographs the other day, my three-year-old daughter pointed to a picture of a young army medic, pictured somewhere in wartime northern France. “Who’s that?” she asked. “That’s your grandfather,” I said. “Where is he now?” Without even thinking, I replied, “He’s in Heaven.”

Thankfully, my daughter didn’t continue her questioning, because I wouldn’t have known  what to say next. I’m not sure I believe in God, let alone Heaven. I don’t want to explain the concept of death to my child, just yet – she’s too young. But, more pertinently, is she old enough to learn about religion?

The Religious Education Council for England and Wales, an umbrella organisation for 60 groups from a range of faiths, wants children to start to learn about religion from the age of four. For my daughter, that would be in the next year. Along with learning to write her own name, her reception year would involve lessons in belief as well as trips to different churches, mosques and synagogues. At an older age, children should be debating the core issues such as “Does God exist” and “Where did the universe come from”.

The council is concerned that religious education is under threat – and it seems its concerns are well-founded. Last week, Ofsted published a report showing that less than half of schools in England do enough good teaching of RE. At the weekend, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, told The Independent that Britons have such “poor religious literacy” that today’s younger generation would not understand the Biblical references and jokes in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The Religious Education Council recently launched a new campaign, ReThink RE, to try to give the subject more relevance to today’s younger generation. The council wants to “see every young person in every school given access to good quality RE – and we are urging those responsible to rethink their approach to RE”.

Despite an apparent crisis in religious education, it is not reflected in participation in religion more widely. Church of England attendances, after reaching a low in 2011, are starting to stabilise. Islam and Judaism are hardly religions in decline. So, no need to panic just yet? But then for those of us who are either atheist or, like me, agnostic, the question is, should we be opposed to any new attempt to push religion on to the very young?

A bit like my belief, or non-belief, in God, I have an agnostic view on RE. My own experience was particularly black and white: at my secular primary school, my rampantly atheist parents (who were also English teachers) were aghast at the way assemblies were given a staunchly religious flavour under one particular head teacher. By the time I got to secondary school, again a secular state institution, in the mid-1980s, my parents were so against my learning about Christianity for an hour and 10 minutes every Monday afternoon that I was sent to school with a note exempting me from RE. To them, religious education should have been about all faiths and none, not just Christianity. My school did not welcome this parental ban, so I spent Monday afternoons on the “naughty bench” outside the headmaster’s office, with two or three of the most badly-behaved pupils in the school. That 70 minutes a week was educational, in one way.

At the time, it felt like heroic atheist defiance of the Establishment. A couple of years after our protest, the 1988 national curriculum ruled that schools should start teaching about all faiths, and I was allowed off the naughty bench and back into the classroom. Looking back, and as a parent myself, I realise I missed out. I know barely anything about the Bible, beyond the stories of Christmas and Easter that we agnostics who hedge our bets like to enjoy.

But I do believe in something, and it is this: that it is better to teach children everything so that they are better informed to accept or reject it. That is better than ignorance. The crucial thing is to make clear the distinction between science and faith, fact and belief. If the Religious Education Council really wants pupils to debate where the universe comes from, this must not be Creationism by the back door. Even free schools, which Michael Gove has allowed to roam far beyond the core curriculum, are required to teach the theory of evolution, and Creationist free schools are prohibited. Teaching is, as ever, key to this issue: RE must be about education, not doctrination.

Should RE start at aged four? Well, I will be relaxed about my daughter taking part in her school’s Nativity play. I want her to learn why one of her pre-school teachers wears a headscarf, why another friend’s father wears a Jewish kippah when he picks up his son. Because while God may not exist for us, it exists for others. I do not want her to be told, in absolute terms, that there is a Heaven, but she should keep an open mind as she grows up. So I have already failed at the first question. Next time, I will have a better answer.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent