Yes, our children should learn about religion

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

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The Independent Online

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.