Christina Patterson: One thing Britain does well is religion

Our state religion has been unobtrusive to the point of anaemic
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The Independent Online

On Monday morning, the man who told the world "we don't do God" talked about the spiritual awakening of one of the characters in his novel.

On Monday afternoon, a man on a panel next to me told a group of undergraduates that children should be educated in the faith environment selected by their parents, because it would be too confusing for them if they weren't. On Monday evening, an American journalist told an audience at the American embassy that she hoped she would never see the day when an atheist was elected to the White House. We can't, it seems, not "do God".

The debut novelist was Alastair Campbell. "Even though I would define myself as an atheist," he told me in an interview for this paper, "I really don't like this anti-faith thing. It tries to bury too much that is real and historic and cultural and there's something a bit fascist about it." I'm an atheist, too, and I agree. Which is why I found myself, a couple of hours later, with a group of Muslim, Jewish and Christian students in the Grand Committee room of the House of Commons.

Set up by an organisation called Three Faiths Forum, the event was part of its ongoing attempt to "build lasting relationships between people of different faiths and beliefs to achieve a society where religious and cultural differences can co-exist through empathy, respect and engagement". The students, some wearing headscarfs, some wearing skull caps, were polite. A young American girl asked about votes on abortion and seemed a bit shocked when Dawn Butler, MP for Brent South, reminded her that MPs were meant to represent the views of their constituents. A young Jewish boy was worried that I took the Hassidic Jewish schools in my area as representative of the Jewish community as a whole.

One of my co-panellists, David Conway, a research fellow at the think tank Civitas, the man who said that it would be too confusing for a five-year-old to turn up at school and find no God, or prophet, or messiah presiding over his maths, said that we should forget integration, and focus on education, ie segregate at five and chuck 'em in the melting pot as adults. And when the lovely moderator, Fiyaz Mughal, an interfaith adviser to the Lib Dems, asked wasn't there a bit of a problem with faith schools presenting their own faith as superior to others', Conway said airily that "they wouldn't be doing their job if they didn't".

Engagement? Yes. Empathy? We tried. Respect? Well, that's the tricky bit. Even trickier that evening when, at a discussion on "the hot issues that will swing the electorate", the American political commentator Andrea Tantaros, who recently wrote a column complaining that a picture of Sarah Palin hadn't been airbrushed, turned her gimlet gaze on me as I ventured a question about religious faith and American politics. After berating me for my insufficiently respectful allusions to the religious right, she declared that religion was at the heart of America and should remain at the heart of the White House. Her religion, of course.

Oh for the days when the church clock stood at 10 to three, and there was honey still for tea, the days when some people went to church and some people didn't, but nobody ever, ever talked about it. Boring? Perhaps. Better? Probably not, but it was certainly less complicated. Actually, if there's one thing the Brits have done rather well, it's surely religion. We've kept it out of politics, and public life. Our state religion has, for the most part, been unobtrusive to the point of anaemic, and when other religions have come along, we've been relatively unfazed. You build your super-church/synagogue/mosque/temple, worship as you like, pray as you like, wear what you like. That's all fine by us.

And so it was that, in order to keep the nice CofE primary school going, the Government had to allow another one down the road that taught children that the world was created in a week and another one that taught children that the infidel was corrupt. And so it was that children grew up believing that some novels, and plays and (this week) paintings were an attack on their faith, which must be punished.

In all this talk of Britishness, can't we reclaim one British value and enshrine it? The belief that religion is essentially private? Can't we give our children an education that teaches them – properly, in depth – about all the world's religions, without attempting to sign them up to one? Can't we teach them that religion is a matter of conscience – theirs and not their parents' – and that in a civilised society people of all faiths and none have to learn, have to really learn, to live together?

"I don't do God," said Alastair Campbell, "but I do not lack respect for people who do." Amen to that. Respect, by the way, is not how you feel. It's how you behave.