E Jane Dickinson: The funfair is no place to teach religion

I can't think of any individual who's ever claimed to be a 'very spiritual person' whom I didn't want to slap
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I've never felt closer to God in a theme park. Unless you count the please-let-this-be-over imprecations muttered through clenched teeth when 90 minutes' queueing is rewarded by 90 seconds' acute misery on your torture engine of choice. So maybe a biblical theme park, like the new creationist funland proposed for the outskirts of Heidelberg, is not such a bad idea.

The £20m enterprise envisaged by the Swiss development company Genesis Land may have had a lukewarm reception from Heidelbergers concerned that it will detract from the area's intellectual heritage, but the theme park, modelled on successful American resorts such as Florida's Holy Land Experience, has the brutal logic of supply and demand.

Where else are you going to catch young souls in a state of mortal terror? And how hard can it be to mock up the riders of the apocalypse with state-of-the-art animatronics? We have the technology. But we have lost the point. Matters of taste aside, "recreational religion" is an ideological own goal, as offensive to believers as it is ridiculous to non-believers. The ineffable cannot easily be packaged into a pay-as-you-go experience.

Heidelberg's "Holy Disneyland" (which, its promoters insist, would not be run for profit) is hardly the first attempt to "make religion fun". God-fearing kids in the US Bible Belt can snack on candy crucifixes or aid digestion with sugar free "testamints". (Each sweetie comes wrapped in a religious text.) Here in Britain we reject such blandishments – mainly as a matter of taste – but are no less concerned to introduce our children to morality in controlled , age-appropriate doses.

In schools where multiculturalism is, rightly, respected, we tend increasingly to bypass religion per se, wary of its yawning doctrinal heffalump traps. Except in church schools, where the affiliation is clearly marked on the gate, religious education has either been replaced in the curriculum or heavily supplemented by a programme of PHSCE (personal health, social and citizen education), under which unwieldy umbrella children are required to learn respect for themselves and others.

It's harder work than the old-style RE mainly because there is no unified, child-friendly narrative to fall back on, though many feel the extra thought involved is its own reward. When moral absolutism is knocked away, teaching right from wrong requires considerable reserves of patience and communication skills

We have all suffered, either as parents or observers, from the jaw-grinding process of explaining to a child, in carefully considered detail, exactly why they should not smack their brother/ skip chores/eat their own weight in refined sugar, when a crisp "Because I say so" would do nicely; multiply that to a class of 30 children, all with their own socio-cultural norm, and you have some idea of what teachers are up against. Perhaps for this reason, many schools, including those which pride themselves on secularism, are now seeking to reintroduce the notion of "spirituality" to the curriculum.

Various programmes, some sponsored by quasi- religious groups such as the Hollywood-based Kabbalah sect, are now seeking to address the spiritual and moral welfare of children in British schools. There is emphasis on old-fashioned Dualism and a lot of business with candles. For me, this where things start to get murky.

We all have our bugbears. I like to think of myself as a tolerant person (nothing unusual there; few, I imagine, like to think of themselves as a raging bigot), but the word "spirituality" brings me out in hives. I have tried my hardest to think of an individual who has ever claimed to be a "very spiritual person" whom I didn't want to slap and I simply can't come up with the goods. So I understand, I really do, when parents with a personal aversion to religion want to keep religion out of education. And, happily, there is no compunction in this country to send your child to any kind of faith school. It's a matter of choice.

My own son and daughter attend state church schools because I'm pleased for them to grow up with a set of stories I personally find congenial, but I wouldn't and couldn't stop them if they struck out on a different path. The schools they attend accept pupils of any faith or none and the religion taught in school hours is both questioning and inclusive. Crucially, I knew what to expect from the religious curriculum when I signed up. Had I chosen a school specifically for its lack of religion and later learned that my children had been instructed to beat down their inner bad guy and "step into the light", I would be deeply disturbed.

This kind of religion-lite is as satisfying as a low-calorie doughnut and about as nourishing for children. At a time when headlines are full of children murdered by children, panic about a generation in moral crisis is understandable. You can, if you wish, take instruction in religion, but it's only half the story. Spirituality or rather conscience (a word I much prefer) cannot be taught in the classroom. It's a constant process of questioning. Knitting your own dogma is not the answer.