There's nothing liberal about atheism lessons

It is wrong and offensive to consider atheism as a system of belief, comparable to a religion

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It's a curious fact that, for many years, the only subject which by law had to be taught in British school was religious education. Supposedly, every school was obliged by law to carry out a daily religious assembly. This now seems quite incredible and certainly, by the time I left school in 1983, the obligation was fairly loosely carried out. Nevertheless, it was certainly the case that until the 1980s most schools really did hold daily religious assemblies and every day began with a singing of hymns, accompanied by an unwillingly dragooned music mistress, and the school prayer before all the stuff about I-will-keep-the-whole-school-in-unless...

It's a curious fact that, for many years, the only subject which by law had to be taught in British school was religious education. Supposedly, every school was obliged by law to carry out a daily religious assembly. This now seems quite incredible and certainly, by the time I left school in 1983, the obligation was fairly loosely carried out. Nevertheless, it was certainly the case that until the 1980s most schools really did hold daily religious assemblies and every day began with a singing of hymns, accompanied by an unwillingly dragooned music mistress, and the school prayer before all the stuff about I-will-keep-the-whole-school-in-unless...

It was spectacularly unsuccessful; the first time I ever went to a service in a church, in my mid-teens, I was shocked to hear hymns actually sung loudly rather than mumbled by an indifferent mob. I thought mumbling was what you were supposed to do. But, unsuccessful as that was, it was nowhere near as much of a disaster as formal Religious Education lessons, inflicted on everyone for half an hour once a week.

At my school there was a maths master who had been Washed In the Blood of the Lamb. It said so on his tie. On his car, you were asked on the passenger side, in foot-high letters, if you had been Saved; the driver's side advised you that the Wages of Sin were Death. He was always trying to be allowed to hold an assembly - once, unforgettably, the headmaster gave way, but never again.

Compared to him, the poor old RE teacher was a pallid fretter, universally known as Half-Mast Trousers. Once a term he would delve into the mysteries of Buddhism or Islam for half an hour under the heading World Religions, but for the rest of it, we had the sort of ethical discussions which you got in classes of 14-year-olds in Sheffield in the late 1970s - litter, drugs, VD. Yes, bad things, boys and girls. Anyone want to put the other side of the argument? And from time to time we'd be asked to write down what moral lessons we drew from, say, the parable of the Good Samaritan - a terrific opportunity for flamboyant, blasphemous anticlericalism.

The whole thing was, without any doubt at all, an utter waste of time. Frankly, it is astonishing to learn that the whole racket is still continuing in any guise, let alone that the Government now thinks it worth promoting and reforming. The latest bulletin on the subject comes from Charles Clarke. He has recommended that RE lessons should cover different world religions, which has been going on for years anyway. But the thing which sticks in the throat is that he has indicated that RE lessons should also cover atheism and humanism.

This is presented as a liberal step forward, but I don't think it really is. One of the most offensive and stupid tactics of religious people, engaged in argument, is to claim that views which they don't hold are necessarily only different sorts of faith. Of course, in a very literal sense, this is true, in that one believes the theory of evolution, or gravity, or the theory that the sun goes round the earth to be true. But to compare that to the belief in God and miracles and the Resurrection is simply to play on words. It is like comparing one person's belief that they aren't going to win the lottery on Saturday, not having bought a ticket, with another person's belief that they definitely will. They are both beliefs, but the evidence is rather more on one side.

Atheism has a history, and may be studied from that point of view, preferably in a proper history lesson. But it is just wrong and offensive to consider it as a system of belief, comparable to a religion. "Last week, we did Satanism, boys and girls - yes, well done Chantal for getting the virgin's blood off the lino. This week, we're going to look at what Moses said about not wearing cotton-polyester mix; and next week, we'll be looking at atheism. And I want you all to think about whether we want to believe in Atheism, all right?"

In reality, atheism just means that you don't see the necessity for a deity, and when you look at the world, you think about it on its own terms. Atheism is not a system of belief, but a kind of intellectual freedom. When you look at the fascination and variety of plants and animals, at cloud structures, at the universe, you don't have to struggle to incorporate your belief system, because you don't have one. The world is interesting enough; and atheism is just a simple fact, a lack of a constraint, and not in any real sense a system of belief.

Anyway, I greatly look forward to the Education Secretary' forthcoming recommendations. "I would like to present to the House our proposals for the reform of dentistry schools. As the House knows, it has for many years been compulsory for all dentistry schools to provide one lecture each week on the Tooth Fairy. As we recognise that we live in a multi-cultural society, these lectures should from now on refer to the different forms the Tooth Fairy takes in different cultures, such as La Fée des Dents. And, as we recognise that we live in a modern age, where people may believe in any Tooth Fairy or none, such lectures should also acknowledge the history of non-belief in the Tooth Fairy." (Cries of "Shame" from the Bishops' Bench).

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