Leading Article: A difficult but vital task for teachers

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The Independent Online
RELIGIOUS education is profoundly different from every other subject taught in schools. The difference bedevils all debate but is seldom properly recognised. Yet any grown-up discussion must start from the fact that we teach all other subjects because they are true. We teach religion because it is important.

Neither human history, nor the world today, can be understood without a grasp of the importance of religion. But that fact says nothing about the truth of religious dogmas. You cannot have a civilised society without some of the values that religions transmit. But that does not mean these ideals cannot be transmitted without religion.

Because of this, the teaching of religion in secular schools is uniquely difficult, and demands the highest skills. It is rare enough in the secular school system to find a teacher who understands even Christianity well enough to teach it attractively. That is hardly surprising, considering how hard even professional Christians find it to make their faith comprehensible and attractive.

Yet suppose for a moment that we have a teacher who can do all this, not merely in the staff room but in the classroom, too. Such a paragon will then only have mastered the first and easiest step towards teaching religion in schools. Beyond that, they must enter sympathetically and knowledgeably into three or four more religions which may be as alien to one other as they are to the Christian.

Hindus and Muslims have fought each other for centuries. The British teacher is expected to give a fair account of both faiths to classrooms that contain adherents of both and of neither. In such a position there can be no appeal to truth, as there could be in scientific or historical disputes. It is quite possible that the teacher and most of the class think the whole topic false and ridiculous. Yet the difficulty of the task makes it all the more important.

Living gracefully with uncertainty and learning to recognise the values that can be found only by faith are necessary skills of adulthood. It would be wrong to see the disputes over how much of the curriculum should be occupied by Christianity as 'theological' in the modern sense of 'utterly meaningless'.