Leading Article: The revival of religious education

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE ANNOUNCEMENT this week of plans to revive religious education in schools could be a turning point in the spiritual life of this country. It could eventually help to slow a decline in religious observance that has lasted for decades. Within 20 years, people may once again be knowledgeable about religion. Religious practice might even begin to increase. But if it does there may also be a historic breakdown in lifetime loyalties to particular beliefs.

Today Christian denominations, in particular, are in crisis. Witness this week's Templeman report suggesting that 14 of the City of London's churches should be mothballed. Most children rarely have a serious encounter with religion: only one in seven attends church services. Their parents have either lapsed or are themselves ignorant, so blocking the passage of religious knowledge between generations. The parlous state of RE mirrors society's gradual forgetting of religion. Poorly qualified teachers struggle with inadequate guidance and school indifference to deliver lessons of a standard that would be intolerable in any other subject.

Yet opinion polls show that most parents want their offspring to understand what they themselves can no longer articulate. For many, schools may be the only way to keep this knowledge alive. This week's initiative is tacit recognition that if RE is not improved, many children will grow up blind to a dimension that has for centuries been a part of daily life, preoccupying and inspiring human society.

Paradoxically, the classroom salvation of mass religion may dramatically alter its practice. In keeping with Britain's multi- faith and partly agnostic culture, the new RE curriculum will explain many beliefs: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. Thus, most children will have a very different first experience of organised religion than was once the case. In the past the initial and formative encounter was in the home and just one faith was embraced as the revelation of absolute theological truth.

RE, if well taught, is a quite different childhood experience. It is not evangelistic and so does not attach superior qualities to any particular creed. Children are likely to discover the resemblances between, rather than the uniqueness of, various beliefs. As a result, as adults they may be far more willing to move between various religions to find what suits them best. Multi-faith education, though designed to encourage mutual religious tolerance, may inadvertently create a society of fickle faithful.

The minority of children who now come to school ready-armed with their familial faith are a different matter. They will probably not be swayed by classroom representations of other creeds. The exposure of Muslims and Jews to Christianity has not, for example, traditionally led to their conversion. So there is no reason to think that multi-faith education will change those already committed.

But it may be important to others who as adults will lapse from the religious allegiance of their families. The trend has been for them to abandon religion altogether or to attend very infrequently. The country is awash with former Roman Catholics and Anglicans who know what they dislike but have little knowledge of what they might be attracted to.

To these lapsed adults of the future the experience of a multi-faith education might prove invaluable. Instead of slipping out quietly into secularism, which may be equally unsatisfying, they should have enough understanding from school to investigate alternatives.

These scenarios are inevitably speculative. It may be that religious education will continue to leave pupils cold. But if it does spark young people, Britain's many religions and spiritual groups may enjoy a revival. The price of such resuscitation will be a vigorous battle for souls.

These faiths may find themselves competing with one another and not just with the cathedrals of consumerism for customers on the Sabbath.