Why not privatise religion instead?

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CONSERVATIVES are completely confused about the meaning of the words public and private. Take the post office. It is obviously a public service. The idea that this public boon should be picked to pieces is obnoxious to reason. But there it is. There stands the post office, like a final ninepin to be knocked over. And here is a government with time still on its hands. The temptation to knock over the ninepin is too great to resist.

Or take religion. Religion is obviously a private matter, private in the sense that conscience is private. We hate to interfere in someone's religion as we hate to interfere with a conscience. And we hate a religion that interferes with us. A religion should be based on a voluntary association of like-minded people.

Many religions require elaborate and protracted initiations - they require a form of education. And it seems perfectly clear and appropriate that these educations should be a private matter. The state has no role here, excepting in those cases where a religious education involves acts of criminal abuse.

It is a part of the natural jurisdiction that parents have over their children that they decide what kind of religious instruction, if any, they should be subjected to. The family should provide for this, using the resources of the relevant temple, madrassah, Sunday school or whatever. Education in a religion is the province of that religion. It is nothing to do with the state.

The American system, whereby the state plays no part at all in religious instruction, should be welcomed by people of all religious persuasions. It 'creates a level playing field'. It respects the distinction between public and private. It recognises that the religious authorities have jurisdiction over their own arcana, their initiation rites, their own mumbo-jumbo.

The great fault of Anglicans is to mistake the public evidence for the private reality of their religion. They want Christianity taught by law. They should rejoice in its being taught by consent only. They want their sect upheld by the state. They should rejoice at its severance from the state.

In order to keep religion in schools, to maintain its public profile, they will go along with schemes whereby religious education is turned into education about religions, so long as Christianity is given pride of place. But education about religions is quite a different thing from religious education. And Lady Olga Maitland is right to cry stinking fish. Education about religions implies a culturally relativist, even- handed, rational-minded approach to the whole subject. Religious instruction is not like that at all.

Where Lady Olga was being disingenuous last week was in her plea not to burden the minds of young children with information about so many different religions. It's not the number of religions being talked about that she really objects to. Its the even- handedness, the multiculturalism of the approach.

One does, after all, learn an awful lot about other religions when one takes a course of biblical instruction. And what one learns is that these other religions are wrong, wicked and liable to provoke the wrath of God.

One learns about cantankerous tribes in days long gone by, and how they were always at each other's throats. One learns that there were people who worshipped other gods than God, or who worshipped in inappropriate ways - with graven or molten images, for instance. One learns to characterise the one true god as a jealous god, and to expect pretty unpleasant consequences if one ever overlooks that jealousy.

And in the course of this story, which comes incidentally from Jewish scriptures, one learns about the inadequacies of the Jews in relation to God, their continual backsliding and God's pathological wrath. Thus one is hardly surprised, moving on to the Christian part of the canon, to find that things come to a head, and that the Jews are responsible for the killing of their own God.

After that, the Jews generally speaking have blown it. Such Jews as are faithful to their crucified God turn their backs on other Jews (who become proverbially unconvertible) and venture forth into the pagan world, about which we are told a great deal. Paganism, as we see from the Acts of the Apostles, was in its primtive way, a bit like multiculturalism today, in that it acknowledged a multiplicity of gods and cults. And this was precisely what Christianity disliked about it. It wasn't Christianity's plan to add another cult to the many. The plan was to chuck everything else out: to end up with only one god and one religion.

Somewhat surprisingly, the story told by the Bible stops short of that victory, in which Christianity did indeed succeed in cutting off the careers of innumerable rival gods, goddesses, demigods and so forth. But from this brief outline you can see that Lady Olga's impatience with other religions is well within the Christian tradition of intolerance.

The best thing is to keep this sort of intolerance out of public life by securing the privatisation of religious instruction. There is no reason in the world why the taxpayer should foot the bill for Sunday school, or for any of its equivalents. A clean division between Church and state leaves the state unencumbered and the Church uncontaminated by secular considerations.

But Anglicans are spoilt and soft in the head. On the one hand they want to lunge in the direction of evangelism and charisma - needing nothing more than a dancefloor and a tambourine to keep them happy. On the other hand they appear terrified that the whole fabric of Anglicanism will unravel at a single tug of the thread. The Archbishop of York can't make up his mind, from one year to the next, what the position of the Church should be - and he is supposed to be the brains behind the whole operation.

Meanwhile the Prince of Wales has made what must have looked like an intelligent step, in offering to be defender of faith itself, defender of the spiritual. But he would have made better sense if he had offered to defend no faith at all. These faiths have angels to defend them. They have thrones, principalities, dominions and powers - things way beyond the comprehension of a mere secular prince. What kind of religion needs the state for a crutch? What kind of ineffable faith needs its place on the syllabus?