Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

A touch of faith

A religous painting

I wonder how much of a role schools have to play in the de-Christianising of Europe. Should we acquiesce in it, promote it, or is it time to make a stand?

"We live in thick darkness, and it grows thicker." So thunders Luther in John Osborne's play. Maybe it's an overstatement, but I worry about the rise of secularism in the UK.

While 72 per cent of the population call themselves Christians1, the figures are considerably skewed towards the middle aged and elderly.

In 2001, 45 per cent of people under 35 said that not only were they not Christians, they did not even accept that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person2. No serious historian would ever make so breathtakingly daft a claim, and the figure shows a jaw dropping level of ignorance.

Society in general increasingly accepts secularism as the norm and propagates the unexamined assumption that all religion is obscure, anti-intellectual superstition.

One does not have to read The Guardian, The Independent or - O dear, O dear - the TES for very long before being beaten over the head by the proselytising antitheists.

I don't want to sound like a Daily Mail reader, but are we really better off for the rise of secularism? What's the solution, and where do schools come in?

No going back

It would be absurd to put the clock back. There never was a golden age when all schoolchildren sang "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam" in assembly and parroted what their elders thought was good for them.

Religious freedom includes respecting people's right not to be religious. But education has to teach pupils to examine, debate and evaluate, not unquestioningly go along with the tide.

Clearly, we need to propagate acceptance and tolerance of non-Christian faiths. Religious education should not just be about Christianity. But I also want pupils to have informed opinions, not just second hand, unexamined assumptions.

I want them to be able to defend their views rationally, to listen sympathetically to others, and to be able to revise their opinions in the light of better evidence or stronger arguments.

I do accept that atheism and agnosticism are intellectually defensible. I may not think secularism is right, but the real problem is that it is not debated. Why not?

I think it's because we're too polite to tackle the big questions - in religious education, PSHE or assemblies, it is too often simply descriptive: this is what 'they' do, this is what 'they' believe.

Too polite for debate

Description is more polite than evaluation; the terror of giving offence ("Thou shalt be nice!") leaves the hard questions too often unasked. But honest debate can only help our pupils make sense of their lives.

Voltaire drew the distinction between defending what people say, and defending their right to say it. To disagree with someone, even when their views are central to their lives, is not the same as disrespecting them as people.

I'd offer a few debating points, for starters, which should appear somewhere in the curriculum for key stages 3 or 4:

  • Does God exist?

  • Did Jesus exist?

  • When were the Gospels written?

  • How accurate are they?

  • Did Jesus rise from the dead?

  • How should we live?

  • Is there, in fact, any truth in religion?

These are vital questions and children have a right to discuss them honestly. This is not indoctrination: to inform opinion, to help our pupils to marshal and evaluate evidence and argument, is not to brainwash. Debate can't just mean the exchange of ignorance.

I do wonder if we always think about whether we are furthering a secularist agenda, and how far we should do this.

In our schools, do children ever study the life and teaching of Jesus? Would opening a bible be encouraged or frowned upon? Are pupils encouraged to debate whether God exists, and are they told about the arguments pro and con? Do they understand that, pace the media, 'religion' and 'fundamentalism' are not synonyms?

I suppose it all comes down to the question of whether schools should reflect society, or help to shape it.

By Simon Danes, deputy head, Princethorpe College

(1) 2001 census.

(2) Opinion research polls in 1999 and 2001, published in The Tablet.

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