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Newsline 26 July 2013

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How do we keep religious education out of the hands of the evangelists?

How do we keep religious education out of the hands of the evangelists?

Opinion | Mon, 22 Jul 2013

How can schools tell children about religion in a way that is fair, objective, unbiased and, most important, doesn't close them off to alternatives?

How do we best explain to them that while some religious believers find comfort in their faith — as well as a motivation to do good — others find that it feeds a seething hatred?

The traditional approach to this topic has been "religious education", a mandatory subject the direction of which is largely dictated by religious authorities, who could hardly be described as disinterested parties. As A.J. Higginson put it, in an article for Huffington Post:

"RE classes are a chance for pupils to learn and understand about the diverse world religions. A dilemma occurs when you allow faith schools to teach according to their beliefs, once that happens, the lid of Pandora's Box is never far from being opened."

The Government is under increasing pressure at the moment by those very religious interests to increase and strengthen religious education in schools. The Church of England's ambitions to take control of the education system is not one that is opposed in any way by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Or, as Andy Yarrow, head of Chelsea (CofE) Academy put in an article in the Times Education Supplement:

"Forced religion is counterproductive. But when children leave Chelsea Academy, I want them to have had an entirely positive and attractive experience of Christianity, so they say, 'I like that. I want more of that.' The great commission that has been given to the Church is to spread the good news of Christ. Church of England schools are about sharing what Christianity means, communicating the gospel message, but they are also about unconditionally loving and serving the world."

Now, though, an increasing number of parents are feeling uneasy about the way RE is being taught and are wondering whether religion, as it is presented now, has a legitimate place in schools at all. They want to know if there is another way to tell children the facts about religion that does not, at the same time, try oh-so-subtly to bring them into the fold.

The Americans and the French, with their secular constitutions, have neatly solved the problem by excluding religion entirely from their publicly funded schools.

But Britain does not have the benefit of a secular constitution. We have instead an established church, which, to be fair, played a large part in the creation of our education system. So we have to give credit to the church for kick-starting education-for-all in this country.

But now that the government funds universal education, why is the church still so deeply entrenched? A poll of 29,000 schoolchildren in Britain conducted for the International Seminar on Religious Education and Values showed that 58% identified themselves as atheist or agnostic. This revelation was backed up by a study from the National Centre for Social Research, which showed that in 1994, 55% of 12- to 19-year-olds said they had no religion, a figure that had risen to 65% by 2003.

Children, then, are increasingly expressing severe doubts about the veracity and value of religion as a basis for life...

Religious education so easily morphs into religious instruction and thence to religious propaganda and evangelising. Enthusiastic believers who are drawn to teaching sometimes cannot stop themselves. This week I was on a radio phone-in show in which parents told horror stories of their own experiences: how a five-year-old had been told by the RE teacher that if she didn't believe in God she would go to hell, or how a nine-year-old asked in class "if God made everything, who made God?" and was told to shut up.

The only way to stop this kind of abuse of a child's intellect is to abolish the concept of "religious education" entirely. Let's call it something else that will allow us to move away from the sentimentalised, sanitised version of religion that is, at the moment, pumped into children's heads at school from the age of three. Something like "philosophical and ethical studies".

That would give us a fascinating palate of topics to draw on. Religion would be there, of course, but it would take its place with other approaches, to be examined critically. If we take the label of "religious education" away, we free ourselves from the need to give religion special privileges and the biased presentation it gets at the moment. We can look at it in a much wider context while, at the same time, other valuable world views that have been shoved out by religious dominance would get an equal-opportunity look-in.

After all, there is a strong argument that the values of western civilisation are not based on Christianity at all, but on the earlier thinking of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus — and even Confucius. How often do the grand ideas of these formative figures get an airing in RE?

The dominance of Christianity in our schools is a product of historical circumstances — circumstances that have radically altered in the past 50 years. Once there was a single religion in this country, but now there is a multitude, some of them venerable, some of them very recent — all of them in need of rigorous examination and challenge in a fair school system.

So in an ideal world — well, my ideal world — children would be able to explore the big questions through a host of philosophical approaches that would not inevitably lead back to God. We start with a completely blank canvas and then we add to it from the richness of human genius, which could, of course, include Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha, but only as part of a throng that would also include Thales, known as the father of philosophy, who flourished around 585BC and who was the first to come to the conclusion that human reason is sufficient to answer questions about the nature of the world. We would have Socrates, who gave us the concept of civic virtue, and we need to know about the Cynics and about Epicurus's formula for a happy life.

There are Cicero, Diderot, Hume and the many gifts of the Enlightenment. The marvellous insights provided by these great philosophers have done as much to shape human life in the western world as the ancient religions of the Middle East have with their incredible claims and their vengeful Gods.

In my ideal school, religion would not be permitted to side-line every other human explanation for the meaning of life. Children who have rejected religion are not doomed to live a life of anarchy and nihilism. The world is full of marvellous philosophies and ethical systems that can inform morality. But the Old Testament God is, by his own admission, a jealous God, and he doesn't take competition very well. All the same, we must put to rest, once and for all, the propaganda that all that is good flows from a divine source.

A well-rounded, truly unbiased approach to ethics would equip our children with a real ability to make informed decisions about how they want to live their lives and where they will find their morality. It will also enable them to judge religion on its real, rather than its trumpeted, merits.

Same Sex Marriage Act - time to separate religion from politics

Same Sex Marriage Act - time to separate religion from politics

Opinion | Tue, 23 Jul 2013

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill has passed with overwhelming support. It has done little more than re-brand civil partnerships, but symbolically its passing was a breath-taking moment of the zeitgeist, writes Keith Porteous Wood.

Muslims must be protected. Islam must not.

Muslims must be protected. Islam must not.

Opinion | Wed, 24 Jul 2013

The Muslim Council of Britain has called for a "serious national response" from the government to attacks against Muslims and mosques.

MCB leader Farooq Murad, said people were living in fear. He said that following the events in Woolwich, there has been a significant increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes across the UK.

Mr Murad said: "The community has patiently borne the brunt of these attacks despite condemning, in the strongest possible terms, the tragic murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. Despite this spike in incidents, there has yet to be a coordinated national effort to ensure that these sorts of attacks never happen again.

"It cannot be right that a minority community is allowed to be targeted in this manner."

Mr Murad said the suspected bomb attacks on mosques marked "the crossing of a red line".

"Had these bombs exploded, people would have been killed," he said. "There is an urgent need for the government and police to respond with a coordinated national strategy so as to prevent further attacks.

"For many Muslim communities across this country, there is a palpable sense of fear. While the local police are doing all they could to investigate these incidents, the national response has been far from satisfactory."

But we have to be careful not to be stampeded into precipitate action by claims, which because of their emotive nature, can so easily be manipulated.

It is entirely wrong that people from any minority should be targeted for violence or persecution simply because of their membership of that minority. Indeed, the law specifically recognises that, and there are severe penalties for crimes that are motivated by religious hatred.

If people are attacked in the street — whether they are Muslim or not — it is a crime. If their property is damaged by vandals, it is a crime. If they are threatened or harassed because of their religion, it is a crime that attracts extra penalties.

So what exactly is Mr Murad asking from the Government when he criticises it for not doing enough to protect Muslims?

Given that they are protected in every way that every other citizen is, their human rights are as valued as any other person's living in this country and, in fact, there are extra penalties for crimes that are religiously motivated, what is he expecting the Government to do?

Is he complaining that the police are not doing enough to enforce the law? In which case he may have a point. But in his statement he says that he feels the police have done everything in their power to investigate these crimes.

So what else is he asking from the Government? Is the next demand, after a spot of panic-mongering about persecution, that not just Muslims be protected, but Islam itself? We must wait to see whether the concept that Muslims are "deeply wounded" when their religion is criticised gets lumped in with the bombs in mosques and the people being beaten up. It wouldn't be the first time the MCB has tried to criminalise criticism of Islam.

Fortunately, the MCB fell out of favour with the Government in 2009 and all links were severed after much criticism of its members and its activities.

The NSS wants all Muslims living in Britain to feel safe. We deplore attacks on individuals and on places of worship. But the fault lies not in the law, which is sufficient, but perhaps in a failure to enforce it vigorously enough.

We do not need any more "hate crime" laws that are so easily exploited and misused.

And nor do we need protection for religious ideas or dogmas, which must always be open to criticism, examination and — where appropriate — ridicule.

We must watch carefully where this present campaign to promote the idea that Muslims are being widely persecuted in Britain is leading. All claims must be forensically checked and verified, and none taken at face value.

We must not allow it to be exploited to justify anything that looks even remotely like a blasphemy law.

Convictions for female genital mutilation: France - 100; Britain  0

Convictions for female genital mutilation: France - 100; Britain 0

Opinion | Thu, 25 Jul 2013

This country has a very poor record on the prevention of female genital mutilation. A new approach from the police could change that. But they need help, writes Joan Smith.

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NSS Speaks Out

Terry Sanderson was quoted in an American Public Media "Marketplace" report on the rise of sharia banking in the UK

NSS campaigns manager Stephen Evans was quoted in The Times about the Church of England's push to dominate religious education in schools (subscription). Keith Porteous Wood was on LBC radio on the same topic.

NSS Scottish spokesperson Alistair McBay was on the BBC1 Sunday Morning Live programme discussion about religious education. He was also quoted in the Ross-Shire Journal, Inverness Courier, North Star, Caithness Courier and the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald about the presence of unelected religious representatives on council education committees.

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