Sunday, 19 February 2012

Pray all you want but teaching RE still isn’t a ‘priority’.

It isn’t just the earnest young evangelists on the bus who want to talk to you about god these days, everyone from the government on down is getting in on the act.

Baroness Warsi flew to the Vatican this week to make a prissy little speech about how Britain was still a Christian country, but only just, because it was being attacked from within by ‘militant secularists’. The tabloids joined together in a collective moral panic because Bideford town council, have lost a legal case brought against them by the National Secular Society and would no longer be able to begin its meetings with prayers.

A new all party group of MPs has joined the debate or maybe that should be sermon, calling for the teaching of Religious Education to be a ‘priority’ in schools in England and Wales. Liberal Democrat chair of the new group Stephen Lloyd told the BBC that in ‘today’s world where our children can be open to an enormous amount of misleading information I believe it is absolutely essential they are taught about different cultures and religions by trained and experienced RE teachers’.

To do so, they claim, RE must be included alongside Maths, English, science and a humanities subject as part of the English Baccalaureate being touted as a replacement for A Levels. A position supported by several faith groups including the Religious Education Council of England, Chair John Keast told the BBC that coalition plans to change the school curriculum could ‘challenge’ how RE is taught and that as a result the ‘RE community’ feels ‘under fire’ and welcomes the new all party group as a means of giving ‘the subject a strong profile amongst parliamentarians.’

Responding a spokeswoman for the Department of Education said ‘RE remains a statutory part of the curriculum but it is up to schools themselves how it is taught.’ Quite so; I’d like to make the case that they shouldn’t be teaching it at all.

Not too long ago a report published by the Royal Society of Arts revealed that one in four people in England struggle with basic mathematics, standards of literacy have been in decline for decades; is teaching children a pasteurised version of the world’s major religions really a priority? Wouldn’t it be more useful to teach our kids to read, write and count properly? After all most religions are more than adept at educating their younger followers and hardly need the help of well meaning educators.

This is not, I hasten to add, an attack on religion even though I am not and never have been a believer myself. Unlike the National Secular Society I don’t choose to define my lack of belief by what I am against and so can sit through the mild mannered burbling of the Lord Mayor’s Chaplin before council meetings without being offended; but schools are a special case. They bring together young people from such a wide range of cultures, classes and communities that agreeing everyone, including atheists, should pack their beliefs away whilst within their walls is vital to maintaining harmony.

As for the assault on faith Baroness Warsi and the sillier columnists on the payroll of the Daily Mail seem to see lurking around every corner it seems to me like so much sound and fury about nothing. After all we give twenty three bishops a free seat for life in our legislature, they’ve been mostly on the side of the angels in the recent debates on welfare reform, but so long as they are there believers cannot seriously claim to be an oppressed minority.

An (almost) never ending story

Author Caroline Smailes has published a novel, 99 Reasons Why, that allows its readers to choose from eleven possible endings. Speaking The Independent Ms Smailes said this would allow her readers to have ‘different reactions, interpretations and feelings about the story depending on which ending they choose.’

Crumbs; is this the end of the novel as we know it? Hardly, it is, at best, a clever if not original game played with the form of the novel; at worst it is an annoying gimmick.

A good novel gives its readers endless scope for exploring how they feel about the characters and their fate, this isn’t a brilliant new discovery; it’s why we read them.

Space- the tidy new frontier

The Swiss have, so the BBC reported this week, developed a device for cleaning up the half a million items of ‘space junk’ orbiting the earth.

Right now the Chinese are looking up at the night sky and seeing the arena in which the people’s revolution can achieve its ultimate triumph. Americans have for years seen space as a pristine frontier where they can rediscover the pioneer spirit that made their nation great. The Swiss though look up at the limitless vastness of the heavens and think ‘we really must tidy this up’; don’t you just want to shake them?

The again maybe I shouldn’t be so smug. After all if Britain had a space programme we’d probably have to cancel the inaugural mission due to there being the wrong sort of leaves on the launch pad.

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