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Readers’ Responses

From Barry Newman: A humanist response to Revd Richard Warden's article Not a Trojan Horse: the case for compulsory religious education in schools published in our December edition. Barry is the humanist representative on the Dorset SACRE (Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education).

Richard Warden’s article addressing whether compulsory religious education (RE) in its current form is “justifiable and beneficial” contains highly challengeable assertions. Richard introduces his justification with the statement “A child’s entitlement to RE is upheld in law”. Let’s examine “entitlement” and “law” in this context.

The word “entitlement” clearly implies having a choice. However, the relevant 79-year-old law does not offer an entitlement to choose RE, but is in fact a statutory imposition. Much like the law imposing the wearing of seatbelts, there is no choice. The law does not defend a child’s entitlement but imposes the entitlement of one faith to claim privilege in a publicly-funded education system – a globally exceptional phenomenon. It is the legal entitlement to occupy “no less than 50%” of the RE curriculum in at least 36% of primary and 19% of state-funded secondary (church) schools, and is supplemented by the legal requirement for “collective worship…of a wholly or broadly Christian character”. Due to the Byzantine complexity of school designations in the UK, the church’s entitlement is not entirely consistent, but is highly pervasive.

The claim that RE in schools is of such great value that it ought to be taught is also flawed. Where has it been demonstrated that RE is more educationally valuable than music, philosophy, logic, financial and digital literacy and, for that matter, sport? Also, the legal imposition of a particular brand of Christianity on the basis of a historical “religious tradition” is unsupportable, as RE should not be an exercise in reinforcing historical religious traditions.

If RE is to be taught, it should surely be presented in an unbiased academic manner which includes non-theistic worldviews. While the Church of England may claim to promote the idea of balanced RE syllabuses, the introduction of non-theistic worldviews is an ongoing struggle as witnessed by the recent requirement for a legal action to ensure the presence of humanists on SACREs. Paying lip service to religious and nonreligious pluralism is easy when you have a statutory advantage systematically imposed through statutory diocesan (SIAMS) inspections.

But Christianity’s entitlement and privilege in education is written into the law, Richard points out. Conflating the law with morality is dangerous. Law can be, and often is, bad law. History is riven with bad law, and using bad or obsolete law to justify the highly questionable is logically and morally wrong. So let us be clear that a law made in a bygone era entitles the Anglican Church to impose RE dominated by Christianity on pupils in the UK. Not all pupils, but far too many.

Finally, Reverend Richard’s very title, “School Chaplain and Head of Religious Studies”, speaks volumes for the privileged and dominant position of Christianity in school education.

Further reading

Richard Warden's article is here

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