Max von Habsburg
n casual inspection the recent decision of the major faith leaders — including Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor to sign a joint statement broadening the curriculum for religious education makes sense. In superficial terms. the document's contents are rather innocuous. Given the broader religio-political climate, it would seem churlish not to encourage even greater tolerance and understanding between different religious communities. The statement's emphasis on personal reflection and spiritual development undeniably reflects the extra-curricular necessities of a religious education in a faith school. The allusion to the development of a sense of identity and belonging, critical to any religious community, is hardly surprising. In reinforcing the overriding ethos of each respective faith school, this has a particular importance.
One cannot help but welcome any determination, to combat prejudice. So many problems provoked by religious differences would seem to be primarily, if not solely, fuelled by ignorance, which is itself the result of a total absence of dialogue. As Oona Stannard, director of the Catholic Education Service, has rightly argued: "A religiously illiterate population is never going to show the civic virtues of tolerance and understanding which are so desired today."
There is no doubt that the motives behind the joint statement's support for the National Framework for Religious Education are honourable, illustrating the necessity of developing greater understanding between different faiths and providing a platform for future dialogue and cooperation. It is of considerable importance that the Government should be reinforcing its support of the concept and practice of faith schools. Given that the dominance of one faith is rightly deemed legitimate, faith schools have been given the freedom to determine what to teach about other religions.
Yet, while echoing noble sentiments, the joint statement's central allusion to the broadening of the curriculum "to develop respect for and sensitivity to others" could be misconstrued. On one extreme, it appears to pay lip service to the criticisms of religious education voiced by humanists and secularists, namely that faith schools contribute to a lack of tolerance and to religious fanaticism. To that effect, Keith Porteous Wood, the director of the National Secular Society, has noted that "this new announcement is merely an effort to counter accusations that single faith schools are divisive, and a menace to social cohesion". From the joint state
ment it could easily, albeit erroneously, be assumed that the secularist emphasis on divisiveness represents the norm rather than the exception.
Given Western society's allegedly superior armour of political correctness, it is hardly surprising that faith schools should have come under fire in recent debates. Secularists will shroud the pursuit of their own ideological objectives in self-professed altruism, for the establishment and "betterment" of a pluralist society free from the shackles of religious extremism. One can hardly criticise the secularist disapproval of religious fanaticism, yet that this should lead to the phasing out of religious schools altogether illustrates their ulterior motive. An eradication of all matters pertaining to faith is particularly convenient for an intellectual environment that is committed to secularist ideals. Moreover, to describe faith schools in this country as representative of an educational apartheid system (as one recent commentator put it) is nothing less than absurd. There are of course exceptions to the rule, but they are no more than that.
Equally important is the claim that the supposed benefits of broadening religious teaching in faith schools provide the foundations for the creation of an effective multicultural and pluralist society. Setting aside the variegated definitions and connotations of multiculturalism and pluralism, it is my view that the key to preparing young believers (irrespective of their faith) fundamentally must lie elsewhere. To expect pupils to have sufficient depth of understanding of all the major world religions by Key Stage 3 (ages 12 to 14), as suggested by the National Framework, is almost comically ambitious. It surely exaggerates the anticipated level of sophistication that is required to "learn from different religions, beliefs, values and traditions".
Moreover, the proposed selective survey of different religions can easily lead to confusion and can potentially send us down the path towards syncretism. Having an "awareness" of other beliefs remains a very woolly term, which explains why it was not controversial to sign such a statement. However, it is surely sufficient, before Key Stage 4, to expect that all church schools have, by definition and practice, a tradition of religious tolerance. There is considerable evidence to show that faith-based schools promote social inclusion and community engagement.
The primary purpose of faith schools should be characterised by the pursuit of truth — that is, the reinforcement of a single set of beliefs. The principal motivation behind faith schools must be to provoke challenging questions that strengthen one's faith. It is, in the best sense, indoctrination. so that believers (who have been baptised, some of whom will have been confirmed) may reinforce their beliefs. Central to the success of faith schools are shared values and a distinctive ethos.
While the joint statement and the National Framework acknowledge that faith schools should have an overriding ethos, the insistence that pupils should investigate five or more world religions has the considerable potential to dilute a child's understanding of his or her own . spiritual development. The total immersion in one religion should he integral, as this facilitates the critical relationship between spiritual and academic development.
How does this prepare pupils for later life? Dialogue is best when it takes place among believers who have a firm grounding in their respective faiths. Dialogue that begins too early inevitably precipitates confusion. Intelligent, informed discourse occurs between firm and faithful believers of different faiths who, owing to their devotion and utter commitment, inevitably respect each other. Pupils should first gain a good grounding in their own faith, that they may more easily develop in due course an appreciation of corresponding beliefs.
Dr Max von Habsburg teaches at Oundle School in Peterborough