The recent court case over prayers at council meetings has catapulted religious faith into the public eye.
Coincidentally, Professor Robert Davis, of Glasgow University, called on teachers to ensure that “faith continues to be given its rightful place in the school curriculum”. He dislikes the campaigning, polemical ‘new atheism’. It lobbies powerfully, he claims, for a particular version of the science curriculum. Let’s return to that later.
Baroness Warsi led a UK ministerial visit to the Vatican. It is, she states, about the deep, intrinsic role of faith in Britain. Despite her own Islamic faith, Warsi believes that our values “all stem from centuries of discussion, dissent and belief in Christianity”.
The Herald’s Andrew McKie also attacked ‘militant’ secularism. “As a matter of plain, straightforward, historical reality, the institutions and traditions of these islands have been thoroughly bound up with Christianity for at least 1500 years.” For the Daily Telegraph’s Christina Odone, the ruling on council prayers encouraged the secularists’ “campaign to rip Christianity limb from limb”, an unimaginable scenario even a few years ago when ‘tolerance’ was still a national habit.
The assertion that ‘tolerance’ has been the hallmark of religion is at least debatable. The British monarch may not be, nor marry, a Roman Catholic. Until 1837, only religious marriages were recognised in England.
Until 1871 graduation from Oxford required an Anglican religious test. In Northern Ireland systematic discrimination against Catholics was for long the norm.In Franco’s Spain systematic discrimination against non-Catholics was practised by the state. In De Valera’s Ireland the Catholic Church was given a special place in the constitution.
In many Islamic states, freedom of worship or to enter either non-Islamic religious marriages, let alone civil marriages, is denied.
Most religions discriminate while they hold a clear majority in any given state. To escape that, the United States constitution stated that “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The First Amendment went further: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That is tolerance: the separation of church and state.Against that intolerant historical background, recent comments on gay marriage take on some importance.
Mark Davies, RC Bishop of Shrewsbury, urged MPs to vote against same-sex marriage and protect “the God-given meaning of marriage.” His campaigning and polemical statement seeks to make a religious precept the basis of state legislation and that also is the position of the Catholic Church and Professor Davis when they insist on schools based on ‘faith’. The Catholic Church has always ensured that its schools deliver a particular view of biology, one consistent with its teaching on sex and birth control. Similarly, fundamentalist Protestants have opposed – with some notable successes – the scientific teaching of evolution in American schools.
The debate on religion and education is frequently dodged.
Of course, as Warsi and McKie remind us, the debates about and around Christianity have been crucial in shaping our culture. They should be studied, in History, in English, in RMPS, but without favour.
Creation myths should be studied; they should not be confused with science.
The Catholic Church has every right to tell its adherents that contraception is sinful. The Protestant fundamentalists have a perfect right to insist that the world was created in five days and that humans did not evolve from apes. There is, however, no argument in a democracy for the taxpayer financing such propaganda nor for financing religious observance.
Faith is a private matter and no particular faith should be advocated by public schools.
The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 27 February 2012: http://www.holyrood.com/articles/2012/02/27/keeping-the-faith-2/