Britain is not the only country where religious education is in a state of flux. Murray White reports from Jerusalem on how religious leaders are facing up to the new dilemmas of teaching the subject in increasingly pluralist societies.
THE CATHOLIC HERALD will hold a Conference on "Morality and Sex Education" on 23 March at Baden-Powell House in London. Cardinal Basil Hume and John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, have each agreed to speak and answer questions. The third speaker will be Sheila Fitzsimons, the editor of the Guardian's Education section. The conference will be chaired by Clifford Langley, religious columnist for the Daily Telegraph. Tickets are available from the Catholic Herald (Coupon, page 8).
IT SELLS COPIES, raises temperatures and eyebrows and it may well oust half the Cabinet. Sexual morality is again at the forefront of the public and political consciousness with a vengeance.
Promiscuity and sexual impropriety look set to hijack everyone's agenda and questioning sexual immorality is no longer only the province of old fogeys. Ow papers are full of definitions of morality, of explanations of morality, of excuses for lack of morality.
But although much is written and said about moral standards, • the overwhelming atmosphere is one of confusion. What should be expected of our leaders and of ourselves?
Catholic schools have a duty to debate these issues. The messages which our young people are receiving reflect the uncertainty of our society. There is an emphasis on free choice and on liberal attitudes to sexual behaviour on television, in advertisements, in novels and papers. At the same time, for the first time in a decade, there is now widespread public • dismay when sexual immorality is exposed. Young people are also having to face the issue of AIDS, whereby ignorance can : be a death sentence.
This is a real threat and , parents and teachers have to • recognise that 48 per cent of 16year-olds are sexually active, . while 31 per cent say they have had full sexual intercourse.
Indeed, this week, it appears that Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley and Education ; Secretary John Patten are at loggerheads on how children are taught about contraception and AIDS. While we have to address the question presenting appropriate sexual morality, we also have to recognise that failing to discuss the issues may put our young people in terrible danger.
Good sex education should ; combine facts with feelings. It is , never enough to introduce young people to the mechanics : of reproduction without being . prepared to admit that sexual drives are powerful enough to destroy lives.
To a generation brought up on the question "what's love gotta do with it?", a teacher must have ready a wide spectrum of convincing answers.
Herein lies the challenge.
JOHN PATTEN NEED not feel isolated. The good news for the beleaguered Education Secretary is that many of his colleagues across the globe are struggling with similar moral problems.
How do we guide the good ship RE through the turbulent waters of pluralism and secularism? And what role, if any, should the subject have in turning out model citizens?
The assertive Mr Patten has placed himself firmly in the role of spiritual guru of the nation's religious educators on both these questions. He has declared that Britain is still firmly a Christian country and RE should reflect that. Even more controversially he has argued that there is a direct connection between the decline in moral education and the rise in crime.
It is a stance that has not made him popular in all quarters. In seeking to emphasise the predominance of Christianity in the curriculum it should take up between 51 and 75 per cent of coursework of nondenominational schools he is in danger of creating new problems in a pluralist society, believes Paul Mendel, director of the Council of Christians and Jews in London. NonChristian pupils, in particular, could feel at risk of marginalisation. Indeed minority faiths in most countries quake in trepidation when the might of the State even a socalled democratic, liberal one declares an interest in stamping its mark on the moral education of its youngsters.
As Mr Patten was issuing threats, earlier this month, of legal action against thousands of state schools who fail to hold daily religious assemblies, Christian and Jewish leaders from across the world met in Jerusalem to debate this thorny Sociology Professor Barry Kosmin, of the Graduate School at New York University, feared that RE teachers "are being increasingly put under pressure" to conform to some form of secular, social ideal. Marx's dictum of religion being the "opium of the people" is a rule that may have, ironically, survived the collapse of communism.
"Should RE," he wondered, "really have some kind of impact on behaviour? After all, the purpose of teaching French is not to make you into a Frenchman, but in a Catholic school, very often, the teaching of RE is to make you a good Catholic."
As a general principle, he went on, this is not so much a problem in itself. But where the State tries to force the issue, by turning "individual betterment" or "social success" into attainment targets, the theory falls short.
Professor Kosmin was director in the late 1980s of the largest ever US poll, the Cuny National Survey on religious teaching. Despite wide indication from its 100,000 plus respondents that RE should have a hand in making "better social citizens", there was little evidence that a religious upbringing meant less deviancy towards crime or racism.
And as a further problem, the RE directives of a Catholic school do not necessarily extend to nonChurch schools. Bishop Mario Conti of Aberdeen contended that Catholic schools make the presupposition that they are starting from a position of faith commit
ment, although increasingly even this cannot be assumed.
"For our schools, RE is to help them understand what their faith is Others have particular difficulties how do you teach RE when there is no religious experience there?" he asked.'
What new paths, then, can be forged in secular societies? In postcommunist Hungary, for example, where the Church has only recently been been given back its own schools, the emphasis is on tolerant ecumenism.
In Germany, where there are also very few "Church" schools, religious ministers have taken on an active role in state-run schools, teaching religion in denominational groups. But important emphasis is given to non-Christian faiths, especially Judaism.
Anglican Dean Ernst Schmidt, who co-ordinates RE in one region, said: "The danger is that you make RE an academic hurdle, like a test in biology. Our children are encouraged at some point to make a personal confession of faith, but you cannot force it."
Christianity's high-flying role on the English curriculum finds its inverse in India, where only between two and three per cent of the population are believers. In a culture dominated by the twin towers of Islam and Hinduism, Catholic teachers, in particular, tread a wary line.
Sr Imelda, Principal of the Jesus and Mary College, New Delhi, said: "I would rather call it 'spiritual education'. 'Religious teaching' here has brought conflict and death in its time." She thought that being born a Christian was "an accident of birth. It is a role of teachers to turn that into commitment". Indeed religions should not be afraid of an element of evangelism in RE, argued some participants.
Dr Emanuel Wale, an evangelical preacher from Nigeria, said that the Churches should not shy away from missionary work: "But our first aim should not be conversion, but love, knowledge and peaceful co-existence."
And similar fears were echoed. A Lebanese nun warned of the rise of extreme protestaut and muslim sects around the Middle East trying to get a foothold in RE.
Chief Rabbi Bent Melichior of Denmark summed up the feeling: "The biggest worry is that I think I am the only person who knows the truth. Should it not be the aim of RE to be encouraging tolerance?"
One American professor replied that many schools in the US had gone too far the other way, not allowing bias of any kind.
How, then, do religious leaders chart a way forward, avoiding both the pitfalls of extremist bigotry and a meaningless multi-faith mishmash? As the Jerusalem conference illustrated; firstly, by simply being prepared to talk to one another. Dozens of the the 500 delegates bishops, rabbis, theologians and lay people who also enjoyed fruitful discussion on religious responses to dilemmas surrounding the family, genetic research, authority, and multi-culturism during a fourday gathering said that a united front was essential against a pluralist, secular background.
John Patten would do well to take heed here. By turning the advisory committee, a group representing all the major faiths in Britain which recently worked on the DfE's circular, into a permanent multi-faith forum on RE, he would see barriers many of which are based on little more than ignorance crumble on all sides.
But, perhaps, after exams have been sat and the classroom bell rings, there is an indefinable element to religious education that the most well-meaning of curriculum compliers cannot plan for.
One Anglican bishop from India told the story of a young girl so impressed by her teacher's assertion that it was wrong to lie that she convinced her mother not to water down the milk that the family sold to the local market. Fellow villagers, all of whom had been fiddling their produce for years, thought she was mad at first. Not watering down the milk meant she had less to sell, made less money. But then a wave of curiosity spread throughout the local population, and this woman's quality milk began to sell out quickly. It soon became the benchmark for others, and the whole dishonest practice faded away.
One girl's action resulted in the "conversion" of a whole village. How do you measure that as an attainment target?