Audiences may no longer understand Monty Python’s Life of Brian because of the biblical references.
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Why religious education is letting our children down

Religious illiteracy leads to an anxiety about the role of religion in the public sphere: from fear of terrorism to fear of exclusion and fear of litigation.

Last weekend my sister recounted a story of a friend of hers who had been “freaked out” by a seemingly sadistic birthday present she had received from her boyfriend.

“He got me this lovely necklace, but it had some dude hanging from a cross on it,” she said.

“That’s not some dude,” my sister replied, deadpan. “That’s Jesus!”

Although my sister’s friend might appear unique in her ignorance, this vignette actually fits neatly within a wider trend. Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, has recently expressed concern that the UK is so religiously illiterate that he fears audiences would not understand Monty Python’s Life of Brian because of the biblical references.

Of course, if the scale of religious illiteracy meant little more than a failure to understand jewellery and 1970s comedy, there would be no issue. But billions of people around the world are religious, despite the assumptions of secularity.

On top of this, religion also plays an important role in social action and welfare service delivery. The Church of England alone claims to serve 10 million people through its community activities – and that doesn’t factor in the help that people get from their local mosques, temples and syangogues.

Religion also permeates news headlines and world affairs: the Pope’s visit to Asia, tragedies such as 9/11, the murder of Lee Rigby, the persecution of religious minorities, or reports of Britons fighting with Islamic State. All of these are news stories that are informed by religion.

Religious illiteracy is responsible for a failure to understand and appreciate the power of religion. It leads to an anxiety about the role of religion in the public sphere: from fear of terrorism to fear of exclusion and fear of litigation. These fears flared up again during the so-called Trojan horse and gay cake sagas.

In a series of projects over the last decade, we have found, here at the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, that a better understanding of the real religious landscape will result in better public services and culture.

In light of these issues, it is especially worrying, if not surprising, that Ofsted has claimed more than half of schools are failing students on religious education (RE). It is in the context of these issues that we are undertaking a new project called RE for Real. This will explore what school leavers really need to know and understand about religion and belief in the contemporary world.

We need a newly invigorated national conversation around the future of religious education in the UK, one that addresses the lack of clarity about how and where learning about religion and belief should take place, what it should consist of, and what it should be for.

I believe that schools can and should play a crucial role in shaping how young people engage with the presence and diversity of religion and belief in the world around them. But the only way to enable them to do this is if we garner the views of teachers, parents, pupils and employers about what sorts of knowledge and skills school leavers should develop about religion and belief.

This is a real time of religious crisis in the UK. Our children cannot continue to be let down by having a poor religious context. In the UK, where we celebrate the vitality of a diverse life, we need to talk about religion more, and provide our children with the best religious education.

Professor Adam Dinham is Director of the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is Professor of Faith and Public Policy

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.