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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser