YouGov have just undertaken a poll on behalf of the Oxford University Education Department to judge the attitude of people in England to the teaching of Religious Education (RE). (
). The support for such teaching was strong:
“In the poll of a random sample of 1,832 adults in England, 64 per cent agreed that children need to learn about Christianity in order to understand English history; 57 per cent agreed it was needed to understand the English culture and way of life; and 44 per cent said they thought that more attention should be given to such teaching. Areas of Christianity that people regarded as particularly important for children to learn about in RE were the history of Christianity (58 per cent), major Christian events and festivals (56 per cent), and how Christianity distinguishes right from wrong (51 per cent).”(
This is very welcome. In the Go-Between the novelist L P Hartley famously wrote “The past is a foreign country”. Clichéd as that now is it contains a serious truth. When, for example, an Englishman goes to America he finds much that is familiar; the trappings of modernity in the cities and towns, the motorways, the cars and so on. It is not difficult for an Englishman to feel comfortable there. But there are also differences: the ways in which English is spoken, the food , the conduct of the law and politics and much more. Less obvious but more important are the differences in mentality between one culture and the next, even two such as England and the USA which have much culturally in common. If an Englishman goes to France he still sees much which is familiar because France has the trappings of modernity, but the differences between England and France are more pronounced If an Englishman visits China the differences will be starker still and if he goes to a Third World country such as Rwanda the sense of being in an alien culture will be profound.
Studying the past is akin to visiting foreign countries. Even when it is the history of the country in which a person has been born and raised, there are always the differences, many subtle, some glaring. That is why having a good understanding of the surface facts – dates, battles, institutions and so on – as retailed by historians is not enough for a firm grasp of the past, although the surface facts, especially the chronological details, are essential. The differences in how those in the past viewed the world, especially what was of prime importance to them compared with what we think is important, must be understood. For most of the English past nothing has been more important than religion as both a shaper of the individual mentality and the creator of institutions and social norms. That is why an understanding of Christianity is essential for English children) because so much of English history was shaped by Christianity and much of the general shape of English society today is ultimately the consequence of the actions of those driven by Christian beliefs. (I write incidentally, not as a believer but an agnostic – see
Much of what we value in our society is the result of a sense of Christian religious duty to aid the unfortunate. The idea of charity lies at the heart of Christianity. Academic education (and even literacy) survived in the English mediaeval world because of the Church and until the latter half of the nineteenth century English education was dominated by schools which were religiously inspired. Many of England’s best known schools (Eton, Winchester, Westminster, Charterhouse) and her two premier universities Oxford and Cambridge have their origins in Christian endowments, as do some of her most famous hospitals (Barts, the Royal Free, Guy’s and St Thomas’ ). Trade unions and the co-operative movement - major sources of non-state corporate social support for the poor well into the 1960s – both had strong religious roots in Christian socialism. Much of Britain’s most impressive architecture is contained within its churches and cathedrals. The English language is gilded with many phrases from the King James’ Bible: A broken heart, A fly in the ointment, A leopard cannot change its spots, A multitude of sins (
). In its many small fields and hedgerows , the English countryside caries the marks of the enclosure movement whose first wave was led by the monasteries before the Reformation.
More broadly the development of parliamentary government (an English invention) can be ascribed in large part to the strains of Protestantism (the English Nonconformist sects) which treated the relationship between the individual and God as one which did not need to be mediated by priests but, rather, was something which came to fruition through self-constructed prayers and study by the lay individual of the Bible and the book Common Prayer in English. This individualism began in the 14th Century with the first complete translation of the Bible into English (the Wycliffe or Lollard Bible) and came to full flower with the Reformation. Men and women could for the first time, if they were literate, read the Bible for themselves. This religious individualism could and did translate itself into political individualism where the individual was seen not as a vassal but as an active political player. This mixture of religious and political activism reached its height in the period 1640-60, the time of Civil War, Commonwealth and Protectorate (see
The spirit of individualism also flowed into economic behaviour and played at least a significant part in the commercial and then industrial development which led to the first and only bootstrapped industrial revolution. Many of the great(and lesser) entrepreneurs of the industrial revolution - Josiah Wedgewood and Abraham Darby are good examples – were Nonconformists. These were people who saw success in business, as evidence of God’s favour or at least proof of the living of a godly life, but it may also have been a consequence of the fact , as we shall shortly see, that Nonconformists were excluded from public life until the 19th century.
The religious mentality
But there is far more to understanding Christianity than counting the outcomes of Christian belief. Even more important is to get inside the heads of those living in an intensely religious world. It is immensely difficult for English men and women today, even if they are professing Christians, to comprehend what religion has meant in England in the past. Imagine a world in which a belief, or at least a professed belief, in Christianity was not simply a question of personal choice but a matter of life or death. Nor was it a case of simply believing in a Christian God, it had to be the “right” variety of Christian belief That was England until well into the 17th century when the death penalty for heresy, blasphemy, atheism and suchlike offences remained until the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Act 1677 was passed removing the ultimate punishment. But until well into the 19th century Non-conformists, Catholics , Jews and unbelievers remained under considerable legal disadvantages such as a bar to holding many public offices – including being an MP – because the Corporation Act of 1661 and the Test Act of 1673 required office holders to at least pretend to be Anglicans. The Acts were not invariably rigorously enforced for Nonconformists, but they were still a considerable bar to playing a part in public life.
Apart from the legal deterrents to not following the “right” beliefs, there was immense social pressure to conform. The philosopher David Hume, almost certainly an agnostic at best and atheist at worst, remained coy about his exact beliefs until he lay on his deathbed in the late 18th century because of the fear of being thought an unbeliever. Remnants of that social pressure can still be seen in the reluctance of leading present day politicians to publicly declare themselves unbelievers.
But the imposition of a prescribed religion by the state was not simply a matter of social control, although the hierarchical nature of the relationship of the god in Christianity, Islam and Judaism and believers does serve that purpose, it mimicking the relationship between lord and vassal. Large numbers of people, including those with power and influence, took their religion extremely seriously for it was the very centre of their lives. Part of that was the individual’s fear of Hell and Purgatory opposed to the promised reward for the virtuous of Heaven. But there was also a social dimension because people believed that worshipping in the “right” manner was essential to the wellbeing of society, that to do otherwise would bring the wrath of God in the form of war, pestilence and famine. To cry heretic when that is sincerely believed is not a contemptible act in the eyes of believers but a matter of social responsibility. (It is entirely different from the politically correct today crying racist, because the imposition of politically correct ideas arises not from a belief that their absence will result in punishment by an outside agency but from a wish to create the world in the image of the politically correct. )
There was also something which might be described as religious infatuation. Men and most commonly women had an intensely personal relationship with their imagined God. Those who took the veil and entered convents were brides of Christ and some displayed behaviour which suggests a sublimated sexual infatuation with the idea of Jesus. Men subscribed to worship of the virgin Mary in similar fashion. Saints were venerated and their places of burial the sites of pilgrimage. Relics of saints and best of all Christ – a thorn supposedly from Christ’s crown of thorns or even better a splinter from the True Cross stood at the top of the relic pecking order – were treated with immense reverence and accorded what in other circumstances would be accounted occult powers, especially of healing and protection against disaster.
There was a baser side to religion. Human nature being what it is, the clergy often seemed more intent on growing rich than tending their flocks or worshipping God. Indulgencies to expunge the wages of sin and reduce time in Purgatory were sold cynically by Pardoners. Pride was shown both by priestly display and in the claims of some of the more exhibitionist ascetics to being the most unworthy of men. The Reformation of the 16th Century was in large part the child of many centuries of dissatisfaction with the venal and unconscientious nature of many of the clergy. Nor was the great mass of the English population models of Christian restraint and piety. William Langland’s 14th Century Piers Plowman draws a vivid picture of both the failures of the clergy and the often riotously disrespectful laity.
But these abuses were seen as the shortcomings of men not of God. Religious belief was often not merely sincere but intimidatingly sincere. The dire torments which the religious have willingly borne when they could have been avoided simply by recanting (as was normally the case with the Inquisition and something prescribed in canon law) or accepting that the emperor was a god (as with Imperial Rome ) are astonishing. There are few if any of the dimensions of torture which the religious have not suffered, death by fire, pressing with weights and being slowly lowered into molten lead are just a few. Nor were the exalted spared. Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (collectively the Oxford Martyrs) were burnt at the stake in 1555 during the reign of the Catholic Mary I.
Beneath Christianity lay the ancestral remnants of older religions and superstitions. Most English men and women still lived in a world full of the supernatural. Satan and his manifestations and helpers were aboard in the world in the minds of even many of the educated. As late as the 17th Century witches were regularly accused and frequently executed, often by burning. Eclipses of the sun could provoke widespread panic.
To the modern mind raised in a society which is both secular in spirit and rational in intent (because of scientific knowledge), beliefs in the supernatural will often seem absurd . But place yourself in a world without any scientific understanding and it does not seem ridiculous. It is not difficult to see how belief in the supernatural would arise in a big-brained animal with a high degree of self-awareness. It would be natural for hunter-gatherers to think that the world was controlled by gods and spirits as they witnessed volcanic eruptions, floods, thunder and lightning or saw anything inanimate which moved such as a river to be in some sense alive. What more natural in such circumstances to imagine the sun was dying as winter drew in and the days shortened and the gods needed to be placated by sacrifice to prevent the death? What more natural if you believe in gods and spirits to turn to the shaman to control and placate the gods and spirits with potions and spells or to practice sympathetic magic by enacting or drawing on cave walls an event such as a successful hunt for game?
Even when societies become considerably larger and more sophisticated than that of the hunter-gatherer tribe the same fears exist. Superstition exists strongly in the most advanced societies as evidenced by the many people who are psychologically dependent on a talisman such as a lucky object (which can be anything) or performing certain actions in a certain order – professional sportsmen are particularly prone to this type of self-comforting. Perhaps there is little difference between this and the belief in Christian relics. Obsessive compulsive disorders could be seen as extreme examples of the superstitious trait diverted to other overt purposes. Human beings wish to be in control and even in a modern advanced state they often do not feel they are and seek comfort blankets where they can.
The broader picture
A knowledge and understanding of Christianity is of course also a necessary tool for interpreting European history. Just as England’s history has been shaped by Christianity, so has Europe’s and that of the vast lands which have their origins in European colonialism and exist today with a population predominantly drawn from Europe and cultures which have their roots in those of Europe: North America, much of central and Southern America , Australia and New Zealand.
More broadly still, the traits which are evident in Christians are a guide to the religious experience of other non-Christian lands, for the religious impulse if not the theology is the same.
Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly
Man got to sit and wonder why, why, why?
Tiger got rest, bird got to land,
Man got to tell himself he understand
(Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut)
But the utility of understanding the sociology and psychology of religion goes far beyond religion. It provides a guide to secular ideologies and their adherents. By ideology I mean a set of ideas, religious or secular, to which an individual subscribes blindly regardless of the objective and testable truth of the ideology or of any contradictions which it may contain.
The same qualities which create religious belief can be placed in the service of secular all-encompassing ideologies such as Marxism and Fascism which offer the same psychological anchors and incentives as religions such as Christianity and Islam provide: the idea that there is something greater than the individual; a universal guide to living a life; the promise of the jam of a better life if not tomorrow at least sometime; the satisfaction of the tribal urge; the absolution from moral obligation to those who are outside the group and, perhaps above all, the sense of a journey which lends meaning to the individual life.
The totalitarian ideology which is political correctness is the best modern example in the West of how the religious impulse has been shifted from formal religion to a secular belief. The politically make objectively incorrect claims such as a heterogeneous society is superior and much desirable to a homogeneous one (objectively incorrect because the heterogeneous society is invariably more unstable and fractious than the heterogeneous one – let the reader provide an contrary example if they wish to dispute this), that race is simply a social construct (the general physical differences in populations which we call races would not exist if humans did not treat racial difference as a potent barrier to interbreeding) or there is no innate difference between the capabilities and mentality of a man and a woman (tell that to a woman giving birth), the apparent differences being simply a matter of social conditioning. These assertions are every bit as absurd, because reality contradicts them, as the belief of Catholics that transubstantiation means that literally the blood of and body of Christ enter the wine and bread during Holy Communion or the belief of Muslims that the Koran was dictated to Mohammed by the Archangel Gabriel.
How do ideologies develop? The evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins’ concept of the meme applies with especial force to ideologies sacred or profane. The meme is the mental equivalent of a gene. It is, like the gene, a replicator. Here is Dawkins defining it:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: `… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.(3) When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’ (
Memes are arguably the most important evolutionary insight since Darwin’s formulation of natural selection. Dawkins has not received the praise he deserves , most probably because the concept does imply a great deal of determinism in human thought , something which makes most human beings , if they think about the matter at all, decidedly uncomfortable.
Ideologies are a special class of meme because they are not a single discrete entity as many memes are. They have the ability to not merely mutate, which could be said of any meme just as it could be said of any gene, but the capacity to build endlessly complicating systems of thought, chains of memes link in a network of belief. These systems of thought at their most extreme purport to not merely explain how to seek a given end but to provide a model of the entirety of reality.
Homo Sapiens is very susceptible to the passing of memes both because many are useful or enjoyable and because being a big-brained animal with language and a high degree of self-awareness human beings are innately curious and questioning. Those qualities also make humans acutely aware of possible dangers and opportunities which require reasoning and solutions. But like genes memes can be beneficial, indifferent or harmful in their effects. Ideologies are never entirely benign because they require coercion to maintain their dominance for there will always bee dissenters from the ideology. That is particularly true of secular ideologies, not least because unlike religions they can be tested against reality. Nonetheless, there is a clear difference between ideologies which require people to behave in a way which acts against the coherence and stability of their society and those which result in obnoxious consequences for those within the society deemed heretics but do not strike at the natural unity that a homogeneous society displays.
An example of the former type of ideology is political correctness, which has at its centre the principle of non-discrimination regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual inclination. This principle leads to a policy of large scale immigration of those who cannot or will not assimilate, into very homogeneous societies such as England and the suppression of dissent by the native population against the practice. This both neglects the wishes of the native population and invariably results in a fractured (because immigrant ghettos always form) and authoritarian society as those responsible for the resulting multicultural/racial mess desperately try to prevent the native population shouting treason and traitor and holding those responsible to account.
The latter type of ideology can have very different effects on a society however damaging they may seem to be when witnessed at a particular point. For example, any theocracy will almost certainly have an innate tendency to enhance the natural tribal instincts of whatever society it holds in thrall. It may damage individuals who are deemed heretics or unbelievers, but by its nature it will not allow vast numbers of immigrants who do not share whatever is the faith to enter. Not only that, by espousing a system of belief which is to be shared by all, those who do share the faith to the satisfaction of the theocrats will form a natural barrier against any attempt by those who are different even if they nominally share the faith because there will always be reasons to be found for saying those not wanted for racial or ethnic reasons other than religion are doctrinally unsound. By retaining the integrity of the group, the ideology has, however damaging it may have been in other ways, has preserved the means for the society to survive and in time evolve to a less oppressive state. The society made heterogeneous by creeds such as political correctness is damaged fundamentally and may never recover.
How should religion be taught in schools?
I suggest this. The English school curriculum is overflowing with subjects competing for space so it is pointless proposing a scheme of religious education which would take up much time. An hour a week is probably what most pupils will get at present. That might seem too little to encompass the curriculum I suggest, but a great deal can be taught even in an hour a week over a period of twelve or thirteen years in school. There is also a strong case for cancelling religious education as a separate subject and incorporating it into history teaching. That could extend the time available for religious teaching by one or two hours, although sadly history teaching is badly neglected in English state schools at present. However, there are serious moves afoot to increase its presence in schools and develop a decent English/British history curriculum. (
) . The subject could also be worked into lessons dealing with politics to show the dangers of ideology.
The tenets of religion should be taught not as a fact or with the intention of either engendering religious belief or of reinforcing an existing belief, but as propositions which can be examined for their truth or falsity, as history and, most importantly, as psychological and sociological traits and events.
Obviously not all those things could be taught to all ages. The teaching of primary school children should concentrate on facts (I always give at least two cheers for Mr Gradgrind) and Bible stories. As the child moves into secondary education they can begin to receive the intellectual, psychological and sociological ramifications of religion.
In England the emphasis should be overwhelmingly on Christianity for the simple reasons that it is the religion which has been written into the English story for over fourteen centuries and is the religion, in its various forms, which has written much of the stories of the foreign lands into whose historical clutch England has longest been, namely, the countries and peoples of Europe.
Knowledge of other religions should be given briefly to show the things they share both with Christianity and amongst themselves. Islam and Judaism should be given more prominence than the others because the former is the one major no-Christian religion to war directly with Europe and for a time to occupy European territory while the latter is a religion which has existed in Europe for longer than Christianity.
The intent of the new religious curriculum is simple: it is not to make children into theologians, but to give them a glimpse of the way people were in the religious past and how this affected their lives, the wars they fought , how they thought and the influence they have on English society today.