My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Atheism in religious education - Why I will not sign the petition

Every three days at the moment I am using this blog to post about the continuing story of our Ethiopian pilgrimage. If you came to the site expecting that, you only have to wait until tomorrow for the next episode. But I hope you will read on…

As I struggled to open a new DVD packet I wondered why it had to be so difficult to gain access through all the cellophane and stickers. Cynically perhaps, I thought this may be an anti-theft device. But then am I so wrong? We seem to be living increasingly in a dishonest world - where the prevailing attitude seems to be that if we can get away with it, then why not. Shop lifting statistics are appalling. I see petty pilfering all around me. Without the cellophane I assume the fear is that someone would remove the DVD in the shop and walk out with it without paying. 
Where the Ark of the Covenant holding the
Ten Commandments is reputedly kept in Axum

I was brought up in a Christian culture and household, I learnt the Ten Commandments by heart and knew that it was wrong to steal. It would never ever have occurred to me to take anything from any shop on the long walk from the school through the town to the school bus. Now our local town has to impose a rule: no more than two students in the shop at any time and all bags to be left outside. I find that shocking. "Thou shalt not steal" still guides my life - that and all the other Commandments too. But that is not what I see all around me. What has happened to basic morality? A morality that has been grounded in religious values for so many years.

I have just been asked to sign a petition to tell Nicky Morgan to teach humanism and atheism as part of religious education in British schools. I won't. Whatever the November 2015 High Court judgment and the subsequent Department for Education statement say, religious education should be about - guess what - religion, in the same way that history lessons should teach history, science lessons teach science, and so on.

Worship Ethiopian Orthodox style
The organisation American Atheists says on its website that "the only common thread that ties all atheists together is a lack of belief in gods and supernatural beings." They stress that it is not a belief system, or a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods, neither is it a religion. Why therefore should it be included in Religious Studies. There is no place for it there - indeed nothing to teach about it.

When we teach about different religions, we teach about understanding those different religions, including the moral values which they support. And only with understanding can we foster respect. And I do not see that respect for religious beliefs from where I am sitting - it is certainly lacking among some of the new angry militant atheists who are anything but neutral and seem to argue their non-beliefs in their own fundamentalist way, almost like a new "religion." And an irreligious society does not seem to have served our moral and ethical values too well.

All of this is behind why I wrote Why Religions Work. The title could have been Why Religions Matter - because that is part of my story, and a very important one. Religions are social capital writ large, in many different ways. But there is a subtler more spiritual and transcendent message in the book which is not always being picked up on by the readers and in reviews. And that is a shame.
Because whether we like it or not we are all spiritual animals. And if we share a common spirit, then the religions have so much more in common, share so much more than is often given credit for - and this I believe is a key to interfaith harmony.

Debre Birhan Selassie
church wall paintings Ethiopia  
Of one thing I am sure. There is simply not enough respect for religions, particularly in the Western world. In writing Why Religions Work I wanted to make a serious contribution to understanding why we all need to support religion as well as spirituality. Further, I wanted to explore how a global spiritual awareness, an appreciation of spiritual human inter-connectivity and therefore shared responsibilities, may help; why different ideas of spirituality, alongside advances in the scientific understanding of empathy and consciousness, may be closing the gap between science and religion, between spirituality and religion, perhaps even helping to forge a clearer path towards better inter- religious and inter-denominational understanding; and why this matters for the future of our world.

We need spirituality. And we need religions. We need them both very much indeed. And there is nothing to teach about atheism in a class on religions. So I will not sign that petition.


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