Last week the antennae of some minor imp at the Daily Mail were twitched by the news that Cornwall's Religious Education syllabus is to include paganism for the first time. Not a huge story for the Mail, but just enough of a hint of "political correctness gone mad" for the paper to generate a bit of indignation. This was soon picked up by the kind of Christian organisations that respond to the same stimuli as the Mail, the Christian Institute reporting it with suitably pursed lips. And the Church Times duly arrived at the story on Friday. Except, of course, being the Church Times, the last bastion of responsible journalism in this country, it obtained a series of quotes from people in Cornwall who actually know something about it, and turned it into something quite uncontroversial.
David Hampshire is absolutely right. Cornwall has both a huge pile of ancient pagan sites, and a whole load of people who like doing religious or quasi-religious things around those sites. The fact that what they do there is probably nothing like what the original builders intended to do is irrelevant. It may be that you think that "paganism" is facile, fabricated, religion-as-weekend-hobby for those who don't fit easily into society, but that is also irrelevant. If we're going to have such a thing as Religious Education, and since it is the only national curriculum subject in which local variation is allowed, then the pagans ought to be in there with everybody else. In any case there are lots of people who think the same things about Christianity.
It's time to repudiate the curious idea that the content of RE is a battleground for Christians to fight on, and that inclusion on the syllabus is a privilege to defended against newcomers, or that the exact percentage coverage for each religion should be statistically mapped to the number of adherents it has. RE as an academic discipline is about comparative religion, examining the similarities and differences. And that in itself should make us pause for thought.
The whole RE project makes the assumption that religion can be studied and observed, like plant diversity or the dairy industry. This is not something which can be easily reconciled with religious belief. For the Christian at least, studying the aspects of our religion is only really worthwhile if it is done with the intent of deepening faith, something which is expressly excluded from the teaching of RE.
I find it odd that from time to time, church leaders feel obliged to go into bat for RE, as they did last year during the introduction of Mr Gove's "English Baccalaureate". I wonder what we have to gain by perpetuating a school subject that studies religion in much the same way as a Victorian scientist would study beetles, pinning them lifeless to a board, side by side with other interesting specimens. If the pagans want to join Christians and others in receiving that kind of treatment, then good luck to them.