Today in Birmingham

…there’s an event called “Tackling Radicalisation and Promoting Community Integration” and I’m copying the agenda here because even without attending it contains some useful information.

Chair’s Welcome Address

Kim Sadique, Interim Head of Community and Criminal Justice Division, De Montfort University Leicester

Morning Keynote: Preventing Radicalisation and the Role of Community Integration

  • Discussing the next steps following the announcement of The Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill in the Queens Speech 2016
  • Outlining the government’s long term vision to tackle radicalisation
  • Exploring what the The Revised Prevent Duty Guidance means in practice and organisations legal responsibilities
  • Recognising the need for close cooperation and partnership working across police, communities and the voluntary sector
  • Identifying vulnerable and at risk members of the community then providing appropriate intervention and de-radicalisation support

Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal MBE DL, West Midlands Regional Prevent Lead, Department for Education 

Case Study: Celebrating Diversity and Building Community Cohesion – Lessons from a Further Education Institution

  • Outlining innovative initiatives to celebrate diversity and enhance community cohesion at Bradford College
  • Being praised by Ofsted for the colleges approach to successfully implementing Prevent
  • Exploring what promoting ‘British Values’ means in practice
  • Excelling in outreach and building strong partnerships with the local community

Assia Hussain, Curriculum Diversity Coordinator & Operational Prevent Lead, Bradford College

Case Study: Encouraging Community Cohesion Through Schooling

  • Exploring how the ‘no outsiders in our school’ ethos creates an inclusive atmosphere based around tolerance and respect
  • Discussing how the no outsiders ethos is delivered in practice including through the curriculum
  • Building strong links and positive communicative relationships with parents and community groups
  • Celebrating diversity and working to embed respect of difference

Hazel Pulley, Head Teacher, Parkfield Primary School

Case Study: Working Within Communities to Prevent Online Radicalisation

  • Exploring the current evidence on the process of how individuals can become radicalised online
  • Recognising the growing role of social media and the internet in creating networks and links between radicalised individuals
  • Understanding how extremists target vulnerable individual’s online and building resilience to this
  • Involving communities in local strategies to tackle radicalisation: Outlining plans for a ‘Community Challenge’ Panel in Leicester

William Baldet, Prevent Coordinator, St Philip’s Centre for Study and Engagement in a Multi-Faith Society

Case Study: Tackling Extremism Through Holistic Support of Vulnerable Individuals

  • Outlining the aims and success of the ‘Pathwayz’ project
  • Appreciating how extremists often target people who may be more susceptible at that point in their lives due to mental health problems and/or addiction and providing tailored support to tackle both the addiction and the extremist ideology
  • Building strong links across the community and with the local authority
  • Recognising the role community based services that support individuals vulnerable to substance misuse and alcohol addiction problems can play in tackling radicalisation

Mohammed Ashfaq, Service Manager, KIKIT Pathways to Recovery

Afternoon Keynote: The Role of Local Authorities in Encouraging Cohesion and Reducing Radicalisation

  • Encouraging young people’s civic engagement through initiatives including the trailblazers project
  • Upskilling staff through WRAP and Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) training

Waqar Ahmed MBE, Prevent Manager, Birmingham City Council 

Case Study: Recognising the Importance of the Voluntary Sector in Tackling Radicalisation

  • Exploring potential behavioral changes that could indicate a person is in the process of being radicalised
  • Recognising how crucial working with families is to tackle radicalisation
  • Providing support and advice to vulnerable individuals and their families
  • Understanding the importance of creating a trusting independent space that provides confidential support

Saleha Jaffer, Founder, Families Against Stress and Trauma

Case Study: Building Strong Community Links to Prevent Radicalisation

  • Undertaking an innovative scheme to train all 1000 licensed taxi drivers in the area on a wide range of safeguarding issues given their unique position within the community
  • Working in partnership with local residents and communities to create networks and undertake outreach from a grassroots level upwards
  • Understanding the crucial importance of partnership working between the local authority, third sector, police and communities
  • Integrating prevent within the wider work of the council and training all staff to equip them with the skills needed to feel confident discharging the prevent duty

Sadia Hussain, PREVENT Coordinator, Calderdale Council and Sail Suleman, Cohesion and Equality Officer, Calderdale Council 

Case Study: Sharing Success in Promoting Community Integration

  • Providing the opportunity for young people to undertake honest and open dialogue confronting and dismantling prejudices and racism
  • Recognising the crucial role of the voluntary sector in improving community cohesion and tackling extremism
  • Breaking down barriers between different community groups and challenging ‘us’ and ‘them’ narratives

Dave Allport, Director, Rewind

Religion and mental health

I’m cheesed off whenever an atheist says that religion is a mental illness. No it’s not. As much as I don’t think one exists, and that believers are wrong, it is still normal and natural to believe in a god.

But there are ways in which theism interacts with mental health: it have can have positive health benefits for some people, and for others it can be debilitating. Some people clearly are, or at least appear to be, better people for believing. It gives them the order and/or sense of purpose they crave. And so be it. On the other hand, some people suffer inside for their beliefs, usually because they are incompatible with the rest of their view of the world, and squaring the circle can cause mental anguish, especially if there is such a stark win/lose outcome at stake.

But I’m going to put those interactions to one side for a moment and look at the relationship between religion and the mentally ill. Sometimes when an atrocity takes place that seems to be religiously (or culturally) motivated, people will excuse the religion by saying that the perpetrator was not well, and was not being a Muslim/Christian/Jew etc. at the time of the violence. Other adherents will say, yes, the holy book/spiritual leader etc. did say that we should kill gays/atheists/Westerners etc. but no-one in their right mind would actually do it!

And there’s the rub. The extreme teachings of fundamentalist leaders are very dangerous things when fed into weakened minds. The teachers think they’re very clever being so literalist and pure and so on, but they’re alright, Jack. It’s their foot soldiers, hundreds of miles away who are getting turned on by the quick fix of religious righteousness. Bam – more innocent lives needlessly lost. Bam – fire up the vlog and tell the world that they had it coming to them. Inspire the next feckless soul to do your dirty work.

This is murder by proxy.


On free speech in universities

There’s been a worrying trend of late for some university staff and (especially) students to want to create a “safe space” where feelings aren’t hurt. Don’t get me wrong, universities should be safe spaces in many respects: they should be places where everyone is safe from physical harm, for example, and from bullying; and they should be places where one should feel safe to study and say whatever one wants in an academic context. There should also be places of retreat, where students can go to avoid the rough and tumble of open discourse, some of which can and should be very challenging.

But students should not want, and not be able to, avoid those challenging ideas when it comes to their studies, and they should want to continue that exposure in extra-curricular settings too. “Safe space” should never mean, or come to mean, a real or virtual place where one can discuss one’s subject without having one’s ideas challenged, or that one can choose if one wishes to avoid chunks of a subject because you’re prejudiced against them or you think they go against your beliefs.**

But I am not in favour of unrestricted free speech at universities. Certain viewpoints are beyond the pale. For example, the view that certain people ought to be killed for their beliefs. The argument for unrestricted free speech is that people with abhorrent views should be allowed to speak and their ideas will be evidently foolish and no-one will agree with them, or that their interlocutors will easily defeat them in debate. But this is naïve.

Time and again we see people saying the most ridiculous things – often met with derision – and yet people support them. David Icke was laughed at the night he first appeared on “Wogan” spouting his nonsense, and people still laugh at him now, but he now has millions of followers! The oxygen of publicity is a potent substance.

Go to a Truth Juice event, or to a fundamentalist religious meeting, and, as sad as it may be, no-one, or almost no-one, leaves the event going “Crikey, that was bollocks!” It’s so easy to get swept up in a one-sided argument. And even when it’s a debate, people have a tendency to side with a person, or a group of people, rather than listening properly to the words and computing what they mean. Look for example at the activities of IERA. Hamza Tzortzis is very happy to debate with atheists. He is completely confident that no-one in the audience who is “on his side” will change sides by the end. At debates between groups, people come to cheer their side as much as to listen to what is said. And often the tone and the phrasing of the “opposition” doesn’t match the language one is used to, and this makes it almost inaudible.

So, yes, let’s have free speech in universities. If you don’t want to listen, don’t ban someone or shout them down, just go back to your room. But let’s not have speech that breaks laws, whether or not it is considered to be somehow defensible because of historical or religious acceptability. Rhetoric is a powerful tool and sometimes it should be treated like we treat viruses and isotopes, and only experimented on under laboratory conditions, wearing suitable protection.

Adrian Bailey

**There is a caveat to this. There are people, quite a lot of people, who have particular problems: perhaps they’ve served in Afghanistan, or they’ve been sexually molested, or they suffer from depression, and so on, and universities do have a duty of care. University can be a difficult place at the best of times, and for some people it can be very hard indeed, and it’s in no-one’s interest to be blasé. So, yes, as ludicrous as it may sound, some lectures and texts should have “trigger warnings”, and tutors and therapists should discuss individual difficulties with students in order that they can get the most out of their studies without causing themselves further harm.

How not to lead

In the midst of such a crisis, it’s been sad to hear our prime minister come out with one stupid sentence after another.

  • “The most important thing is to try to bring peace and stability to that part of the world.” No, it isn’t. Not right now it isn’t. And when are we going to do that anyway? Are we capable of achieving it? How long is it going to take? It’ll be too late, if ever.
  • I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees.” More and more? The UK has hardly taken in any. It’s not the job of a prime minister to talk like an uninformed or brutish voter! Of course there’s an answer that can be achieved by taking in refugees: saving people’s lives.
  • “As a father I feel deeply moved by the sight of that young boy on a beach in Turkey.” No, you felt moved as a human being.
  • “We will fulfil our moral responsibilities.” On our behalf, the government does do quite a bit, but in no sense (other than in the mind of a politician) is that the fulfilment of our moral responsibilities, as hundreds of thousands of people are expressing to him right now.


Right to die? the doctors who believe in it

If life has become intolerable, should Dignitas be an option? Carol Midgley meets the medics who say it should

I find Dr Colin Brewer in his kitchen at home enjoying a civilised glass of afternoon wine with Dr Michael Irwin, former medical director of the United Nations, who in some newspapers goes by the somewhat hyperbolic title Dr Death. It is all quite jolly and old-school considering we are here to discuss a decidedly unjolly subject: suicide. Or specifically medically assisted rational suicide (MARS).

The doctors have co-authored a new book advocating MARS with the wry title I’ll See Myself Out, Thank You. It features a series of articles written by supporters of the campaign for law change from the Reverend Dr Paul Badham to Baroness Warnock to The Times’ columnist Melanie Reid. What has already made waves is that in one section Brewer, a psychiatrist, lists seven people for whom he has provided psychiatric evaluations supporting their applications to Dignitas by establishing they had the mental capacity to make that decision.

Only one of them was suffering from a terminal illness. Their complaints range from crippling arthritis coupled with heart disease to early Alzheimer’s to an elderly woman with a history of depression who had developed a progressive illness and an intractable pain. One, named Eddie, whom Brewer describes as a “truly charismatic person, witty, well-informed and very articulate” is going blind. He lost much of his sight in an accident, is now losing the rest and dreads living in a world of blackness.

Brewer writes with candour that “from a purely selfish point of view” he wishes Eddie, who is in his sixties, would delay or even abandon his planned journey to Switzerland but Eddie is resolved. “Like me, his family would prefer him to stay around but they accept that this impressive and strong-willed man is entitled to his own definition of intolerable suffering.”

Critics see these cases as a challenge to the director of public prosecutions and an exploitation of the guidelines. The doctors say it is no such thing. “I don’t see how doing a medical report can be construed as aiding and abetting”, says Brewer, 71, who is research director of the Stapleford Centre, a private addiction clinic in London. “I’m not helping people to die. Sometimes in fact it’s quite the reverse: I have to hinder them if they don’t have the mental capacity. Sometimes I say: ‘I don’t think you’ve exhausted all the reasonable treatments; there might be something you’d be interested in and could consider.’ ”

Irwin, 83, has accompanied four people to Dignitas, two of whom had a terminal illness. In 2005 he was struck off by the GMC after he admitted trying to help a terminally ill friend Patrick Kneen to die. He travelled to the Isle of Man in 2003 with about 60 temazepam. Kneen, a right-to-die campaigner, was in the event too ill to take them and slipped into a coma, dying a few days later without Irwin’s help.

“They [the GMC] asked, ‘Would you do it again?’ and I said, ‘I won’t promise not to’, so I was struck off,” Irwin says. Brewer too has been struck off but for a reason unrelated to assisted dying. It was after he was accused of inappropriate drug prescribing to his addiction patients. The singer Shaun Ryder and music entrepreneur Alan McGee, however, have told of how his methods helped them overcome their drug problems.

The doctors hope the book, “a reasoned libertarian argument”, will be read by the public and by the medical profession (polls suggest that up to 75 per cent of the population is in favour of changing the law on assisted suicide but the British Medical Association is not), but equally they hope it will flag up a looming spectre: dementia. In 2009 Irwin established the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide, which promotes law change so that very elderly, mentally competent individuals who are suffering from various medical problems are allowed to receive a doctor’s assistance to die if this is their persistent request. He and Brewer believe that dementia is now people’s main ageing concern.

“I find when talking to people, certainly over the age of 50, that the biggest reason they have for a living will is the fear of dementia,” Irwin says. “It’s not cancer or things like that, it’s dementia now.” The problem for any dementia sufferer who might want to end their life, however, is that in most cases to qualify you have to have mental capacity at the time. In Dutch law people can make an “advance decision” so that when they lose mental capacity they can still have euthanasia, but such “anticipatory deliverance” is rarely acted upon.

Who would make the decision? Might a confused person be terrified at being reminded of their previous request? “If people are serious about it they have to go early when they still have a few weeks or months of potentially enjoyable life ahead of them,” Brewer says, “but they’d rather go too soon than too late. [Advance decision] can be done and I think in the future it will be done more often, but it’s a step further than people want to discuss at the moment.”

Dementia, they say, is one of the major causes of chronic and expensive nursing-home care but they know that any mention of money inflames their opponents since it reinforces the idea of “bedblockers” being pressured into ending their lives. However, they pose the question: is not wanting to be a burden financially or otherwise such a a bad thing anyway? “People are actually very altruistic,” Brewer says. “They say, ‘I don’t want my money to be wasted on looking after me; I’d rather it went to the family or some charity I approve of.’ Other people say, ‘I don’t want the state to have to spend money on me. I’d rather it went to younger, fit people who have a chance of recovery.’ ” And there’s no problem with that? “Not at all. It’s very praiseworthy”.

In the book Baroness Warnock argues that with dementia increasing there is a “strong argument for enabling such patients to make an advance decision that would be fully and properly respected”. She believes that since making general sacrifices for one’s family is seen as a virtue, why should one not be allowed to “exercise that virtue at the end of one’s life”?

Many, though, will be alarmed by the idea of the non-terminally ill being helped to commit suicide. Alastair Thompson, a spokesman for Care Not Killing, said he found this a “deeply depressing” debate around dementia. “We need to be having a proper debate in this country about how we care for people with dementia, how we fund research into new drugs and treatment,” he says. “Depressingly, we seem to be stuck [with] half a dozen people who are pushing an agenda that will actually see the execution of people, the killing of people with dementia. It’s completely the wrong end of the telescope.”

Thompson says that the law in Belgium now means it is possible to euthanise disabled babies. Asked about the claim that people would rather leave their money to their children than spend it on nursing fees he says: “It’s a bizarre situation where they’re saying everybody’s life has some finite worth to it and as a consequence let the accountants decide at what point it’s worth treating someone or not.”

This week it emerged that a Belgian man is going to the European Court of Human Rights after his depressed mother Godelieve De Troyer, 64, was killed by lethal injection there at her own request even though she was physically healthy. Two elderly Scottish cousins committed suicide together in Switzerland in November because they feared being put in separate nursing homes. Neither Stuart Henderson, in the early stages of dementia and partially blind, nor Phyllis McConachie, who had injured her hip in a fall, was terminally ill.

When I visited Dignitas in 2003 I was told of a French brother and sister aged 31 and 29 who were suffering from schizophrenia and entered a suicide pact there. Had Dignitas refused, they planned to kill themselves on a railway line. With psychiatric and non-terminal illness, though, does there not exist the hope of possible improvement? Perhaps a new drug or future treatment?

Brewer and Irwin say that if someone was suffering from a treatable psychiatric illness they would not meet the criteria. Dignitas’s bureaucracy has become more stringent in recent years: when I went you could arrive and die on the same day. Now you must see two separate doctors and the average suicide visit involves a four-day stay. However, not all mental illnesses respond to medication.

Brewer says: “If someone says, ‘I’ve been unhappy for as long as I can remember, I don’t like the sort of person I am. Nothing that anyone has done has made me like myself any better or made me think the prospects are good. I wake up every day wishing I were dead’, I mean unless you are going to argue that psychological pain is somehow less important than physical pain — and I don’t think many people would buy that — then I think you have to say there must be a place in the scheme for people with chronic unrelievable emotional and psychological illness.”

Yet might that new drug not be just around the corner? “Well, you could say that about someone with cancer,” Brewer says. Given the rates at which new cancer drugs are being developed, it’s the equivalent, he says, of saying “don’t do it” to someone with six months to live but who wants to die now because next May they might have found a cure.

Irwin says it is a mistake to focus this debate purely on the terminally ill: the Voluntary Euthanasia Society certainly never did. Neither do countries such as Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland. The criteria, he says, is simply “any adult who is competent and is suffering unbearably from an irreversible condition has the right to end their life”. Irwin believes the Belgian model of embedding voluntary euthanasia within palliative care is the right one. Brewer cites the non-terminal case of Tony Nicklinson who suffered from locked-in syndrome and resorted to starving himself to death after losing a legal battle to allow doctors to help him end his life.

Alastair Thompson cites the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which stated in evidence to the DPP that “if someone is suicidal they need help and support not the keys to the drugs cabinet”. He says: “There isn’t a single major doctors’ organisation in this country that supports changing the law on assisted dying or euthanasia.”

What many, including me, find confusing is that in the UK people are effectively allowed to slowly starve to death on the Liverpool Care Pathway, which usually involves the withdrawal of medication, food and fluids, yet we balk at the kinder alternative of ending their suffering quickly. My father-in-law, who had Alzheimer’s, died in this way and although we didn’t disagree with it, it was a long, long process that he could have been spared.

Brewer says it is blatant hypocrisy and self-deception and merely about ensuring there’s a “decent interval” between starting sedation and the death. “It’s a medically assisted fudge,” he says. “Willing to wound but afraid to strike.” Irwin says that it’s because people can end their lives at Dignitas that we allow for doctor-assisted suicide in the UK — it just takes place off-shore. He claims that many doctors are still quietly helping to end patients’ lives anyway. He cites a 2004 study by Professor Clive Seale of London University that estimated that there were about 1,000 deaths owing to voluntary euthanasia and another 2,000 deaths owing to non-voluntary euthanasia, illegally occurring annually in the UK.

In the book Irwin cites the case of Nan, one of his close friends, a former occupational therapist, mother of three and right-to-die activist whom he accompanied to Switzerland to end her life. Nan, 85, was suffering from severe osteoarthritis that restricted her life and said that her life consisted of far more pain than pleasure. She had asked Irwin to have a piece of Lindt chocolate ready for when she drank the lethal dose of barbiturate but found she didn’t need it. Her last words were: “No thanks — it is not too bad.”

After my interview Brewer emails me to say that he hopes I found them “the jolly old gents that I think we are, relaxing by a fireside, rather than as a couple of sinister and homicidal conspirators”. I assure him that I did not find them remotely sinister or homicidal. “My feeling is that as people get used to it they’ll say, ‘This is actually not a bad way to die,’ ” he says. “Why have a messy death? Is there any fundamental duty to hang on until the bitter end?”

I’ll See Myself Out, Thank You, Skyscraper Publications, £10.99

Michael Irwin is our speaker on Friday 17 April, 7.30 pm at the Moseley Exchange. Free entry. All welcome.

Rudolf Steiner in the Jewellery Quarter

Ruskin Mill Trust is going to redevelop the Standard Works on Vittoria Street in Birmingham into a new college.The Trust is quite a large independent educational organisation and already runs Glasshouse College in Stourbridge. The college “supports day and residential students aged 16 to 24 through practical skills and therapeutic education, which offers a clear pathway for delivering progression and sustainable outcomes.”

So this seems like a brilliant organisation and a wonderful project, and perhaps both these things are true. But when you scratch the surface you read the following:

The Living Earth Course combined biodynamic agriculture in a market garden with the craft curriculum sourced from the Arts and Crafts movement, the insights into human development provided by Rudolf Steiner and a commitment to responsible stewardship of the land for future generations.

This curriculum, the so-called Descent into Matter, accessed the four elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire through the three Kingdoms of Nature:

– Animal – leatherwork, felt-making and weaving
– Plant – basketry, carving and green woodwork
– Mineral – pottery, stone carving, stained glass and metalwork

Students boarded with local families, and received additional support through anthroposophic medicine and associated therapies. Crucially, students were constantly immersed in the commercial activities of the Mill: the small craft workshops, cafe and other retail outlets.

This braiding of practical education, home-making, commerce and environmental awareness gave them the unique therapeutic experience of transforming their environment into useful commodities, for exchange within the market economy.

This vision has remained at the heart of the Trust’s work ever since.

Does the discovery that this and the Trust’s other colleges are actually Steiner Schools have any effect on your attitude towards this new development? And does your opinion depend on how much of their work is funded by the taxpayer?

If you’re interested in seeing what the building and college will be like, there will be a public presentation in the banqueting suite of Birmingham Council House on Thursday 12th February at 4.30 pm.

Is SACRE prejudiced?

It’s an obvious question, but it hadn’t really occurred to me until after last night’s vote on which “fringe” religions** would be co-opted onto Birmingham SACRE. The candidates were: Baha’i, Jains, Rastafarians, Progressive Judaism, Mormons, Ahmadi Muslims, and Humanists. The first four were co-opted, the other three weren’t. It’s fair to say that the chair, Barry Henley, wasn’t pleased with this outcome. As far as he’s concerned, although SACRE has the right to choose who to co-opt, it cannot claim to be inclusive if it turns certain groups down.

Looking at the three of us who were shunned, perhaps the decision wasn’t based on prejudice, but I’d need to be convinced. The decision doesn’t appear to be based on numbers. According to the census, there are 2,200 Jews in Birmingham but there are 2 Jewish representatives.

There is certainly Muslim prejudice against Ahmadis and Christian prejudice against Mormons, since they are both considered heresies, making it difficult for them to gain membership of any club where Muslims and Christians have the whip hand. The schools minister, John Nash, will be looking into this outcome and may well intervene.


BHA briefing on previous SACRE discrimination against Humanists in Birmingham (pdf)

**Yes, I know we’re not a religion, but the Human Rights Act states that whenever Law mentions religions, it should be taken to mean religions and beliefs.

On starving the lazy to death

I think in general in running this Group it’s important to avoid party politics. Humanism is not a political party, and there are plenty of outlets for political activism. But Humanism is about humanity: “the quality of being humane; kindness; benevolence”. And one of the Conservatives’ posters at the last election stuck in my craw. It said “Let’s cut benefits for those who refuse to work.” My response was “Do the LibDems support Cameron’s policy of starving the lazy to death?”

Well, apparently they did.


One thing I’m not is a “capitalism red in tooth and claw” kind of person. I’m a social democrat, or a democratic capitalist, depending on my mood. The extremes of politics and economics don’t appeal to me because (a) they cause too much trouble and (b) they don’t seem to work. And I think most people from the three main political parties agree, or at least they used to. Now, if you’re going to have a welfare state, I think one principle is key: we support our fellow human beings to stay alive, come what may.

For most unemployed people survive on benefits, and they aren’t very much. Jobseekers Allowance for under-25s is £57.35 a week. Now, some people do game the system, but most people don’t. Most feckless people are unsurprisingly too feckless to cheat. In fact they’re doing well if they claim all that they’re entitled to. Sometimes they turn up late for appointments or fail to provide all the information that they’re asked for. (They’re usually not really lazy, but so what if they are? They’re still human.) And when this happens they lose their £57.35. We stop feeding them. We turn off the life-support machine. And you know what that makes us? Shits. Utter shits.


Religious Education, really

Adam Dinham is professor of Faith and Public Policy and director of the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. The unit is embarking on a project called “RE for Real” and he shares his two cents in this article in the New Statesman.

Now, I agree that RE has a place in the curriculum. Whether it needs to be a subject on its own, I don’t know. The way that schools split subjects up is somewhat a matter of convenience. I do think, as a minimum step, that it’d be better as Religion and Ethics. Otherwise it’s rather a boring historical survey of what certain groups of people do and used to do and why. But be that as it may, kids should learn about religion.

Here in Birmingham, RE is a matter of controversy because the local syllabus is rather evangelical. The Birmingham Position seems to be that modern RE, being secular and analytical, encourages a lack of faith. When I was a kid I spent 9 years or so just studying Christianity in RE lessons; nowadays children study a range of religions, giving the impression either that it’s simply a matter of opinion which one is true (the religious supermarket effect) or that they must all be false. The Birmingham syllabus implies that God exists, that each of us is part of a religious tradition, and that all the good values stem from that belief and tradition. Ugh.

Dinham chooses to start his article with a story about a woman who apparently didn’t know what a crucifix is. I’m not sure what to make of this anecdote. It certainly raises more questions than it answers. Firstly, it seems unlikely that any Briton could make it through several years of RE lessons without being taught about Christian symbols and the fate of Jesus. Secondly, does it really matter? Okay, it’s embarrassing when you don’t know that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066 or that the chemical symbol for water is H2O, but the value of these facts to the individual is open to debate. Thirdly, it’s probably a good idea if now and again it’s pointed out, even accidentally, how gruesome the crucifix is as a symbol.

Anyway, the point of the anecdote is that RE matters, but it hardly counts as evidence. As I read on I was rather hoping that some evidence would appear, but I was out of luck. There are lots of examples of religious stuff, but no evidence that ignorance about it is harmful. Instead we get the following statement of the obvious: “Religious illiteracy is responsible for a failure to understand and appreciate the power of religion.” Certainly religion is powerful but perhaps understanding that leads us to give it too much respect? I have to say that education fails much more by omitting to teach children about the power of politics and business than it succeeds by teaching them about the power of religion – if your average RE syllabus actually gets that across.

Dinham continues, tendentiously: “[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.” He mentions Trojan Horse and the “Gay Cake” controversy in relation to these claims, but I’m left nonplussed. I can’t judge these claims without evidence. “We have found that a better understanding of the real religious landscape will result in better public services and culture.” I’m not sure what this could mean, but I am sure he has some academic papers somewhere that point somehow to this conclusion.

He says that RE for Real “will explore what school leavers really need to know and understand about religion and belief in the contemporary world.” This is possibly a fine objective, but I’m worried about the word explore. This sounds like a brainstorming session with a flipchart. I hope he means investigate.