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St Paul's is a popular British tourist destination

In a week when David Cameron has announced he wants to promote Britain’s rich cultural heritage to encourage more tourists to visit (and so help boost our struggling economy), the infamous atheist Richard Dawkins has also remarked on the importance of British history.

That’s a pretty unremarkable thing to say you might well be thinking.  However, what has made it worth commenting on is that Dawkins declared this thought whilst presenting a programme on More4 in primetime on Wednesday (18 August) called “Faith Schools Menace?”* Dawkins had spent much of the documentary discussing the pros and cons of faith schools, with the key points being that however much good they might do, they can push children into adopting religion without really thinking about it properly and – the main issue which would get more people on board with his argument – they definitely shouldn’t be funded by the state.  Then, in the last section, Dawkins told us that one thing that he is in agreement with these schools about is that religion – and Christianity in particular – needs to be studied in schools because, without knowledge of these beliefs and practices, we would be unable to fully understand the history of the world or some of the greatest works of literature ever written (he cites Shakespeare).  In essence, Dawkins is arguing that we simply wouldn’t be able to understand how or why other people or other societies behave (or behaved) and act (or acted) in the way they do.  He is, in fact, simply saying that we should educate children in religion in, effectively, a psychological way – studying thinking patterns, mannerisms and behaviours of the religious.

Britain has – along with most of the rest of the world – had quite a troubled past with religion because people used to get very touchy about it; some still do.  During the reign of Henry VIII, the King started something which caused the greatest religious catastrophe though: he dared to try to change our established religion!  I have studied the Reformation quite a lot myself at school and university, from both the English and the European perspectives and it is a remarkably different situation that happened here compared to what happened elsewhere in (Western) Europe.  Other places saw massive support for change of a Protestant nature in the form of rebellions and rioting from the peasant population which eventually provoked response from the ruling classes; but the English (and Welsh) population was forced into change by the monarch.  This type of ‘top-down’ reform will always be resented for a lengthy period and some old traditionalists will re-appear as soon as the enforcers of it are removed; so after Henry VIII and his supportive son, Edward VI, had died and Mary I (who had remained true to the ‘old’ religion of Catholicism) took over, those who had remained Catholic at heart soon crawled out of hiding.  Of course, many people by this time, due to generations passing down the ‘new’ religion, had actually accepted Protestantism and their numbers were greater so were relieved when Henry’s other daughter, the Protestant Elizabeth I, was able to take over not too long afterwards.  Now Elizabeth was an extremely clever woman who was able to ‘juggle’ the religious situation in the same way she treated politics – she let the various factions all think they were in favour, let them fight it out a bit, then (once they were weakened) she would put her foot down and would enforce some ruling that was, more or less, in the middle.  This, my dear friends, is how the Church of England came to be: it is considered to be more Protestant than Catholic, which is true, but there were definite consolations for Catholics so that they didn’t feel as worried as they had done under Edward VI.  Unfortunately, once the Tudors had gone when Elizabeth died childless, the Stuarts arrived and they would bring the English Civil War.  The war was both political and religious, but both of these motivators caused tensions because people were not content to listen and try to understand each other’s points of view; they had to be the most important and have the most say – they just couldn’t share power (political or religious).  Hopefully we have moved on from this: politicians and religious leaders may have their arguments today, but they don’t order their followers to kill each other to gain power.

To go back to Dawkins, what is most interesting from my viewpoint is that, from his comments, we can see quite clearly that even someone who is as against religion as Dawkins is, is perfectly able to accept that to really be able to understand the history and culture of Britain, you must first understand the country’s relationship with Christianity.  Maybe this means the subject of Religious Education is safe from his criticism then; I’m glad about that!

* You can watch this now on 4oD if you missed it – click here.

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Posted 21/08/2010 by thinkmindy in History, Politics, Religion

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