Shana Cohen

Shana Cohen

by Dr Shana Cohen, Deputy Director, The Woolf Institute

In the past few decades the religious landscape in this country has been transformed. Go back just two generations and we Jews – comprising fewer than half of one percent of the population – were nevertheless the second largest religious grouping in the UK. Today, we are fifth, behind not just Christianity but also Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.

But the growth in non-Christian religious communities is only one part of a far more complex picture. There has been a very significant decline in those ascribing to any religious tradition: surveys now record that more than half of the UK population describe themselves as non-religious.

And even within faith denominations there has been a huge churn, with the shift to strict Orthodoxy in our own community reflected in the growth of non-Anglican branches of Christianity, such as Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

The picture is complicated by the growth of fanaticism, a tendency among secular militants to blame religion for the world’s ills, a blanket denial by others of the legitimacy of non-religious approaches to life, and a general distrust of ‘the other’ fueled by migration and terrorism. Religious hated – whether of Jews or Muslims here, or other minorities elsewhere – reflects such concerns.

Despite all this, the development of public policy in the UK related to religion and belief has been piecemeal and knee-jerk: a growth in faith schools, but a decline in religious education; legal reforms that seem to target particular communities; better legal protections for some belief traditions than others; and a decline in religious specialism in the media, despite the growth in news related to religion.

For all these reasons, in September 2013 the Woolf Institute convened an independent commission to undertake the first systematic review of the role of religion and belief in the UK today.

The report seeks to take a consistent and rational approach, looking at education, the media, law, dialogue and social action. It seeks to provide a basis for policy-making based on research and evidence from more than 200 written and verbal submissions, the needs of society and the daily experiences of increasingly diverse communities.

The focus of criticism of the Living With Difference report has been our recommendations related to faith schools based on the fairly mild conclusion “it is not clear that segregation of young people into faith schools has promoted greater cohesion”. This conclusion leads us to recommend that state-funded schools “should take measures to reduce selection on grounds of religion”. We do not oppose faith schools per se, nor criticise their right to teach in the context of their own ethos.

These recommendations must be viewed within the context of the report as a whole, which established the principle that the role of public bodies should not be to promote one particular religion, but to ensure that society as a whole gains a much better understanding of all religions and belief systems. This is what we call “religion and belief literacy” and it is, in our opinion, essential to the creation of the informed, tolerant and cohesive society, which is in all our interests.

In the context of schooling, this means an end to the legal requirement for collective worship of a Christian character in state schools, but also the opportunity for all children to be able to have a formal period of reflection during the school day.

It leads us to argue that all pupils, whatever schools they attend, should be able to access religious teaching and worship on their school premises and that the status of RE teaching should be at a similar level to English and maths.

Such recommendations should be welcomed by all Jewish parents – although two-thirds of Jewish children attend schools that would be unaffected by reduced selection, ie community state schools or Jewish private or free schools.

Our freedom as Jews is dependent on others sharing similar freedoms and that requires all of us to work to understand one another that bit better and not shut ourselves away from society.

This, then, is the approach underpinning our 37 core recommendations: equal respect and concern for all; an expectation that all are embraced as part of a continuing process of mutual enrichment; and an objective that all contributions to the texture of the nation’s common life are valued.

• Dr Shana Cohen was a member of the Commission on Religion and Belief