David Shrigley, Those who get it
I trailed this piece as ‘Do young people smell like they used to’ but then we had our Prevent Training so you’ll just have to wait.
I’ve spent a lifetime thinking and talking about religion so I love it when young people engage in a search for meaning. Those of a religious background adopt or discard the faith of the family. Those not previously exposed to (inoculated against?) religion look for a narrative to hang their hat on. Others just search for an answer. Why is the world a mess? Why are adults so unsatisfactory? Why don’t I matter more? What’s going to happen to me?
Faith develops in religious humans. There is a journey from simple acceptance to understanding and universalising a faith position. Part of that journey - the end of it for some - involves experimenting with fundamentalism. I use the word fundamentalism here in the broad sense, the embracing of the literal truth of a holy book, the subsuming of free will and critical judgement in the tradition and practice of a faith. Choosing fundamentalism is part of our freedom, but irretrievably influenced by religions’ ancient foundations.
I described Prevent to a cleric who became terrifically aeriated about supervising Friday prayer. An outrage! So I told him a about a school with a Christian Union annually staffed by posh and shiny gap year volunteers with full DBS clearance from a local church. Sensible sixth formers kept an eye on things in the room, right up to the day they planned a prayer walk in the yard to hand out sweets with texts against homosexuality. After that, always a teacher in the room. Of course we supervise prayer, in the same way that we supervise play or crossing the road on a school trip. Some things can be dangerous and children don’t always see it. Adults can be misleading, harmful or just plain wrong. Schools are designed for supervision. It’s what we do for society, looking after the young.
Good liberal folk, secular or religious, are queasy about Prevent because discussing religion is embarrassing. Most Brits aren’t religious and find it rather inexplicable. Church schools, however, are quite popular and we’ve happily let them chug along since 1944 because their religion is pretty mild. Imagine our horror when deregulated schooling and unreconstructed religion met and brought us Trojan Horse, whatever that turns out to be. OMG, literally. What were we thinking?
Like a child who’s forgotten her Spanish homework, we don’t have the vocabulary for the lesson. We once had checks and balances to prevent religion harming civil society but we didn’t look after them and now we’re confused. So now we’re using the law and the strange concept of fundamental British values (we could just call them human rights) to give us a language to distinguish between good and bad religion. We have to do this because, nationally, we don’t trust ourselves to articulate an argument that falls between ‘all religion is wicked’ and ‘believe what you like’.
However, optimism is part of Tallis character. In the new RE GCSE from 2016 every child should study the two largest religions and every one of them could leave school equipped to make a judgment about faith. That might lay the foundation for better national conversation about the role of religion in a secular democracy and help children experiment more safely, a bit like teaching them to swim.
The training isn’t perfect but it might help people who haven’t known how to think about tricky issues before. Preventing what, exactly? At the very least theological illiteracy, bad religion and the abuse of young people’s search for meaning.