No one can judge whose prophet is kosher

We’d never allow Marxist-Leninist schools to brainwash children so why do we give religions similar rights?

Come with me on a flight of fancy. It is open day at the latest educational establishment in a suburban part of Essex. The headmaster, an avuncular-looking man with a fine moustache mounts the stage and smiles down upon his audience. “A warm welcome,” he says, “to prospective new parents from all of us here at the Joseph Stalin Free School in Ongar.”

The ethos of the school, he explains, is Marxist-Leninist (with a wave he indicates the very large but tasteful pictures of the great leaders, as painted by the children of Year 7). There is a strong emphasis on academic achievement (“a ‘First for Joe’ is our motto”), on collective activities, on social conscience and on connections with those working in local factories. He announces A levels in historical materialism and realist art, and tells the mums and dads about the daily morning assembly at which pupils will be invited to take part in healthy self-criticism and which will culminate in the singing of proletarian ballads.

But, he stresses, the school is fully Ofsted-inspected. There will be no indoctrination. Pupils will not just be taught about Third Period Bolshevism, but also about other political creeds, such as fascism, social fascism, infantile leftism, bourgeois liberalism and reactionary conservatism. And now, who would like a guided tour of the Lysenko biology lab and the new Molotov chemistry wing? Impossible, of course. Except that something like this is happening right now in many places in Britain, but only if you substitute a religious faith for my fanciful political one.

Make your schtick something to do with a deity and you can sell its ethos to the captive under-18s and, what’s more, expect to be able to claim charitable status and hence tax exemptions for doing so. Make it a political belief, and you can do neither. But there has always been a practical and logical problem with giving faith this privileged status. Since there can be no consistent or semi-scientific way of evaluating the — what shall we call it? — rectitude of one religion over another, any discrimination between the claims of one faith and another is arbitrary.

The Times’s reports about the Exclusive Brethren this week reminded me of the inconsistency with which we view the role of religion in the public arena. It is apparent that the members of this church lobby zealously for what they want, believe that their leader is a prophet (when we can see that he is just a rather tubby Aussie) and do odd things at their schools. In their churches, we are told, men sit at the front and women at the back, there are odd dress codes for each and a censorious attitude towards sex prevails. Marrying out of the faith is frowned upon.

What does this remind you of? I’d say it reminds you — in one aspect or another — of just about every religion there has ever been. To the Jews of Palestine, in the era of Tiberius, even a portly Aussie might have seemed more probable a prophet than a chap who went round claiming to feed a multitude with a bucketful of carp. One can only imagine the response of the first urbane Roman to be told of the virgin birth, or of the Egyptians to the claim that the Hebrews alone were the chosen ones.

Somehow any religion that pre-dates printing has managed to create for itself a magical respectability in the modern era, based almost entirely on its antiquity.

This hasn’t always been true. Religious historians talk about what are known as the four Great Awakenings within Protestantism alone. Crudely, the first was anti-hierarchical and created Methodism and strengthened the Baptists. The second gave rise to phenomena such as the Seventh Day Adventists, the Plymouth Brethren (the forerunners of the Exclusive Brethren) and the Mormons of the prophet Joseph Smith. The third, half a century later, was prairie evangelical and the fourth was the mid-20th century explosion of Pentecostalism. And, you might argue, the Moonies. The same thing has happened to other faiths. You think the chief rabbi speaks for all Jews? He speaks only for the orthodox.

Why should we regard any of these branches of the great tree of faith, however slender, as being somehow less valid than the older limbs? It seems to me that what we call a religion is merely a house-trained sect, civilised by years of socialisation. And some, it has to be said, are more socialised than others.

Last Saturday night, I was inside an enormous and rather beautiful mosque in south London for an event organised by what is known as the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The Ahmadis are a form of Islamic organisation founded in the late 19th century in India by a man who claimed, in effect, to be the latest prophet in the line going back to Moses. I was at what they called a peace symposium, addressed by their current leader, or caliph.

Many more orthodox Muslims consider the Ahmadis to be a sect in the same way that some Christians regard the Brethren as one. Indeed the Ahmadis are persecuted in several majority Muslim countries. And yet the great hall at the mosque was full of MPs, government ministers, councillors, police officers and even people in army uniform. One reason for this is that the Ahmadis preach peace and a complete rejection of violent jihad. Their motto is “Love for All, Hatred for None”, they believe in being involved in community affairs, volunteering and politics. They are the ultimate good neighbours. And though they clearly segregate men and women at prayer (which is more radical even than the Brethren, after all) they are nevertheless an obviously good lot. I bet they have charitable status in spades.

But there is a second reason why they are courted. And it is the same reason why the Brethren got all those MPs arguing on their behalf. Faith communities — house-trained or not — exhibit much greater solidarity than other groups. There are, for example, 17,000 Exclusive Brethren in the UK. That is as many committed members as either Labour or the Conservatives have in the whole of London. Acting together, they make a lot of noise.

And even if you get the religious to toe the line in schools, their children still end up at weekends in shuls, madrassas, Sunday schools and faith camps. And all of those things will attract charitable status because, frankly, who is going to brave the inevitable row when no one can judge whose prophet or virgin or saint is kosher?

David Aaronovitch is a columnist who was once President of the National Union of Students and a communist, but is now a radical moderate.
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