NOT enough people want to teach the subject, and there are plenty of pupils, tax-payers and even head teachers who are highly sceptical about its benefits. And yet there are good grounds for saying that knowledge of this sort is more vital than ever for the health and normal functioning of society. With only slight exaggeration, that odd bundle of statements describes the state of religious education in England.

In recent days, several news stories have highlighted this paradox. A professional body revealed that in the current academic year, less than two-thirds of the places (405 out of 643) in a training programme for religion teachers in England have been taken up. Weak supply is meeting weak demand, it would seem. Religion came near the bottom in a survey by YouGov, an independent pollster, that asked people which subjects deserved a big role in secondary education. More than half considered religion either “not very important” or “not at all important” as an item on the curriculum, whereas only 12% deemed it “very important”. By comparison, some 60% of respondents regarded courses in citizenship as either very or quite important, and 85% took the same view of teaching about sex and relationships.

A few months ago, it emerged that more than a quarter of England's secondary schools did not offer religion as a stand-alone subject, although they are legally obliged to do so. 

Despite all this, religious organisations play an important and in some ways increasing role in English education. (The other parts of the United Kingdom have somewhat different educational and religious regimes; England is alone in having an established church.) As of last year, England had nearly 7,000 state-funded schools with a religious association, of which the great majority were Christian (Anglican or Catholic) primary schools. The total included 48 Jewish, 27 Muslim, 11 Sikh and five Hindu schools. The number of schools run by minority religions is rising steadily.

Faith schools have been subjected to a cap which limits to 50% the number of pupils of their own religion they can take in when there is competition for places. The Catholic authorities in particular have protested against this, saying they are being forced to turn Catholic children away, and they have extracted a promise from the Conservative government to remove the quota.

The National Secular Society, which campaigns against “religious privilege”, says this contradictory picture (lots of religious involvement in education, low public appetite for religion) underlines the need for a huge reform of the way children learn about belief systems. It wants a nationwide “entitlement” to instruction about different religions and philosophies which is freed from the control of religious authorities, or even local authorities: in other words, something like the state of affairs in secular France. (Elsewhere in Europe, the teaching of religion is a complex patchwork, often reflecting the legal status of Christianity’s locally dominant form; each of Germany’s federal states has its own system.)

However the subject may be taught, it is hard to deny the urgency of improving the general level of knowledge about what religions profess, what they hold sacred and what they consider taboo. In one form or another, the challenge is facing every democratic society. For example, employment tribunals have been telling bosses they must, within reason, respect the religious needs of their staff in respect, say, of dress, diet and days off. The range of perceived “needs” is likely to get wider and wider. Not every difficult case can go to court.

The limits of free speech are under perpetual debate. For good reason, democracies don’t usually recognise any legal entitlement “not to be offended”, but in some situations, public order depends on some minimal knowledge of what words or symbols would, in practice, cause offence.

Many of the hardest policy debates triggered by religion concern children: what they should be taught, what clothing and diet they should adopt, how their bodies should be treated. No level of knowledge will make those debates easy, but without a minimal understanding of where religions are coming from, such discussions cannot even begin.

Lord Williams, a former head of the Church of England, was asked recently how he foresaw the country’s religious scene in 30 years’ time. He said there was a real danger of a chaotic situation where an ever-growing number of religious sub-cultures co-existed deep inside their respective silos, in utter ignorance of one another.

That might be dismissed as special pleading by a religious leader but it should not be; the risk he describes is real. But to avert this dialogue of the profoundly deaf, and to give learning about religion a better name, the champions of faith may have to dilute some of their own educational fiefdoms. By definition, they will always be more inclined to fight their own respective corners than to raise the level of general knowledge.