Tamas Pataki, a trained philosopher and well-known figure on the atheist circuit, recently put up four arguments against state schools offering Special Religious Education (SRE). It leads to divisiveness, strengthens group identity (a bad thing because of the first), is factually untrue and, unlike Graeco-Roman wisdom, argues from parable and dogma instead of by reasoning. Pataki is wrong on all four counts.

It was ironic to me that his first two points were grounded not in reasoning or in evidence (such as a social study of the ill-effects of SRE in school life) but in a 1000-word personal parable of a young Jewish boy made to feel alienated in a Melbourne schoolyard.

The story itself was not at all amusing; it shows the damage that can be done when passion – whether religious or political – is not coupled with compassion.

The anecdote was notable on another level. It struck a motif quite common in atheist literature: the boy wounded or disillusioned, sometimes understandably, by early religious experiences grows up to be an ardent atheist (Richard Dawkins’s testimonial is the most famous example).

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