Secularism and Education: A Gordian Knot in a Pandora's Box

05/07/2013 11:21 BST | Updated 03/09/2013 10:12 BST

I read Michael Gove's plans to increase Church of England control over some secular schools with a fair amount of alarm and wanted to seek some opinions on it, especially on this auspicious date of writing, the anniversary of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence which began the journey towards secularism in government for our cousins across the pond. I'm in a bit of a pickle over the whole thing, which is why I'm making this open appeal for any opinions - please do leave them in the comments or tweet me.

I don't doubt that the Church of England provides good schools, great schools even. I also don't think that increasing the Church's control over education will necessarily lead to application discrimination for students or staff. My alarm stems from principle rather than paranoia.

In any society, freedom of religion should be the right of the people, as I'm sure you'd agree. If there is not freedom of religion then we have a situation in which people can be punished (in the worst cases) or otherwise divided by what they believe, what they think. In other words we have a situation in which thoughtcrime is possible. Since people do not generally choose their religious beliefs (nobody says "I think I'll be a Catholic today") but arrive at or abandon them only through an often lengthy process of reasoning or personal reflection, this is to say they are punished or divided by something they cannot control. And so there is a moral need for that freedom.

Thankfully in Britain we enjoy an enormous amount of religious freedom: nobody is imprisoned or punished or burned for believing this or that. But we do not have total freedom. For instance, Bishops are still given seats in the House of Lords. That is to say that certain people, by virtue of believing in a specific supernatural being, are given priority in running the country above others. This is not religious freedom.

Gove's plans to bring more secular schools under Church of England control seem to me to be symptomatic of this problem. For Britons to enjoy the full religious freedom that is their right, we must surely have a government that takes no official stance on any organised views on the supernatural.

The reason I'm seeking any input on this issue is that the Secretary of State also has a duty to bring education to the nation's children: to take that leap and begin to separate church and state would mean that alternatives to state funded faith schools would have to be sought, which is no small task. But surely an alternative can be found that respects freedom of religion whilst yielding the same standard of education. Please do let me know your thoughts.