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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 11:55 GMT
Archbishop wants Pullman in class
Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Rowan Williams will have a public discussion with Pullman
The Archbishop of Canterbury has said Philip Pullman's controversial novels should form part of school RE lessons.

Dr Rowan Williams said there was a place for critics of Christianity in lessons on religion.

Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials has been attacked by some Christian teachers and by the Catholic press as blasphemy.

But the leader of the Anglican church suggests such books can be a useful part of discussions about faith.

In a speech to religious leaders and academics at Downing Street, he said: "To see large school parties in the audience of the Pullman plays at the National Theatre is vastly encouraging.

"I only hope that teachers are equipped to tease out what in Pullman's world is and is not reflective of Christian teaching as Christians understand it."

He said debate about such stories was useful because it allowed students to clarify what objections were being made to religion.

Previously, Pullman's trilogy had been attacked by The Catholic Herald newspaper while the Association of Christian Teachers said Pullman's "blasphemy" was "shameless".

Early Christians 'atheists'

In a speech on the teaching of religion in schools, Dr Williams rejected recent calls from a think-tank for atheism to be taught as a belief system in school.

"To speak as though 'atheism' were a belief system alongside varieties of religious belief is simply a category mistake," he said, although the meaning of atheism was an interesting area for discussion.

Early Christians had been condemned as atheists, he said, because they did not abide by the civic cult of the Roman empire.

Later this month Dr Williams is due to take part in a public discussion with Philip Pullman.

He recently saw the adaptation of the author's work at the National Theatre in London.

His speech criticised the idea of religious education as a journey around the various religions.

"RE as a benign tour of picturesque forms of life in which - it is tacitly assumed - no-one around here is likely to be involved is of limited educational benefit.

"It may promote tolerance of a sort, but not understanding," he said.

More useful, he said, was to examine how people reason on a religious basis and how religious communities manage change and challenges.

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