Religion is an embarrassing topic to many: some think it too private and sensitive, others think it's like an unseemly disorder of the innards. Since the public schools avoid this awkward subject, religious parents often believe that their convictions and customs are being devalued in their children's institutional lives.
Lois Sweet's book is startlingly good, a clear and fair-minded airing of many sides of a many-sided issue. This is not to say that she's neutral. There's drama of a kind here: she lets us see, or hear, the changing of her opinions. This project was conceived when she was on the Toronto Star's religion beat; on a journalism fellowship, she pursued it in considerable depth. Starting from something like the secularist party line, she arrived at a more complex version of the public-school position.
Multiculturalism, or rather cultural diversity, seems to be the decisive factor in this change. For example, a little boy who is Sikh is likely to get laughed at and teased for wearing his hair in a bun covered by a white handkerchief. This is the kind of thing that makes parents want to send children to publicly-funded religious schools. As for Sweet, she wants a public system that recognizes and "explores" a variety of faiths, so that the white handkerchiefs and so forth are respected in the schoolyard. A passive neutrality in the secular system is not enough. In present practice, the existence of religion is denied because it's ignored-so God's existence is not even a question.
Trips to the Netherlands and France were eye-opening. "I can't help but be struck," she says, "by a paradox: by emphasizing religious differences we may actually minimize their social impact. Denying them, however, might well exaggerate them, forcing people to become more dependent on them." The Dutch, by piper-paying and tune-calling, have used religious schools for social integration. Not that Lois Sweet endorses this model for Canadian purposes. In her view, religious schools often have their merits, but on religion itself they do not-and can hardly-lead their students into critical thinking, which is of the essence of education.
Lucien Bouchard and Brian Tobin are presiding over the withering away of an old Canadian conflict; Rome and Geneva have moved away faster than any tectonic plates could carry them. But new perplexities of the same kind are coming into more patent and blatant life. God in the Classroom is at once historically conscious and vividly topical.