Hugh Reilly: Prayers for divine intervention rarely get the right answer

WHEN some of my "friends" hint that I am something of a tightwad, my girlfriend touchingly defends me by pointing out that, on our anniversaries, I treat her to a romantic meal at the local Chinese buffet on a Tuesday two-for-one night.

This year, in a moment of weakness, I reserved a table – on a Saturday night, mark you – at a swish Italian restaurant. On arriving, the sight of linen tablecloth and lack of ketchup on the table only served to heighten my price-sensitive anxiety. On sitting down, I quickly realised this eatery was far classier than anything I experienced before: rather unnervingly, there was no errant spring endeavouring to perform an impromptu colonoscopy. Now seated and as chilled-out as Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, I prayed the bill would not bankrupt me.

And lo, my prayers were answered when a waiter whacked me on the back of the head with a huge spaghetti bowl, eliciting, in equal measure, gasps of horror from onlookers and gales of laughter from my girlfriend. I feared it was an amateurish Mafia hit but compensation set in when the apologetic waiter gave us a bottle of wine on the house. Was this divine intervention or merely a sign of poor staff training regarding the non-lethal carriage of heavy plates?

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As an atheist, I always feel uneasy when attending a school religious service with my classes. My awkwardness stems from the fact that I am acting as a de facto bouncer in the assembly hall, an enforcer who eyeballs any miscreant who dares to misbehave during the chaplain's homily. To be fair, the great majority of youngsters give a minister his place, sitting impassively and listening disbelievingly to exhortations that God is watching over them.

Catholic parents are often derided for referring to non-denominational schools as Protestant schools but, in my experience, the shoe fits. When the door of the school is opened to someone delivering a religious service, it's invariably a case of Opportunity Knox. In three decades of teaching, I have never worked in a non-denom school where a rabbi, imam, Hindu priest or, God forbid, a humanist, has been invited to address the largely faithless. We teach multiculturalism but fail to practice it.

The reasons for this dreadful state of affairs are manifold. In some establishments, members of the management team are regular Church of Scotland churchgoers and wish to see the values of their particular church foisted – sorry, fostered – in teenagers. These Salvationists believe that a healthy dose of fire and brimstone will stop youngsters binge drinking and swallowing meow-meow. In other schools, there is an Islamaphobic fear that a visitor from the local mosque will turn up with hooks for hands and scream for global jihad.

Providing religious observance opportunities in schools is a mandatory requirement; indeed, it is one of the indicators used by HMIE to judge the value of a school. In most secondary schools, however, the subject is endured by youngsters and enjoys little integrity. Miraculously, when SQA candidates need extra time to finish off English or Art folio work, attendance in RE is suddenly deemed to be non-obligatory, the subject sacrificed on the altar of raising attainment.

Perhaps RE is compulsory because it's the only place where religion is being taught. During a Modern Studies lesson to an upper school class on the distribution of wealth in the UK, I made a throwaway remark that maybe Jesus was on the money when he talked about the poor being ever with us.

This New Testament pearl of wisdom was met with a blankness that suggested I'd just described the inner workings of the Hadron Collider. In hindsight, I was foolish to relate the story of Judas being a tad miffed at Jesus receiving an expensive, oily foot massage from Mary Magdalene.

"Who's Judith?" said one S5 schoolgirl. Thankfully, some of her more learned peers laughed but her friend interjected and said: "Well, yez can aw laff at me tae cos I don't know who she wiz either!" Truly, Jesus wept.

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