It is not “intolerant” to dispute the powers and the profusion of ‘faith’ schools
James Gray replies to Brendan O’Neil. Is it really “intolerant” to criticise ‘faith’ schools?
Opponents of faith schools are ‘seriously, properly illiberal’ and ‘alarmingly intolerant’. That’s the accusation levelled by Spiked magazine’s Brendan O’Neill in the latest contribution to the ‘faith’ schools debate, prompted by Richard Dawkins’ More4 documentary.
Opponents of religious schools, according to O’Neill, ignore the reality of what actually goes on in them. He describes (acknowledging that it’s anecdotal) his own Roman Catholic school, where religious character pervaded all aspects of its activities but whose banter (and graffiti) was deeply irreverent and frequently blasphemous.
The religious overload in ‘faith’ schools, argues O’Neill, means that pupils are more likely to reject dogma and develop ‘a natural scepticism towards spiritual crackpots.’ Apparently groups like the BHA just can’t see it, viewing faith schools instead as ‘the churners-out of brain-raped youngsters who will hate homos and want to strangle single mums’.
Actually, you’ll find that the BHA rarely talks about indoctrination or ‘brainwashing’. This is not out of respect for the religious authorities who run schools, but rather a recognition that the religious character of ‘faith’ schools varies widely and that children will respond to it in different ways.
But just because many children are effective ‘bullshit’ detectors (as O’Neill puts it), doesn’t mean they should be taught bullshit.
The humanist view of education is that it should transmit the cultural and intellectual achievements of humanity, while developing pupils’ capacity for autonomous rational judgment. If we become too relaxed about the presence of myth, misinformation and irrationalism in state-funded schools, then the fundamental principle of education is undermined.
Take Religious Education as an example. Faith schools can opt out of the locally agreed RE syllabus and choose instead to deliver religious instruction. In some faith schools more hours are spent memorising religious texts than doing science experiments. Unsurprisingly, this leads to such schools giving creationism or even more bizarre religious ideas (such as that salt and fresh water don’t mix, an idea floated by science students at a faith schools in the Dawkins documentary) parity with scientific fact.
Or consider sex education. Perhaps some, even the majority, of pupils will instinctively understand that a syllabus devised by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (such as that used by Roman Catholic schools in the Diocese of Lancaster) is unlikely to present an impartial account of contraception. But many won’t – should their parents’ preference for a Catholic school trump their own right to make informed reproductive choices based on evidence?
O’Neill seems to think that it should. He further argues that the campaign against faith schools is ‘really an attack on the right of parents to raise their children as they see fit’. This doesn’t describe the campaign I work on, and the right of an adult to practice their religion (a right we would defend) does not impose on the state an obligation to help them inculcate their particular beliefs in their children.
But let’s not overestimate the number of parents who – out of a deeply held conviction – make a genuine choice to send their children to a school with a religious character. The reality is that religious schooling has been forced upon the majority of non-religious parents and pupils by successive governments (often stuffed full of atheists) who believe that a religious ‘ethos’ is the best way to achieve wider political aims – ‘respect’, ‘diversity’, ‘cohesion’, ‘Big Society’…
There is actually very little appetite for religious schools – a clear majority believe the state should not be funding ‘faith’ schools of any kind (59% are against state funding for faith schools according to the most recent poll, and results on this question are often even higher). The expansion of faith schools has little to do with parental choice and everything to do with politicians, and religious groups, claiming to know what’s best for us.
James Gray is the Faith Schools Campaigns Officer at the British Humanist Association.
The British Humanist Association campaigns against ‘faith’ schools and their various privileges in teaching, employment and admissions. They are raising money to fund and resource their ‘Faith’ Schools officer for another year of dedicated campaigning on religion and schools. See Faith Schools: Just Say No.