Thursday, July 3, 2008

Why knowledge of other faiths is not enough

Many seem to think that, so long as a faith school is providing children with knowledge of other faiths, that's good enough.

It isn't. Here are 3 reasons why:

1. For a start, knowledge of other faiths does not necessarily lead to a reduction in friction between faiths. In fact, often the most vicious and violent religious conflicts are between groups with detailed knowledge with what the other believes, e.g. Catholic vs. Protestant; Shia vs. Sunni. Mere knowledge of other faiths does not produce tolerance and respect. Actual interaction with members of other faiths (and none), on the other hand, probably does have a beneficial effect.

2. Mere knowledge of other faiths, in the absence of any robust critical thinking about faith, often also promotes a very intellectually flabby sort of relativism. Pupils presented with a range of faiths are likely to realize that, as these faiths all contradict each other, most of them (perhaps all of them) must be largely false. Teachers who want to avoid endorsing this conclusion may be tempted to sidestep the issue by taking a relativist stance: "Well, that Jesus is God is true for Christians, but false for Muslims". Relativism conveniently makes the religious beliefs of all believers come out as "true"!

3. Most importantly, unless children acquire the sort of critical thinking skills and robust intellectual defences that I'm arguing all schools, religious or not, should foster (and which traditional religious eduction often works so hard to suppress) schools provide the perfect, gullible fodder for the charlatans, snake oil salesmen, cultists and religious zealots waiting outside the school gates.

11 comments:

anticant said...

The issue is the irrational nature of all faiths - not the depth of knowledge of comparative religion.

Irrational thinking is not confined to religious subjects; it exists in many areas of everyday life.

Of course, we all "live by faith" to an extent - such as assuming that the sun will rise tomorrow morning - but it is incumbent on education to develop critical thinking skills which will enable children to evaluate the degree of sense or nonsense in their own and others' beliefs.

Jackie said...

Unless children acquire the sort of critical thinking skills and robust intellectual defences that I'm arguing all schools, religious or not, should foster... they're going to provide the perfect, gullible fodder for the charlatans, snake oil salesmen, cultists and religious zealots waiting for them outside of the school gates.

I totally agree. All people must be taught to view all propositions critically and logically. As Stephen said, we can't let religion shelter behind the "it's all true" relativism, nor shall we suffer any other dogma to live. Critical thinking and logic are vaccinations against fallacious thought, and they should be required in all schools just like other vaccinations.

larryniven said...

Stephen, I agree wholeheartedly, but (at least as a graduate of a U.S. public school system) I think there's more to this situation than, as anticant says, "the irrational nature of all faiths." Having been on both sides of the process, I know that it's simply much harder to teach critical thinking, because if you succeed, your students will invariably be able to argue with you. That may not be a problem in and of itself, but when you're teaching to a fixed standard - government-mandated tests, say, or religious texts - that kind of questioning makes the teacher's immediate job that much harder. Given that kind of choice, teachers will generally do what anybody will: take the easy way out, which in this case means teaching to the test rather than teaching any kind of methodology. So yes, while some (many?) religious schools fall into this category, the underlying problem (I think) is not religion in and of itself but rather a misunderstanding about the purpose of education. If we can get the latter straightened out, the former will be that much more conspicuous in its errors.

Anonymous said...

larryniven - I agree about teaching to the test but this highlights one of the consequences of Stephens approach. The tests must allow for (and reward) critical thought. I suspect this is much harder for exam boards than the situation at present.

In the case of religious schools, the tests themselves must be also passed through some sort of filter to ensure that they do not give an implicit bias towards a specific viewpoint e.g. asking "How many Gods are there?" and expecting the "correct" answer to be "only one" in a Christian school is I think unacceptable but if the question is framed as "According to Christianity, how many Gods are there?", I see no objection.

This is possibly quite easy to deal with in multiple choice where the exam may easily subjected to external scrutiny but I can see things being much harder to police where essays are marked by the staff of a faith based school.

John Green said...

Actual interaction with members of other faiths (and none), on the other hand, probably does have a beneficial effect.

Indeed, it is amazing the lengths that the religious will go to, not just to prevent knowledge but also to ensure that their ideology (calling it faith only belittles the notion of faith) is not tainted by contact with those of other beliefs.

Humans learn from one another through interacting with one another, without that interaction how are people supposed to learn to understand others? I suppose it could be argued that's where the inculcating of faith comes in! Although we need to subvert more normal methods of learning in order to accept this as a valid position.

What do we replace religion with is something that religionist sometimes use as a point against having freedom from religion, the answer seems to be nothing more than ensuring that people can interact with one another: The school is the place for that education to start!

John Green said...

Of course, we all "live by faith" to an extent - such as assuming that the sun will rise tomorrow morning

To the extent that the gulf between these two types of 'faith' is greater than their similarities implied: one is based in reality and can be know from the honest application of higher human abilities, the other is based on desire and has no such safe guards against being misused.

Calling them both 'faith' is little more than an equivocation of the highest order.

anticant said...

No intentional equivocation, john green. Whether we are religious or not, we all take SOMETHING for granted, otherwise life would be unliveable.

Call it 'trust' instead of 'faith', if you like.

The 'supernatural' and 'faith' in it makes no sense to me.

Anonymous said...

Stephen - What about the covert indoctrination that will most likely go on in faith schools? I am thinking here of prayers in assemblies, hymn singing and that sort of thing. Even simply reading Bible stories to younger children seemingly ticks some of the boxes for brainwashing. These activities will be entrenched as part of the "ethos" of the school and have a chance to take effect long before the critical thought part of the proposed curriculum.

Billy said...

I think critical thinking would be a good thing, which is why the religious seem to oppose it. There are even plans to segregate protestants and catholics sharing a school in Ayrshire
http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/
2008/01/24/school-merger-plans-would-fence
-off-catholic-kids-86908-20295970/

Critical thinking about religion is the best way to end this stupidity

bob_farmer said...

"If you need ridicule to prove your point, your point isn't proven." - Quote from a friend of mine... who is a Christian.

I would advocate critical thinking, for all... atheist, theist, whateverist...

Why? Because it is something we can share and it is a skill that avoids having to use sticks to prove a point.

anticant said...

And another thing, Stephen. The "charlatans, snake oil salesmen, cultists and religious zealots" are not just waiting outside the gates of these faith schools - they are firmly entrenched within some [how many?]of them.

Ibrahim Lawson - if he is still reading your blog - will doubtless dismiss this as my "pseudo-liberal bigotry"......