Photo - Grayling, Stanford and myself.
Photo courtesy of Chris Street.
On Wednesday I had a debate with Peter Stanford, former editor of the Catholic Herald about faith schools, at the CFI event "What sort of faith schools are acceptable, if any?" in the Great Hall at Christ Church. A.C. Grayling was Chair and Richard Dawkins showed up too.
Peter (after several goes by me to get him to address the specific recommendations) agreed with my three minimum recommendations that all schools, faith or not, state funded or not, should be expected to meet:
ONE. EVERY CHILD SHOULD BE CLEARLY TOLD THAT WHAT RELIGIOUS FAITH, IF ANY, THEY HAVE IS A MATTER OF THEIR OWN FREE CHOICE. Why is this important? Because, for example, a 2007 poll of young British Muslims aged 16-25 revealed 36% thought that that any Muslim who converts to another religion should be punished by death. This should apply to no-faith schools too. Many children feel they are automatically Sikh, Muslim or Catholic by birth, and have little or no choice about what they must believe, and there are British schools that reinforce perception. They should all be challenging it.
TWO. EVERY SCHOOL SHOULD EXPOSE CHILDREN TO A RANGE OF RELIGIOUS AND ALSO ATHEIST AND HUMANIST BELIEFS, EXPLAINED WHERE POSSIBLE BY THOSE WHO ACTUALLY HOLD THEM.
Schools are often ok about other faiths but can still be very antsy about exposing children to an atheist for half an hour (as I know from experience).
Surely, say, Catholic schools would have no problem about children being exposed to other moral points of view? Some won't. But not in diocese of Lancaster under Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue who told all Catholic schools schools that:
“Under no circumstances should any outside authority or agency that is not fully qualified to speak on behalf of the Catholic Church ever be allowed to speak to pupils or individuals on sexual or any other matter involving faith and morals”
O’Donoghue also called for any books containing polemics against the Catholic Church to be removed from school libraries. Here is a Bishop with the authority to tell the staff of state-funded schools to strip their libraries of books critical of Catholicism. Unacceptable (O'Donoghue may now be gone, but the point remains valid).
THREE. CHILDREN AT ALL SCHOOLS SHOULD BE ENCOURAGED TO THINK CRITICALLY AND INDEPENDENTLY ABOUT ALL RELIGIOUS AND MORAL BELIEFS AND VALUES.
This might seem unobjectionable, but when just this was suggested by the think tank Institute of Public Policy Research back in 2004 there was outrage from the Telegraph and from Melanie Phillips.
The fact is, there are religious schools that do strongly discourage the questioning or critical examination of the school’s own faith. One example is the Islamia (Independent) School in Nottingham, run by Headmater Ibrahim Lawson. R4 Today Programme.
IL: [t]he essential purpose of the Islamia school as with all Islamic schools is to inculcate profound religious belief in the children.
ER: You use the word "inculcate": dies that mean you are in the business of indoctrination?
IL: I would say so, yes; I mean we are quite unashamed about that really…
ER: Does that mean that Islam is a given and is never challenged?
IL: That’s right…
Of course there may still be plenty of discussion and debate at a school like Ibrahim Lawson’s – about how the Koran should be interpreted, about how its teaching should be applied, and so on. But if all this vigorous intellectual activity is predicated on the unquestioned assumption that Islam is a given that must never be challenged, then it’s not good enough.
Incidentally I offered to go to Lawson's school and talk (for free) about atheism and humanism for an hour with his kids. The school wouldn't allow it.
I am now thinking it would be useful if we could get a coalition of people of various faiths and none to endorse these three minimum requirements - and to press for their introduction. Many liberal religious people would surely do so (Stanford has said yes in principle). So would the guys at Ekklesia, I think. But of course many religious conservatives will not (Ibrahim Lawson won't and neither would the Chief Rabbi, I think). This would be a way of reorienting the debate about faith schools as a debate between liberals vs conservatives, rather than atheists vs religious, which would be very constructive, I think.
The British public are increasingly concerned about faith schools - about their growth and what goes on in them. The vast majority, I would guess, would support the introduction of these requirements. A campaign organized along these lines might well have a result.