Keith (whom I like v. much, by the way) takes the view that religion is not to blame for much (indeed, in the book he even says that it is not a cause of evil, and that it is not intolerant [the intolerant merely use it] - however, his actual view is bit more nuanced than that).
Many, including Keith, recommend religion for social engineering purposes. They claim that (i) it helps build a sense of community, (ii) it makes people happier and healthier, and (iii) it makes them better behaved.
Suppose it does. Even if it were useful in these ways, it seems to me there are nevertheless special dangers attaching to the use of religion as a tool.
Religion is immensely powerful and can behave in unpredictable ways. Take the young earth creationists back in the 60's. A tiny band of crackpots. Who would have predicted that this weird little belief system would, within the space of a half century or so, infect the minds of 100 million Americans, including smart, college educated people?
We have here an illustration of the gobsmacking power of religion to get even very smart people to believe palpably stupid things. We also have an illustration of its unpredictability.
Religion, it seems to me, is a bit like nuclear power. Immensely powerful and (arguably) useful. And, perhaps most of the time, it runs quite happily, doing not much harm.
But unless it is extremely carefully controlled and monitored, it can very quickly run out of control. Indeed, just as with nuclear power, you can predict the unpredicted. Somewhere along the line, something probably will go wrong, and when it does, you have a toxic situation on your hands. A religious Chernobyl.
Is nuclear power safe, or dangerous? Perhaps it can be used safely, but that's not to deny that it is potentially hugely dangerous. The same, I'd suggest, is true of religion.
Keith Ward agreed with me, by the way.
Let's also not forget that only five of my lifetimes ago the Catholic Church was still garroting Europeans who failed to believe what the Pope told them. Yes, I know your local vicar seems like a nice chap, but we'd be wise to remember that our freedom from religious oppression and violence is a very recent development.
Currently, the UK Government is fostering, and in many cases, sponsoring a great many little religious nuclear power stations up and down the country. What has now become apparent to me is how little monitoring there is of what goes on in them. Basically, in the independent sector, they're self-monitored.
When I spoke about the potential dangers of faith schools on Radio 4's Today programme, a member of one of the Standing Advisory Comms. on Religious Education contacted me to say, "Thank goodness you're bringing this up." He regularly goes into schools and is horrified by what he sees. And he's a Christian.
If you're not worried about what's going on in some religious schools, you should be. Here's a brief excerpt from a Radio 4 interview with Ibrahim Lawson, head of an Islamic school:
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…
One of the key safeguards religious schools need to have in place is a critical culture. My own view is schools like Ibrahim Lawson's should no longer be tolerated, let alone be state funded.
Seems to me the UK Government is currently promoting the building of religious nuclear power stations up and down the country - many of them dodgy.
I'd be particularly interested to hear from teachers and others working in this field who have knowledge of the current system - perhaps they can reassure me? Or confirm my suspicions? Remember, I'm not saying all faith schools are dodgy.
For more of my views on faith schools, see my The War For Children's Minds.