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What sort of faith schools are acceptable, if any? Three minimum recommendations

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.


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).


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.


Greg O said…
I think Accord aim to be the sort of coalition you're talking about, though I don't know if every supporter even of that coalition would sign up to such an explicit endorsement of the importance of critical thinking and freedom of religion for every child.

The NSS have notably failed to join the coalition; they seem to take more of an 'abolition or bust' line on faith schools. But their supporters are generally just the sort of mix of nonreligious people and religious liberals you're talking about - in fact I'm surprised not to see your picture there! - so whether or not Accord as a whole would endorse your three principles, their supporters page would be a good place to find people who would!
Interesting. An initial thought:
I think it would be easier to restrict attention to state-funded (or possibly, state-approved) schools, otherwise you open up a very large debate about free speech and free assembly (should the Sunday School at my church be expected to _not_ teach Christianity from a position of commitment?)
If you run with that then I think I'd be happy to run with all three (and I'm not a liberal ;) ) The one I would have minor qualms about is number 2, in that I think there is a difference between 'exposure to' and 'advocacy of'.
Flea said…
No faith schools will ever subscribe these "minimum recommendations". If they were to be really implemented the whole point of the "faith school" (i.e. Indoctrination on a particular faith) will vanish.
These people may run "faith schools", but they are not necessarily idiots, unable to acknowledge who and what are they real enemies. Maybe the will agree to accept them "on paper" but to think that they will ever take them into the classroom is a fantasy. They have never done that voluntarily and they will never do; unless they are forced by the enlightenment of society.
Stephen Law said…
Hi Flea. Well, they SAY they would (see Sam's comment) - so let's get them to put their money where their mouth is! I think your understanding of what religious people believe is a caricature. It's true of some religious people, but not all.
Flea said…
Hi Stephen. You write that my "understanding of what religious people believe is a caricature. It's true of some religious people, but not all." You are of course right in some respect but, do you really think we will be having this conversation if the guys running faith schools were the ones willing to accept your "minimum requirements"?
I am not concerned about good people, honest believers, people ready to change their minds as soon as the evidence is presented before them, the kind of people who would never run a faith school succesfully. To run a faith school with success you need to be ready to kill any seed of enlightenment as soon as it appears; but to accomplish that you don't need -necessarily- to be a bad person or a hypocrite, you just need to be self deluded or heavily indoctrinated in a certain way... And in that respect I think my observations about believers are certainly not a caricature.
Anonymous said…
My first minimum requirement would simply be that the schools should be open to all children and that the school should not be able to select according to the religious beliefs of the children or their parents.
Stephen Law said…
Hi Flea

Dawkins gave that argument and so did Grayling after in conversation to Sanford (I think). But I am not sure I like it. Some religious think they will win the argument in a free and fair conversation in their schools about God and religion. You may say "They will lose - the kids won't buy it", and you may be correct. But strategically we are better off taking them at their word and saying "OK let's have that free and fair conversation, then, if that's what you think."
Stephen Law said…
Flea I also agree that some religious are probably deluded about the free and fair discussion they think is going on in their schools. I suspect that discussion is often very heavily stage-managed, with all sorts of subtle pressures and and manipulation brought to bear.
Greg O said…
A real problem here, I think, is that willingness to sign up to the principle 'EVERY CHILD SHOULD BE CLEARLY TOLD THAT WHAT RELIGIOUS FAITH, IF ANY, THEY HAVE IS A MATTER OF THEIR OWN FREE CHOICE' doesn't necessarily say anything about a religious person's (or intitution's) commitment to the sort of freedom you're talking about.

After all, Christians could very easily (and do very often) say something like this:

'Of course, you don't HAVE to accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour; you could be a Buddhist, or an atheist, or anything you like. God gave us free will, after all, and it's through our own free will that He wants us all to come to Him - loving Him sincerely, worshipping Him gladly and freely accepting our reward in Heaven! Of course, if you DON'T accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour, you'll burn in Hell for all eternity - but it's a choice you have to make freely for yourself!'

Of course, such views are utterly vile and the furthest thing possible from the sort of freedom you have in mind; but what else could 'freedom' mean to someone who sincerely believes that the consequence of a child's failing to adopt a particular religion will be the eternal suffering of that child?

And I'm not sure it's any use insisting that religous believers should just refrain from spelling out the positive and negative consequences, as they see them, of adopting or failing to adopt their belief: I don't even see how they could, if they weren't just going to leave out huge chunks of their belief systems. ('We believe Jesus is our Saviour!' 'Our Saviour from what?' 'Ah - can't tell you that.')
Paul P. Mealing said…
I can’t speak for England, as I live in Oz, but I agree with your sentiment: ’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.’

At the end of the day, a child’s religious belief is usually shaped by their parents rather than any other influence, at least until adolescence. What’s important, in my view, is that kids mix with kids of different backgrounds. Segregating kids at school level can create a self-segregated society. In Australia, we had that type of segregation between Catholics and protestants in the 50s, but it all changed in the 60s, and, whilst we still have so-called faith-based schools, the segregation no longer occurs. Also there are lots of liberals, Muslim, Jewish and Christian, in the media, which I think helps a lot.

I have a cousin who teaches art through the Catholic University and she's never been a Catholic or particularly religious.

Regards, Paul.
DM said…
why are you always such a little liar, stephen?

Crystal Night, Atheists!


Have I said this before?



Einstein puts the final nail in the coffin of atheism...



atheists deny their own life element...


DM said…
btw, stephen

you are going to be *EXECUTED*, you little blaspheming mother fucker...
Anonymous said…
Oh dear! Winging his way in from the local asylum...
1. Are parents allowed to educate their children in the faith of their choice? (say, up to age 11)
2. Are such parents, if allowed to do so, allowed to come together with other such parents and share the education of their children in the faith of their choice?
3. If so - who decides the boundaries between this and a faith school?

The reason I ask is to clarify whether you're discussing state-funded schools or whether all potential private institutions come under the same restrictions. I think I'd largely agree with your perspective if we are talking about state-funded schools, but not for private ones. And that's a position that can be held on grounds that are completely independent of religious belief.

BTW who is DM? has he been trolling around here before?
Stephen Law said…
Well we can divide this into two recommendations: that the 3 requirements be met by:

(i) all state schools
(ii) all schools

Not all religious institutions are schools, obviously.
Suem said…
I would absolutely support all of these three expectations.

Faith schools do have an excellent academic record. I wonder if this is partly because it is good for minds to engage with theories about life and the purpose of life, to be aware of a conceptual framework and rationale to existence? It engenders thought and a sense of wonder at things beyond our immediate experience?
It might just be because standards and discipline are high...
I do think faith schools at their worst can have their drawbacks though. My kids went to an RC primary and I could tell you the pros and cons.
Suem said…
By the way, one of them is now an ardent atheist and has Dawkins and Hitchens on his bookshelf. We bought him Hitchen's God is not Great for Christmas and he avidly read it straight away.
So, it hasn't done him any harm...although, being a teenager,he says he'd like it if I objected to his atheism - he wants to feel oppressed :)

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