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Big Questions comment

I was on BBC1 Big Questions yesterday. Go here. The whole hour was devoted to religion and children. I argued early on that children should be encouraged to think and question and all schools should be forced to meet minimum standards on that. I got a big round of applause on that from pretty much everyone - religious and non-religious (about 15 mins).

Later in the programme, a young man to my right called Nick explained how, on the last day at his Catholic school (he was Head Boy), "came out" as an atheist in his speech. The Monsigneur patted him on the shoulder and said he was "brave". Again, some approving applause and comment about this from the religious (at about 39.20 mins)

But hang on: why did this pupil have to wait until the last day of school before he could admit what he believed? Why, even at that point, was this acknowledged to be a pretty "brave" thing to do?

The answer is fairly obvious, isn't? Because the school had managed to convey the message to pupils that while some thinking and questioning was fine up to a point, the fundamentals of the faith were not included. Atheist? Keep it to yourself.

So was this, I suspect probably pretty typical, Catholic school meeting the minimum standards I earlier recommended, and which almost everyone applauded? Was it encouraging pupils to think and question? Was it encouraging them to voice their questions, doubts, own points of view?

Clearly not. It was, in fact - if probably by largely tacit means - actually suppressing any such open, critical discussion. And doing so very effectively.

Is that acceptable? If so, how is acceptance of such schools to be squared with the opinion that thinking and questioning should be encouraged?

Had I been quicker on my feet I'd have pointed put this seemingly contradictory attitude among some religious people (not all obviously) - and certainly several in the audience.


Niall said…
Is it not the case, Prof Law, that any school, even one run on impeccably liberal lines, would have such shibboleths that cannot be challenged?

I can tell you that in many schools coming out as an outspoken moral conservative on issues such as abortion or gay marriage would be equally "brave".

The idea of a morally neutral education, that merely teaches *about* morality rather than teaching a particular moral system, is something of a chimera.

I don't deny for one moment that it is possible to distinguish between more and less rational and effective modes of education, but any school will have an ethos with which it seeks to indoctrinate its pupils.
Stephen Law said…
I argue all schools should foster critical thinking across the board. To promote a view is not to say it cannot be critically discussed. Promote Christianity in schools if you like, but don't censor kids explicitly or tacitly, as many schools clearly do.

There's no excuse for not encouraging a critical questioning attitude towards religious beliefs. Of course, I'd not censor kids who are critical of liberal attitudes either. I imagine you'd not want them censored, so, if you're to be consistent, shouldn't you sign up to not censoring kids critical of religion in religious schools?
Stephen Law said…
PS I am not suggesting we have "morally neutral education". That's something completely different. You might be interested in my book The War For Children's Minds, which goes into such stuff in some depth.
Anonymous said…
It struck me watching the programme that the religious proponents of faith schools are, in some respects, failing at that very skill they are trying to teach – critical thinking.

Also, if it is a ‘faith’ school, by implication, it has an imposed undertone. If they don’t intend to impose the faith, why have a faith school? Why have any religious theme at all to the school? Why go out of our way to divide society?

How much more strident, narrow minded and extremist can you be to have a ‘Christian’ or any other religious school for children?

It seems to me that, really, this is just one big recruitment exercise.

Given the lack of evidence (let's not forget that) for anything supernatural, I think having RE lessons teaching the basic beliefs of different religions is a lot more than is deserved. I suspect in hundreds of years students will sit in their history classes, look back and laugh that there was ever any mention of religion in a school.
Roddy said…
More facts needed? Seems instinctively unlikely to me that the Head Boy would have 'come out' like that without some background within the school of critical discussion, so you may be being too harsh? Especially if he was congratulated by the Monsigneur.

That the Catholic school should exist, or be presumed to be openly indoctrinating its pupils and hoping they would turn to Jesus, is a different matter?
Stephen Law said…
I talked to Nick afterwards and he said he was worried about saying anything earlier as he was indeed concerned about consequence and many other kids had similar views but felt similar pressure not to say anything.

Does this come as a surprise?
Stephen Law said…
Of course I realize not all schools, and not even all Catholic schools, are necessarily like this but I would have thought it fairly uncontroversial that many are.
Roddy said…
ok, that seems clear then. You are correct.

In more of a devil's advocate way than anything else, I suppose one can be pleased that they felt free to hold these views, which they had developed themselves, even if giving voice to them didn't seem to have much upside.
Niall said…
Thanks for your reply, Prof Law. Looking back I hope my comment didn't come across as antagonistic. I do think it's worth stressing that in my fairly wide experience think modern faith schools are censorious in general.

My own view is that schools should have as much freedom as possible to maintain a distinct ethos, with reason (I know there's a fair amount of disagreement over what counts as within reason!). I don't think individuals should be "censored", but I think there's a difficulty in what that means exactly in specific cases.

I will, however, read the book to get a full sense of your position. It should be interesting, if it's anything like the open habitat project lecture!


I think there are several non sequiturs in your argument, e.g. it doesn't follow from starting a faith school that you necessarily wish to "impose" a faith on children. Impose is in any case a loaded and unhelpful term.

I also find it slightly ironic that you lambast Christians for being "narrow-minded" while making a huge sweeping judgment about them based on your own preconceptions and rather scanty evidence.

Finally, I believe that you mean that there is no *scientific proof* of anything supernatural, rather than no *evidence*. Disputed evidence is not the same as no evidence at all.
Niall said…

For "in my fairly wide experience think modern faith schools are censorious in general" read "in my fairly wide experience I don't think modern faith schools are censorious in general."
Stephen Law said…
Thanks Niall - I'd be interested in your feedback
v best
Philboid Studge said…
I talked to Nick afterwards and he said he was worried about saying anything earlier ...

And you conclude that the problem is with the school. Could it not be the case that Nick's reticence had more to do with Nick?

And why is it contradictory for a religious school to put the kibosh on disbelief (assuming, as you do, that is what the school did)? Catholics believe that belief is -- or can be -- arrived at through reason. In fact it teaches that there cannot be a discrepancy between faith and reason, so when a pupil expresses disbelief, it makes perfect sense for a teacher (or priest) to make that the case that the reasoning is flawed.

Personally, I think their beliefs are ridiculous and that they should be the merciless objects of ridicule and derision, but there's no contradiction in a religious school encouraging critical thought while it quells dissent from the core doctrine, which it insists can be arrived at via critical thought.
Ian said…
I watched most of the programme and it was interesting to observe that when penetrating observations, or questions, came in from the left-hand side of the debate the volume from the right-hand side noticeably increased.

However, I just wished that there had been more questions, particularly to the muslim woman who was there, regarding the teaching of evolution in comparison to texts from the Koran. That would have provided a useful lever to find out just what they were teaching and, of course, the opportunity to respond appropriately.

From my childhood, if I can remember things from the dawn of (my) time. I grew up in the middle of the last century and many of my friends attended an RC secondary school and, to be quyite honest, the children could be dealt with quite brutally. If anyone committed what was considered to be a serious transgression, decided upon by the teacher, they would receive a severe physical punishment from that teacher who would then sent them on what they described as the 'roundabut'. i.e. they went to every class in the school and received the same punishment from each and every teacher. (they even showed me the bruises) There were two reasons, firstly to punish the child thenselves - maybe to even save their souls, and also as a humiliation to the child and as a warning to others what might happen if they strayed out of line. Nobody said a thing!

Of course I am not suggesting that such things still happen but it is not in the too distant past that they did. Imposition of power, control and privilege. It took guts to take the stand but even more importantly let the students who were present know that it was all right to think for themselves, even if the teaching staff disagreed.
I agree with the speaker who said that a religious education is so important. Just take one look at our society - where is the respect?
Anonymous said…
I found some here:
Dan P said…
In God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens opined that arguing for a religious education based on its utility is vulgar. The notion that faith provides solace may be true. However, it is a crude basis for teaching principles that are untrue.

Civility can be cultivated independent of a religious education.
BenYachov said…
>but don't censor kids explicitly or tacitly, as many schools clearly do.

I gotta ask what kind of "censorship" takes place in modern religious school (or schools in general) over there in Great Britain?

I as a Catholic went to an American religious Episcopal school with persons who ranged from Jewish, Muslism, Protestant and Catholic and even the occasional Atheist. I didn't get the idea anything was censored?

What's the deal? I am seriously curious.
Anonymous said…
why did this pupil have to wait until the last day of school before he could admit what he believed?
Was it because he was moderately more intuitive than Socrates? Allergic to hemlock perhaps.

suppressing any such open, critical discussion.
If the establishment didn’t do that, how else would they pay their membership dues?

Had I been quicker on my feet
Slip this earpiece in, for two minds work better than one. As I tried to point out before. All understandings are inherently flawed. Fewer than three simple questions usually reveal as much. Unfortunately, not many are brave enough to face up to what that realisation leaves them with. Yet if humanity truly wants to progress, that’s a chance we’ll have to take.
Anonymous said…
WoW, You got agreement and applause and YET you manage to again spout anti-theist vitriol.

As an agnostic, I think you are not a good representative.
emr said…
Stephen - I think the most revealing comment of the programme came from Mark Mullins, who said that if he had children he would allow them to make up their own minds as to whether or not they should accept Jesus as their personal lord and saviour. He then made it clear that from his point of view, NOT accepting Jesus as one's personal saviour carries the penalty of an eternity in hell, a situation into which he believes the person has consciously chosen to place themself. This flags up the fact that even when it comes to as simple a word as 'choice', what one person means when they use this word can be quite different from another's. What Mullins was stating was that his children would have the freedom to believe whatever they want, just so long as it's Christianity. Making a choice without first taking on the assumptions and presuppositions of his particular brand of Christianity is, from his point of view, just not an option.

Have you read 'Confession Of A Buddhist Atheist' by Stephen Batchelor? There's a delicious section where he describes how as a young man one of his Buddhist teachers would put him through the rigorous training of questioning every teaching and assumption of his Buddhists masters, yet was still expected to accept the standard dogma of the particular strand of Buddhism he was being taught. In other words the teacher was saying, 'question all tradition and authority, just so long as you agree with our tradition and authority at the end of the day.' Is this free inquiry and genuine choice? Certainly not!
Anonymous said…
If I may borrow this a moment, emr.
his Buddhist teachers would put him through the rigorous training of questioning every teaching and assumption of his Buddhists masters

Oh bla-ma! Truly thou art replete with wisdom (not to say a little rotund too). Suffer a simple soul to sit at thy feet. The better to bathe in the radiance of that enlightenment.

Tell me, possessor of ultimate cognisance.
Is your understanding of reality 100% correct?
If yes, then I must ask such queries as may be required to disprove that claim.
If no then pray; what percentage of your understanding of reality is incorrect?
Now, detail the provenance of that “reality”. Which you believe all could encounter, without going through you.

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