Faith Schools And Dawkins’ Menace

After sitting down with some popcorn, painkillers and the certainty that I was going to pull my own hair out, I tuned into more4 last Wednesday night to enjoy Richard Dawkins’ latest programme entitled Faith Schools Menace? Of course from his point of view the question mark in the title is completely unnecessary! Considering his other programmes, I was surprised it wasn’t named something along the lines of ‘Faith Schools Are Evil’ but to my disappointment, it seems the good Professor has lost some of his shrillness and vitriol which is usually what makes his programmes so entertaining. This programme is sadly part of ‘The Age of Reason’ season where all his previous programmes are going to be re-aired in succession. Since the repulsively infantile media crave controversy and people who can create so much fuss whilst talking almost absolute nonsense, this does not come as a surprise. One thing that worries me is that the re-runs of these programmes are just going to give the New Atheist’s cheer groups more inspiration and fuel to pour scorn on the religious and to promote their tiresomely mistaken, 19th century views on ‘rationalism’.

Let’s Eradicate Faith Schools!

It seems Dawkins has now got his sights set entirely upon children. This is worrying. What worries him (and many other people as it turns out), is that the number of publicly funded faith schools in Britain is currently around 7,000 and increasing.  He tells us that these schools systematically indoctrinate children and are extremely divisive in nature. Faith schools need to go! After the programme was aired, Dawkins received significantly more praise and boot kissing than usual and after reading various news articles on the web reflecting on the programme, it is clear that just about everybody else has whole heartedly agreed with him. I however, am evidently not so charitable to the man’s ideas and indeed as with most of his programmes, his basic thesis is flawed and here I will show why. This is not to say that there aren’t things that I agree with him on, after all, indoctrination is not a good thing.

Near the beginning of the programme Dawkins states: “I want to explore the balance of rights, between a parents rights to educate a child in their own faith and the children’s rights to determine their own beliefs and approach the world with a truly open mind.” Immediately this gives the game away because the problem with his approach is that he thinks children who are sent to faith schools or are educated with their parents faith, are close minded or are put in a close minded environment. But this is to be expected because obviously Dawkins things religious people are delusional! I have to express my indignation here as I do find it extremely condescending when atheists presume religious people are close minded and claim they are the only free thinkers. This is nonsense to say the least and there is a certain degree of pompousness about it. I would view myself as an open minded individual and a free thinker with the ability to make perfectly rational choices. I imagine that most of my ‘religious’ friends would also feel the same way about themselves.

It is interesting to note here that Dawkins own upbringing and childhood education contradicts his overall objection. As a child, Dawkins had a normal Anglican upbringing and attended Oundle School Church of England, a faith school! Did his school ‘brainwash’ him and force on him a life long ‘false’ belief about the world? Evidently not. While he was being brought up in an Anglican cradle he was free to think for himself because he questioned belief in God around the age of 9 and was free to choose his own beliefs. After all if he wasn’t, then he wouldn’t be in the position he is in now. If he was indoctrinated by ‘religious nuts’ when at school, it seems that he has been able to break free of it but somehow doesn’t think other people are up to the task. I think he underestimates his fellow humans and thinks too highly of himself. Throughout the programme Dawkins met with several officials within the education arena and makes clear several of his objections to faith schools. I will examine each point one by one.

  1. They discriminate on religious grounds
  2. They don’t follow national curriculum
  3. They are divisive and create a ‘them and us’ mentality
  4. They teach Creationism and comparatively little science
  5. They indoctrinate children and don’t encourage questioning and scepticism

Unfortunately Dawkins reaches these conclusions by a very partial examination of schools with a religious affiliation and I think it’s probably safe to say that he reached these conclusions before he even did the research. The main problem with his overall approach is that he creates faulty syllogisms and and reaches unwarranted conclusions. In the programme he must have visited no more than 7 schools and constructs his arguments from the small number of schools he visited, some shaky statistics and talking with a few parents and teachers. Basically his thinking runs along the lines of…look here is a faith school which teaches Creationism and they indoctrinate and divide children…therefore the majority of them must be like this. Faith schools are bad! This type of thinking is common in many of his arguments and seems to happen because he is more bothered with reaching his conclusions instead of really examining the evidence exhaustively.

Discrimination On Religious Grounds

At one point in the programme Dawkins talks to Rev’d Jan Ainsworth, the Church of England’s Chief Education Officer who was arguing a positive case for faith schools. The interview in the programme lasted around 3 minutes but in a review of the show she revealed that Dawkins actually interviewed her for an hour. Jan mentions that ‘He was genuinely taken aback to be filming in a Church of England ‘faith’ school where 85% of the pupils are Bengali Muslim. That clearly didn’t fit the picture he was trying to establish of exclusive admissions policies and indoctrinating RE’. Obviously he couldn’t have shown the whole interview but in the final edit he is evidently more interested in showing us what he wants faith schools to be like. Slightly dishonest I would say. Jan Ainsworth points out several facts which contradict what he is trying to tell us. His objection that all church schools admit on a basis of faith positions, ignores the fact that voluntary controlled church schools (55% of CofE’s number of schools) admit solely on distance from the school. She states ‘Even voluntary aided schools, which can include faith-based criteria in their admissions, rarely fill all their places with applications from Christian families and the majority include local children, from other faith communities or none’. I myself can speak from experience on many of these issues as I attended a private christian school from years 9-11. Even though it is a small school they do not admit pupils on the basis of faith and many non religious pupils attended.

Ofsted  And National Curriculum?

Dawkins’ objection that RE in church schools is not inspected by ofsted and thus open to indoctrination is not quite so. The rise in popularity of A level RE suggests that pupil’s interest in other religions and faith has not come about by being told that there is only one religious view. The exam syllabus demands a high level of critical thinking and most do genuinely follow the national syllabus including my former school. Jan Ainsworth writes ‘Our research into ‘faith schools’ and community cohesion last year showed that schools with a religious character take that duty very seriously and ensure their pupils have good opportunities to engage with different cultures and beliefs. And that is Ofsted’s verdict’. If I recall rightly, the recent ofsted inspection at my old school was by a Christian, a Muslim and a non-believer. Fairly balanced I would say?

Look The Christians Are Fighting!

At one point Dawkins tried to use the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland as an example of the conflicts that religion can bring about. Video footage of the hand to hand violence in Northern Ireland was shown and he suggested that this is what could happen as a result of the segregation in schools. Dawkins scaremongering at this point was absurd if not laughable. Of course, religion does bring about violence in many instances but this is another example of his simplistic thinking. It would be foolish to suggest that the Northern Ireland conflict was simply a religious war. It was the ‘combination of political, religious and social differences plus the threat of intercommunal tensions’. Even if it were a purely religious conflict (and there are and have been purely religious conflicts), his argument still isn’t logically sound. Many contemporary atheists use this type of reasoning and point to a religious conflict to condemn religions in general but it shows their complete unwillingness to look into the mirror and put the shoe on the other foot. Strangely he does not tell us about the indoctrination and oppression that atheism and secularism have been guilty of. What about the indoctrination of atheism in schools of mid twentieth century USSR, East Germany or Albania? The eminent John Lennox, an Oxford mathematician and Philosopher of Science, spent many years visiting Russian and countries that were dominated by communism for many years. He recalls ‘ I have sat beside a girl of 13 in the GDR who has just been told she’s the brightest child in the school but then told that she cannot have any more education because she’s was not prepared to swear public allegiance to the atheistic state…I would call that intellectual murder and it was committed many times in the name of atheism!’. Dawkins’ narrow mindedness is lamentable.

Creationism And Science

On the issue of Creationism/evolution and science tuition, I have a little sympathy for him here. When he interviewed some Muslim girls and teachers it was clear that they had some highly mistaken ideas on evolution and science. Understandably this was the point when Dawkins was obviously very frustrated but he managed to contain himself somewhat. In England the teaching and acceptance of Creationism is a lot less common than in places like America. It is true that some faith schools do teach young earth Creationism (I don’t recall that mine did) but many others do not. It is important to make clear here that when I refer to Creationism I mean the specific doctrine that God created the universe in 6 literal days and that the earth is less than 10’000 years old. I myself do not believe in Creationism but I do believe in creation. My view is that children should be well aware of this view but that it should not be taught in the science class. An important point to note here is that in schools of any kind in this country, evolution is very often not touched upon in the science class and children don’t always learn about it properly till college years because it isn’t central to the syllabus.

A Blinkered View Of Rationality

Finally in the programme Dawkins presents a school assembly and tries to teach children about critical thinking and evidence. Here I was half expecting him to read out an excerpt from The God Delusion but thankfully the children were spared. In one part near the end of the programme he reads out a letter he sent to his daughter Juliet on her tenth birthday many years ago about how we believe things. This letter was also included in Richard’s book The Devil’s Chaplain. This is what he wrote ‘ Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know?…the answer to these questions is evidence…And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “What kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say’. His fatherly advice to his daughter here is telling and outlines his and the New Atheists narrow view of knowledge and rationality. If we are to follow Dawkins’ advice we are entitled to ask him what his evidence for this? If he cannot provide any then he is in trouble and it is clear his view is self defeating. He is making a purely philosophical claim about knowledge but it is not something that one could in principle have evidence for because it puts one into an infinite regress. We would have to ask for the evidence for the evidence for the evidence…etc and we would be stuck in a permanent state of scepticism and be incapable of believing anything! I am not here saying that we do not need evidence for certain claims, just that evidence is not the only way of knowing things about reality. I do hope Dawkins’ daughter saw the error in his logic and didn’t just accept his claim without thinking it through or applying a healthy amount of scepticism towards it.

YES!

Conclusion

In conclusion I think Dawkins really failed to justify the force of his objections to faith schools. The programme was inadequately researched and was based on a simplistic and biased analysis. He and many other people have expressed their doubts and concerns towards faith schools but these objections do not stand up to scrutiny. I do admit that there are problems with faith schools but there are also problems with other schools. My own experience in a faith school was a positive one. Before attending this school between years 9-11, I went to a standard state secondary school and was in fact often bullied for having religious convictions. When moving to a christian school there wasn’t bullying, indoctrination or segregation and it had an excellent ethos and produced excellent exam results (although admittedly the excellent exam results didn’t come from me!).  It would be a shame and a great mistake to stop faith schools and I think that many need to think about these issues and do the best to improve their current status. If Dawkins really wants to eradicate faith schools then he has to show us that most of them have a negative impact not a few! This he clearly has not done and I don’t think anyone can do because the good far exceeds the bad.

I rest my case.

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6 thoughts on “Faith Schools And Dawkins’ Menace

  1. Hello philosopherjosh,

    I found your blog through Quodlibeta. The fact that Irish violence got brought up as an example of religious violence reminded me of a story I heard Dinesh D’souza tell of a man who was attacked in Northern Ireland. He was out late one night and a shadowy figure held up a gun to his back and said “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” The man said, “I’m an atheist.” The figure then said, “Well are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”

    1. Hi there Matt!

      Quodlibeta is great, I often check it out when I can. I heard that story somewhere as well. I think it might have been from John Lennox as he’s an Irishman. A funny story indeed!

      Joshua

  2. First, I must applaud you on a well written piece. Second, I must agree with you. Though my experience in faith based primary education is rather lacking, I attended one for kindergarten and first grade (age 5-7). My age being as low as it was then I wasn’t taught science or theology thought I do recall my view on creation by the end was something like humans lived with dinosaurs millions of years ago.
    But what I can bring to the table is my experience at a Christian University. I attended Seattle Pacific University, an institute that didn’t discriminate against faith or belief. We had a few Atheists, more Catholics than Free Methodists, and no small number of extreme liberal types. (As for Muslims, there just aren’t that many in Seattle). Anyway, my point. Having this diverse of a student body in an environment that encouraged religion created an atmosphere where all discussions were open. Something, at least in the US, is hard to find. I think you made that same point that it is often the faith based schools that are the most open minded when it comes to discussion and not the atheists.
    As you said, “…atheists presume religious people are close minded and claim they are the only free thinkers.” The irony is really quite laughable.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you for the kind words Erik! It is interesting to hear of your experiences on these issues from America and not just in Britian. I think it’s important to try to prevent discrimination towards any worldview and to keep an attitude of inquiry and understanding. On a world scale atheism is a minority but in England as a country it is a majority and one of the most irreligious countries on the planet and even though only 7% of the population are regular church goers people are still trying to completely stamp out religion. Non-believers often complain that religious groups discriminate all the time (not saying that they never do!) but I would see it the other way round as christianity is being marginalized so much in this country. We are becoming more secular every day I think and it’s worrying.

      I do think it is completely false to say that a school or people with a religious affiliation are limited in their rationality and indeed many people who claim to be rational these days have a profoundly blinkered view on what it means to be rational.

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