A lack of faith in religious schools
Regular readers of this blog will know my opposition to Jehovah’s Witness dogma being enforced on a child who would be refused a blood transfusion that may be the best, and possibly in a critical blood loss situation the only, treatment that gives them a chance at survival. The principle derived here is that a parent cannot enforce the consequences of their religious belief on a child who may as an adult choose to reject that religious belief, let alone a life or death situation.
Where do I stand on faith schools then? Well I have to start with the fact that my mother pulled me out of my first year of Secondary School (High School) when I was 11 years old because she firmly believed as a student of Jehovah’s Witnesses that the end of the World was coming – the generation of 1914 would still be alive when the Second Coming would happen as taught by the Society. Also, I wanted to read a book – The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – which was blasphemous because it suggested that an alien race built the earth for mice (for more on that read here). The school curriculum approved it but my mother did not.
So I was pulled out of mainstream education and taught at home for the next three years. This involved studying the bible and reading Watch Tower and Tract Society books such as Live Forever, The Bible God’s Word or Man’s?, Life How Did it Get Here by Evolution or Creation, Revelation and many other works that were pumped out by the Head Quarters. The parents of others were so impressed at what I knew of the bible and teachings that they considered making similar arrangements for their own children.
I must point out that this is the United Kingdom we are talking about here – this is not an outback in the sticks. Throughout the three years an inspector visited twice – and each time he was impressed by my good manners, ability to quote scripture and talk about world events (which I watched intently for signs of the end of the world, though I did not mention that to him).
Thankfully, my intense studying allowed me to read the original publications of Russell and Rutherford – and the full horror of how I had lived my life hit me between the eyes. That this was a man made organisation that had believed in many things which had not come to pass. The internet did not exist then, and the ease by which you can find out about the history and even read the scanned book pages that I actually read in the original volumes makes me marvel that the organisation still barely hangs on. The power of the meme is one to be reckoned with.
I mention this because from talking to people that went to Church of England or Roman Catholic schools the experience was very different. Education did not suffer – evolution was for example taught, as was languages and science (things that suffered under my home tuition which was actually me being self taught). That faith schools have on average supposedly higher grades is one reason the Labour Government has been a supporter of them. Schools of a religious character are in demand by parents.
My concern though is that segregation of any kind is wrong. To divide people on sectarian grounds is not the way to have a community that understands the differences that make up the whole. Also I am concerned that religious education – which I think vital – is not one that is properly a part of the curriculum. It has to be taught, but there are no standards on how it is taught as it is not included in the National Curriculum.
Religious prayer for children is actually a legal requirement on schools in England. However parents can opt for children not to attend Religious Education lessons. For me I find it odd that the State should legally require a religious function to be carried out by a school – such as school prayer – but say that learning about other faiths is not compulsory.
The main contention is that it seems that parents are reinforcing their religious belief on children. On this score I have to make clear that I am not suggesting that religious parents to do not take their children to church, or tell them about their faith. But the faith most people have is based on where they are born and who their parents are – it is factors that have nothing to do with the choice a child makes. My contention is that children should be aware of other faiths, and be brought up to be capable of independent thought and critical analysis.
That is not because I want all children to become atheists when they grow up. But I want them to have the choice, with the best information at their disposal and the faculties to understand what they believe. To genuinely believe something is to appreciate and understand something – most tenants of faith are beyond the comprehension of a minor and even many adults have difficulty expressing certain aspects of dogma. As such they are children of faith parents – they have yet to reach an age where they have made an informed choice.
To put in perspective no one would say of Socialist parents that their child is a socialist child. There is no school of Socialist character where children in addition to learning the National Curriculum learn about the great traditions of the Labour Party, the leaders and policy through the ages. A mention is made of other political parties and philosophy but the school reflects the foundation of a mainstream political philosophy.
We would be aghast at children going to such a school, let alone one existing. Children are too young to choose such political ideology. Partisan politics is something kept out of the classroom. Yet we treat religion very differently. While the principle – a religious school or an ideological school – are similar the main difference is one of history. The Church of England was the provider of education before the State was. It should be noted that ideological education really developed more in higher education (think of the founding of the London School of Economics) with universities having a left or right wing reputation. Even then that campus distinction is not so marked now compared to the hey day of the 1960s unless you come across a particular lecturer that makes their feelings clear.
The other is should we allow all faiths to have their schools? For example suppose that the Jehovah’s Witnesses could start their own secondary school – would it have been alright for me to have gone there instead? The National Curriculum would have been taught up to standard so the school stayed open, but there would have been extra religious classes. I wonder if there would have been one entitled “The ever changing date of Armageddon in religious thought”?
The issue for me is that religion is for the private sphere not the public sphere. State education should not be financing religious establishments, and schools should be centres of learning not of a religious character. A school should be made up of students not selected on the basis of who their parents are. Religious education is one that should be taught as an appreciation of culture, literature and differences in thought among people – without this differences cannot be appreciated.
As such I would not want to see any more faith schools opened. I am concerned that because faith schools receive tax payers money and then additional money from their Church means there is not a level playing field of resources for State schools. I wonder if faith schools are chosen because they are on average better resourced and are considered in higher regard rather than because of the religious devotion of their parents (who according to the media are prepared to go to church and read up on the faith to pass the interview for selection – even move to the right catchment area).
We have been left in this country with an anachronism in the education system. Either we allow all faiths to provide education if they can do so allowing society to become further segregated. We would not allow this on racial lines, political lines, social class lines. We do for religion. It is time we seriously considered that if we do not take this issue seriously we will end up with more faith schools that make our nation even less tolerant and more divided.
And the elephant in the room is even more accepted despite the damage wrought in it’s name.
The links below are to a debate about faith and religion in schools as on The Big Debate which Richard Dawkins took part in with others on the panel: