Although the posts on this site go straight to Twi**er, and I occasionally post something else there, I don’t follow the tw**ts of others. That’s mainly for lack of time: I can’t write on this site and tw**t at the same time. But I still parasitize my friends and readers who sent me tw**ts, and this post is an example. Alert reader Bryan sent me a pair of tw**ts, one from the National Secular Society (NSS, referring to an article on its website), and the other a response from antitheist philosopherAnthony Grayling, who happens to be the Vice President of the British Humanist Association.
Grayling doesn’t pull any punches:
But that got me thinking about this question: Is it useful to have religious education in government-funded schools? By that, of course, I mean teaching about the world’s diverse religions, not indoctrinating children in faith.
In England, religious education (RE) is a required subject in all government funded schools, and of course in “faith schools” that cater to a particular religion and also get government money. (For the record, I don’t think any public funds should go to supporting religious schools.) As far as I know, RE extends from the early years right up until at least the “fifth form” (equivalent to grade 10 in the U.S., with students aged about 16).
However, English students can opt out of RE, as well as of the required daily “act of worship.” Yet RE is not evenhanded: at least half the curriculum must be Christian, and, although the High Court has ruled that atheism was unlawfully excluded from RE, the Minister of Education has said that RE must include the idea that “Britain is a Christian nation” (!) and that religion can be given priority over nonreligious views.
So, although Britain is becoming increasingly (and rapidly!) secular, the government is regressing with respect to RE. In the RSS article referred to above, by Stephen Evans: “What do pupils need to know about religion?” there’s this:
In a new report on the subject, the All-Party Parliamentary group on Religious Education calls for a return of the ‘minister for faith’ position to the cabinet in order to address society’s urgent need for greater “religious literacy”.
Without providing any evidence that religious illiteracy is a problem of any significant importance, the APPG calls on the Government to promote religious literacy by “championing RE” and making its improvement an “important educational priority”.
The problem is, when it comes to this highly contested area of the curriculum, there’s very little in the way of consensus regarding what “improvement” actually means.
Evans concludes, and I agree, that there’s really no need for RE in schools. Now there are some prominent atheists, Dan Dennett among them, who have called for obligatory religious education—on the grounds that to be considered “educated” in the world you have to know something about religion. One can, I suppose make a case for that, but I think the counterarguments are stronger. Here are some I thought of:
- Considering my own education, I had no religious teaching, as is the case in American public schools. (The First Amendment effectively bans it.) Have I suffered from this? I don’t think so. The time that would have been occupied by RE can be more profitably employed in learning about other aspects of culture: art, music, and literature, of which only the last is usually offered in American public schools.
- The tenets of religion are fictional, made up by humans. That’s the most important thing to know about religion, and it’s the one thing that no religious education curriculum will teach. You learn what different faiths say, but there can be no critical discussion of that dogma.
- Religious education can, all too often, turn into religious proselytizing, as seems to be happening in the UK.
- What you need to know about religion you can pick up in the public sphere; anybody in the U.S., for instance, is constantly exposed to faith. Thus it is unlike algebra or chemistry, which you can get only in school.
- There are simply too many religions on the planet to do a decent job teaching about them all. There are, by some estimates, over 40,000 sects of Christianity alone! Who decides which to teach? Do you teach the ones only practiced in the students’ own country, or do you anthropologically cover the whole panoply of human religious belief?
- A big problem: how do you teach a religion objectively? With Islam, for instance, do you teach the Shia or Sunni versions, or both? What about Sufism? You can imagine the fracas that would ensue among the parents of Muslim children no matter what is taught about Islam. There will always be concern about whether one’s own religion is being taught properly to children.
One British reader, who went to a Church of England school, wrote me this:
I remember at the age of nine/ten being taught the story of the “miracle” of the feeding of the five thousand – loaves and fishes story – and being told that we should not take it literally but that it was an allegory (although I’m sure the teacher used a different word) and perhaps was meant to tell us to share what we have.
That would never fly in an America that harbors many Biblical literalists. Imagine telling a class in the South that the first two chapters of Genesis were allegorical!
- Finally, what about atheism? Surely nonbelief should also be taught, as is supposedly required in England. But how much emphasis should be given to nonbelief? And, as we learned yesterday, most people’s atheism comes from a lack of evidence for the tenets of conventional religions. How can you teach atheism without being critical of those religions?
France circumvents the whole problem by substituting a course on ethics and morality, though in some regions students can still avail themselves of RE. I see problems with the secular version as well, for teaching ethics would be difficult on the secondary-school level.
I’d prefer to see an obligatory course in critical thinking. But of course that would raise an uproar in the U.S., with parents realizing that critically-thinking children could turn their doubts on their faith!
Overall, I see RE as misguided. It should not be part of the curriculum of any secular democracy. But, of course, readers are free to disagree below. The reader who went to the Church of England school, for instance, saw benefits to his own religious education:
On a personal note, I would say that I don’t object to teaching religion in that manner. I do think that the historical input of the various religions is important and having some idea of the stories and basis for the belief systems is a good thing. My own kids have pretty much no idea about the bible – they don’t know the basic stories. They had nothing formal in elementary/high school – and living in the [U.S. South] they were surrounded by indoctrinated kids. They both had religion/philosophy prerequisites as undergrads – one did intro Hinduism and the other intro Buddhism. I told them they should do intro Christianity – but they said that was a goof-off course for the kids who knew it anyway, and they would rather compete on a more level playing field.