Thursday, August 19, 2010

Faith School Menace?

This was the title of a documentary which I watched last night on the subject of faith schools, presented by Professor Richard Dawkins.  Now, I am not hugely excited about faith schools, but I am interested in Prof. Dawkins.  I find him to be representative of a widespread cultural trend which disturbs me, for reasons which will become clear.  For that reason, and not because I particularly feel the need to defend faith schools, I wanted to pass some comment on the documentary.

Firstly, a few relatively trivial things that I think Prof. Dawkins got wrong.  In talking about the rise of faith schools, he seemed to neglect the fact that historically most schools have had some basis in or affiliation to religious teaching, thus making it appear as if a new wave of fundamentalism were sweeping the nation.  I'm really not sure that's true.  Moreover, I think Prof. Dawkins has seriously overestimated how much the average CofE school is actually affected by its links to the Church.  I doubt there is much indoctrination going on in most of these schools.  (Let's face it, you'd struggle to get yourself indoctrinated in the average Anglican Church, let alone the schools).  Neither is there selection along religious lines to the extent that seemed to be implied by the programme.  And in taking us to Belfast as an example of the divisiveness of faith schools, Prof. Dawkins rather failed to take into account the sheer complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland, which has at least as much to do with a legacy of colonialism as it does with religion.

That last point was unfortunate, because for me this was where the argument of the documentary had the potential to be most powerful and most interesting.  It does seem to me that educating children in groups defined by religion is likely to be bad for social cohesion.  By playing the NI card, Prof. Dawkins actually put a red herring into play - it is unlikely that SS Mary and John School just down the road from me is going to turn into a hotbed of sectarian violence.  But there is a possibility (not with SSMJ, which as far as I can see has a pretty open admissions policy) that schools which select children according to religion will end up shutting those children off from other views of the world.  This would be a bad thing.  Of course, a faith-based school could still teach about other worldviews, but if there are no families represented who hold those worldviews they will always seem 'other' and alien.  At this point I think there is a real discussion to be had.  A balance has to be struck between the right of parents to bring up their children (which includes the right to decide how they are educated), and the need of society for people who understand a range of worldviews.  It is a problem which stems from the fact that we in the West no longer agree about what the world is like and what life is about - not just in details, but in fundamentals.  It will be difficult, I think, to reconcile the wishes of parents and the needs of society.  I wish Prof. Dawkins had spent longer discussing this point.

The reason he did not do so became clear toward the end of the programme: Prof. Dawkins thinks there is no great difficulty.  In fact, the situation is simple.  Take the faith out of education, and the problem evaporates.

Let me just pick up a few issues that I have with this position.  The first is that the position adopted by Prof. Dawkins assumes that there is some value-neutral and worldview-neutral way of educating children.  I don't see how this could be done, neither do I think it would be desirable if it could be done.  To educate children to adopt a stand-offish approach to every possible view of the world is to educate them to be isolated and probably unpleasant individualists.  Moreover, the position collapses in on itself at the point where the question is asked: would a value-free education be a good thing?

That exposes the bigger issue, which is that Prof. Dawkins seems to believe that his own worldview is not culturally conditioned, has no fundamental presuppositions, and consists purely of uninterpreted facts.  Just writing the sentence should make it clear that this cannot be so.  I would love it if Prof. Dawkins could see that his own view of the world is one amongst many, and that it is not so self-evidently superior to all the others as he thinks it is.  Of course, he thinks his worldview is right - true in the most absolute sense.  We all do, otherwise we wouldn't hold the views that we do.  But part of being one amongst many human beings in many cultures is to accept that others strongly disagree.

The deepest problem, I think, emerged when Prof. Dawkins began to talk about the advice he had given to his young daughter.  I've heard him mention this before, and it is obviously important to him.  He essentially urges her to ask questions about the world, not to take anyone's word for it, and to keep an open mind.  I applaud all of these things.  But he frames this discussion in terms of four sources of knowledge: evidence, tradition, authority, and revelation.  Apart from completely misunderstanding what is meant by 'revelation' (he takes it to mean a subjective feeling), Prof. Dawkins gets into serious trouble when he argues that you should only ever believe something on the basis of evidence.  At one level, this is the simple paradox: what evidence is there that believing things only on evidence will get me to the truth?  At another level, there is the assumption that the natural sciences are essentially the only source of knowledge, another unprovable assertion.  This gets you into all sorts of difficulty.  For example, I must believe many things on authority; I don't have time to test all my beliefs!  The point is, is this a trustworthy authority or not?  There was an interesting point in the documentary when Prof. Dawkins decried the fact that faith was being allowed to over-ride the "facts of science and history".  To put science to one side for the moment, one wonders what facts of history are being spoken of.  Most of what we know about history derives from other people's accounts of it.  I'm not sure how, on Prof. Dawkins' advice, we could claim to know any facts about history at all.

Perhaps the biggest thing I would love Prof. Dawkins and those who agree with him to understand is that Christians (I cannot speak for other religions, and anyway I am not interested in a defence of religion in the abstract, except in the sense that everyone ought to be free to believe and practice as they see fit) really think that they are talking precisely about the facts of history when they talk about their faith.  Our faith in Jesus isn't a vague metaphysical thing; it is founded in what we think happened in history, a history to which we have access only through written accounts (which is simply to say, a history like any other).  Let's argue about history, by all means.  Let's talk as two people with different worldviews, different interpretations of the available evidence - I would even go so far as to say different faiths.  And by all means let's have the discussion about faith schools - we might be surprised about how much we agree on the subject.  But let's have no more about this supposedly neutral worldview based purely on facts; there is no such thing, and therefore no such thing can be taught.

Edit:  Chris has a useful take on the documentary from a slightly different perspective which you should read.

1 comment:

  1. A pithy review - to the pertinent points. Unfortunately, Dawkins is not a historian, and NI exists most handily for those with no historical understanding, who want to score points. I loved when Dawkins was debating John Lennox and tried to bring in Norn Iron to make a point. Lennox, of course, despite being a fellow Oxford don, is N'Irish, and gave it the dismissal it rightly deserved. McGrath can do the same!

    The reason for school division in NI is colonial, as you say: historically, because of the plantation roots from Britain, the state was largely controlled by those of Protestant culture, and oppressed RCs - denied access to further education, certain professions, etc. Society was socially segregated: planters vs. natives, so they had distinct education. Then when there was state-funded education, the RC church (/state!) ran its own schools, taking RC kids out of state schools, thus ensuring continual segregation. But take away those schools, and the kids are still socially segregated. I will always remember the tween girls at church youth club, announcing proudly that they went to an Integrated School. '...and we hate those Fenian ****s even more!' We had a some RCs in my grammar school - because basically, the divide is social, not religious. The working class keeps itself divided, in locale, education, sport, (as can) workplace and paramilitary/party-political affiliation. The middle class mixes. The grammar schools are mixed (somewhat), the areas I lived were mixed, my orchestras were mixed, and for that matter, our church kids activities were mixed. Having said that, as church was in N.Belfast, I did walk the RC kids back home after the club, so they wouldn't be done in on their way past the other area.

    Perhaps Dawkins just needs to take his eyes off the billions of years ago, and consider the past few hundred years. To make social and ethical claims on the basis of speculative biological history, ignoring socio-political history, is dubious at best. At worst, one could answer a fool according to his folly, see his misuse of Norn Iron, and raise him Nazi Germany.