Stephen Law: Why so much praise for religious schooling?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

ver the last couple of decades an anti-liberal mythology has developed across the West. It tends to blame everything wrong with modern society - from rising crime to teenage pregnancy - on Sixties liberals and, in particular, on liberal attitudes to religious and moral education.

Many social and religious conservatives now argue that if we are to cure these problems we need to move back in the direction of the kind of traditional, authority-based moral and religious education which tended to predominate in religious schools before the Sixties. Perhaps this sort of argument lies behind Tony Blair's enthusiasm for faith schools and explains why we now have 150 new Islamic schools in the pipeline, with new Jewish, Sikh and Hindu schools close behind.

I am not against religious schools. My concern is with the type of education delivered in them. I fear many of these new schools are likely to offer a very traditional form of religious education in which, rather than being taught to think, question and make their own judgments, young people are encouraged to defer more-or-less uncritically to some religious authority such as their imam, rabbi or the Pope.

In The War For Children's Minds, I argue that teaching young people to hand over responsibility for making moral judgements to a religious "expert" is a dangerous mistake. True, it is often sensible to defer to experts when it comes to chemistry, plumbing and car maintenance. But morality is not like chemistry. If a chemistry professor tells her students they can safely flush a lump of potassium down the sink, and in the resulting explosion several are maimed, those students are not to blame. But if the same students go to their religious authority and ask what attitude they should have towards those of other faiths, and this authority instructs them to kill the unbelievers, those students remain morally responsible for the resulting carnage.

Moral responsibility is like a boomerang. Try to throw it to someone else if you like. But it always comes back to you. Schools that insist young people can and should hand this responsibility over to religious "experts" are fooling both their students and themselves.

There is growing empirical evidence that schools that encourage collective philosophical discussion and critical thinking about religious and moral questions don't just raise the IQs of their pupils, but also help to foster their emotional and social skills as well.

Unfortunately, in the current climate, dare to suggest young people must be taught to think critically about moral and religious questions and you are likely to be rubbished. Popular attacks include the accusations that this sort of education is anti-religious, that it prevents teachers from teaching or even expressing a point of view, and that it promotes indiscipline. But these are all myths. To suggest that young people should be encouraged to think and question is not to say they should be allowed to do whatever they like. Nor is it incompatible with teaching them right from wrong and raising them within a religious tradition.

If you are still persuaded that authority-based moral and religious education is acceptable, then let me leave you with a question. Suppose authoritarian political schools started popping up around the country. A neoconservative school opens in Billericay, followed by a communist school in Middlesbrough. These schools select on the basis of parents' political beliefs. Portraits of political leaders beam beatifically down from classroom walls. Each day begins with the collective singing of political anthems. Pupils are expected to defer, more or less unquestioningly, to their school's political authority and its revered texts. Rarely are they exposed to alternative political points of view, except, perhaps, in a rather caricatured form, so they can be all the more sweepingly dismissed.

What would be the public's response to such institutions? Outrage. These schools would be accused of educationally stunting children - forcing their minds into politically approved moulds. But if authoritarian political schools are utterly beyond the pale, why on earth are so many of us prepared to tolerate their religious equivalents? The answer, I suspect, is inertia. Authoritarian political schools would be a new development. But there have always been authoritarian religious schools, Familiarity, and perhaps a sense of inevitability, has blunted the sense of outrage we might otherwise feel.

But this is not to say we shouldn't find their continuing existence shocking.

The writer is lecturer in philosophy, Heythrop College, University of London, and the author of 'The War For Children's Minds' (Routledge, £14.99)