Creationist free schools are an abuse - ancient ignorance has no place in education

Young minds are primed by nature to believe most of what adults tell them to believe. They should be treated with respect, not twisted into shapes that conform with dogma

An increasing concern about the current free school movement is that too many of those behind it have a religious agenda. Freedom of Information figures reported in The Independent this week show that 132 of the 517 applications to open free schools in the past couple of years have come from faith groups.

Creationists and fundamentalists of various stamps are eager to open schools so that they can proselytise the young, knowing that this is by far the chief way that religious belief survives in the world.

A single moment’s thought shows that the expression “faith school” is a contradiction: education should be about how to think, not what to think; it should be about learning, enquiry, testing evidence and arguments, not indoctrination of the young into having “faith” in one or other of the many ancient belief systems that constitute religion. The younger a child is, the more intellectually defenceless he is, and the easier it is to fill his head with beliefs from which it might cost him much, later in life, to free himself so that he can see the world truly and clearly.

It is not for nothing that the Jesuits say, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

For note what “faith” means: it means believing without evidence or reason, and even in the face of contrary evidence; this intellectual irresponsibility is regarded as a religious virtue, as the story of Doubting Thomas is intended to illustrate.

There are, therefore, powerful reasons for saying that the government should require all free schools to be secular in the sense of neutral towards faith commitments. Children should not be subjected to indoctrination into religious beliefs, any more than they should be instructed in school to believe that astrology, magic, the occult or voodoo are true.

In being taught about religion (as opposed to being taught to believe religious dogmas), they will see for themselves the conflicting claims, the basis in ancient ignorance, and the too often baleful effects of religion on human lives and societies. Whether they come to believe in Shintoism or Christianity or Islam after that will at least be their own choice, based on an examination of the grounds for believing.

I and my colleagues at the New College of the Humanities have put in a bid to open a free school in Camden with a concentration in the arts and humanities. One stringent principle of its educational ethos is to be that pupils must be encouraged and equipped to think for themselves, to challenge, to ask questions, to have a very good case for committing themselves to any ideological viewpoint, whether political, religious or otherwise. That is the overwhelming responsibility of education.

If the phrase “faith school” makes any sort of sense, it must mean “schooling in a faith”.  We have been lulled by the wishy-washy laissez-faire history of Church of England schools into thinking that religious-ethos schools are harmless affairs, with a bit of cod spirituality and morality thrown in at school assembly on some mornings of the week.

But the new faith school movement is far from harmless. Its objective is to capture minds and hearts for a sectarian outlook. Creationists and “intelligent design theorists” wish to combat science where it is easiest to do so: in very young heads which are primed by nature to believe most of what adult authorities tell them about the world.

In the past, Richard Dawkins and I have described religious indoctrination of small children as “child abuse”, and if one is being strictly literal in the use of these terms, so indeed it is. This seems fighting talk to those who are unaware what a cost the world pays in the divisions, conflicts and antipathies generated by religion, or the psychological burden of children and adults struggling with feelings of sin and inadequacy.

The argument that children need to be nourished spiritually and morally as well as educated in the theorems of arithmetic and the dates of history are right: but those who use this argument thinking that only religion provides these things are more wrong than they know. There are rich, deep, powerful traditions of thought and debate about life and how it can be best lived in the philosophy, literature and art of our world, which have no reference to religion, require no “leaps of faith”, and appeal to the clarity of reason and the innate warmth of the human heart as their basis.

Religion is the belief system of our remote ancestors who knew little about the universe, and made up stories to explain it to themselves. It is extraordinary that so many people still live by those stories, so manifestly inadequate as a resource for understanding the world and informing our moral lives. Education should not be narrowing minds into the antiquated moulds of those beliefs, but opening them so that by the bright light of enquiry they can seek and examine evidence for themselves.

A young mind is a beautiful opportunity: receptive, curious, quick to soak up information and techniques; it is something to be treated with utmost respect, not twisted into shapes that conform to antique dogmas, but given every chance to grow and discover. That is what a free school should aim for: an education in intellectual autonomy.

Professor Grayling is founder and Master of the New College of Humanities