Religious prejudice may be the only form of discrimination now funded by government. We spend money – and quite a lot of it – on discouraging racial bigotry and age intolerance. We also pay to ensure that gender bias and homophobia keep their ugly heads down. But, through the agency of faith schools, the belief that one form of religious conviction is superior to others (and that pretty much any form of religion is superior to atheism) is actively encouraged by the state. That's a partisan way of putting it, of course. The proponents of faith schools don't like to think of themselves as intolerant, even as they discriminate against those who don't share their beliefs. They prefer to talk of cultural continuity and moral instruction and strong communities. Above all, they prefer to talk of parental choice.
Richard Dawkins, as you may not be hugely surprised to learn, does not buy any of that. His role as presenter and the title Faith Schools Menace? meant that More 4's film about the rise of religious education wasn't one of those programmes you really had to watch to the end in order to discover its conclusions. Indeed, the question mark was positively comical, tagged on at the end of the title as if it hoped to leave the issue teetering. It was like a seesaw with a hippo on one end and a budgerigar on the other. But the fact that the film wasn't exactly a cliffhanger didn't mean it wasn't worth watching – or that it didn't contain the odd surprise.
The most obvious of these was that Dawkins came out in favour of religious literacy. He admires the poetry of the King James Bible and he understands that its cadences are inextricably woven into English literature as a whole. If you don't have some knowledge of Christian faith and language, then you're going to be in poor shape when it comes to understanding the history or the culture of Britain. So he wasn't arguing here for a curriculum dogmatically purged of all religious content. His real anxiety was the possibility that the dogmas of religion might spill over into other areas of learning, a danger that he was only able to demonstrate in relation to an Islamic faith school, because the Catholic and Jewish ones he approached weren't prepared to let him through the door. "My reputation goes before me," he pointed out.
The headmaster of Madani High School was more confident: "If you come to our school and you look at our lessons they are very much open minds," he said, "thinking critically, understanding the world in a very critical fashion." Unfortunately, the evidence of the sequence that followed suggested that critical thinking travelled in one direction only, and never towards the doctrines of the faith. Questioning a group of Muslim girls on their understanding of evolution, Dawkins discovered that not one of them believed it. They had effectively been taught it as something contradicted by the Koran, their confusions about the science compounded by the fact that the school's science teacher didn't grasp the weakness of one of the crudest challenges thrown up against the theory. Another girl confidently cited the "fact" that sea water and salt water don't mix as confirmation of the Koran's scientific wisdom. Dawkins blinked but let the moment pass, at pains here (as elsewhere in the programme) to be as tolerant with folly as was consistent with intellectual honesty.
He didn't need to say anything at all to spike the other claim made for faith schools, which is that they contribute to "community cohesion". All he had to do was to visit that extended experiment in unbridled faith education – Northern Ireland – where communities have cohered so successfully that they're prepared to stone and kill each other for belonging to the wrong one. We got pious humbug from both sides, with the Grand Chaplain of the Orange Order blandly denying that the segregation of the province's children had been "divisive" in any way and a Catholic representative challenging Dawkins to deny that parents had the human right to educate their children as they wish. He sensibly declined to put his foot in that trap, but you couldn't help but wish that he'd kicked out hard enough to break the mechanism. Does this principle extend to Ku Klux Klan members for example? Would we support their parental rights to bring a child up as a seething bigot? And even if we did – reluctantly bowing to a greater principle – might we reasonably object to funding that private choice out of the public purse?
Darwinism itself didn't get much of a look in here, apart from an intriguing sequence that revealed that young children are innately drawn to purpose-driven explanations of natural phenomena. Present them with a neutral explanation and one that seems to contain a narrative of overarching intention and they almost invariably choose the latter. This makes them fertile ground for fairytales of creation and a divine plan. They are, as Dawkins put it, "natural creationists". What he tactfully didn't point out was the implicit counterpoint to that finding, which is that religious creation myths – at least when taken as literal truth – are inherently childish. He ended in the classroom himself, inviting a group of primary school children to question what they're given as gospel truth by adults and opening himself up to questions, too. At one end of the seesaw – a child's curiosity and appetite for knowledge. At the other – the dutiful repetition of received dogmas. Hippo and budgerigar all over again to my mind.
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