Children in class raising hands

Linda Woodhead’s recent article The government’s changes to faith schools sides with hardline religion draws attention to the fact that public attitudes to religion favour dogmatic extremists at the expense of more liberal and accommodating faith traditions.

The context is the Government’s plans, recently announced, to remove the 50% cap on selection by religion for faith-based free schools and academies. The Prime Minister, she tells us,

is responding to lobbying by religious leaders against a cap on faith-selection which was designed to safeguard diversity and avoid mono-faith schooling…
This represents a shift away from the ideal of state-funded faith schools serving the whole of society to one in which they serve only the children of the most committed and active members of a religion.

Woodhead then appeals to recent research, including her own, showing that most believers do not accept the teachings of their religious leaders. Catholics are more liberal than Catholic church leaders, Anglicans are more liberal than Anglican leaders.

Nevertheless successive governments have sought to accommodate the views of religious leaders as though they represented the views of their members. Exemptions to the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act have allowed religious bodies to discriminate against people on grounds of gender, sexuality and religion. The Cameron government, with its ‘quadruple lock’, forbade the Church of England to conduct gay weddings.

Mass printing and advertising, Woodhead argues, has produced a worldwide growth of fundamentalism that seeks

to ‘purify’ religion, boiling it down to a small set of timeless textual propositions, and pursuing a holier-than-thou moral puritanism.

With help from the media, the British government keeps reinforcing it.

Both are willing to accept the claim that the most sexist, homophobic versions of a religion are somehow the most authentic.

The result is a vicious circle:

Hardliners drive out moderates; religion becomes more dogmatic and illiberal; more moderates leave; religion becomes the preserve of a shrinking, illiberal minority.

So politicians and lawyers, trying to respect the views of religious minorities, end up ‘dancing to the tune of the hardliners’ and violating the conscience of religious majorities to protect the rights of religious minorities. It was not always so easy to get it so wrong:

When religion was part and parcel of British life it was harder to pull the wool over people’s eyes. In today’s majority ‘no religion’ society we need to be more careful. Growing ignorance about religion does not have to mean growing gullibility. More critical discernment is urgently needed.

To mass printing and advertising we can add social media: simple soundbites and slogans can be persuasive. Religion-by-soundbite tends to be dogmatic because it has to keep things simple.

This suits some religious traditions. Even before the Reformation some church leaders were arguing that the Bible is directly revealed by God and therefore transcends all human reason. It follows that it should be accepted as it is, without question or analysis. Hence ‘the clear, plain teaching of Scripture’ that we still hear about in some Protestant circles. Catholicism has equivalents.

This is the dogmatic principle, that has its own logic. Divine revelation transcends all human reason. What we learn from it we know with absolute certainty. Anybody who disagrees is certainly wrong. It follows that all our methods for learning from each other and discussing our differences are useless. As a result, everybody lives in their own faith bubble, unable to share ideas in any rational way with people who live in other faith bubbles or outside all bubbles.

For parents who believe that, it makes abundantly good sense to send their children to schools that live entirely within their own bubble: so, for example, Catholics want to send their children to Catholic schools with Catholic teachers and Catholic children in the playground, as they would if listening to non-Catholics and learning from them creates the danger of being led astray.

Of course there are other reasons why parents want to send their children to faith schools, but many do believe it is their religious duty to live in one such faith bubble. For those who do, the logic of 100% faith schools is impeccable.

The trouble is, it is complete and utter nonsense. Religious liberals know that there is not a single religious doctrine, Christian, Jewish or Muslim, that was ever directly revealed by God independently of human thought. Everything we believe is mediated through human minds, our own and those of our teachers.

All our learning and knowing depends on rational processes. It is our reason that enables us to listen to people we disagree with, think through the differences and seek resolutions of our disagreements. Sometimes, when the dialogues turn out this way, we change our minds. It is the gift of reason that enables us to live in harmony with those of other faith traditions.

This is why, in my view, it is a big mistake to fill a school with children from a single faith tradition. They are more likely to grow up thinking that their tradition is the only legitimate one. This will incline them to become dogmatic in their turn and demonise other faith traditions.

If there are lots of parents who want their children to be kept away from children of other faiths, one wonders about their own faith. Are they feeling threatened? Do they want to protect their children against challenging questions, in case they develop ideas of their own? Are they more concerned to be left undisturbed in their sectarian bubble than to consider whether their beliefs are true?

Those who care about God, and how to live for God, positively welcome engagement with people from other traditions. It is a chance to learn from them, and share with them. Every school child should have the opportunity to do it.