Review - Faith School Menace?

Richard Dawkins' latest offering, Faith School Menace?, aired last night on Channel 4, where he seems to have almost taken up residence, so many hours have they devoted to him and his views. But before Christians leap to complain, we should note that Channel 4 has been by far the most interesting religious broadcaster of the last few years, giving time to a range of religious perspectives, including some Christian, that other channels just won't touch. And they have probably worked out that they'll get more Christians watching if they put Dawkins on, than they would for any church leader.

Dawko's current crusade (or the current aspect of his ongoing crusade) is directed against faith schools. He has taken up the long-standing grudge of British secularists about this, and thrown his considerable weight behind it. And Faith School Menace? began in fairly predictable fashion. Dawkins has never been embarrassed to use overheated rhetoric, and the introduction was what we might expect from such a ridiculous title. The last government, we heard, "changed Britain for ever" by allowing new faith schools to be formed. They "opened the floodgates" to a "creeping menace". This is classic Dawkins, glossing the evidence with tabloid headlines in way that would enrage him if his opponents were to do it. In reality, as he himself told us, only 100 new schools were opened, hardly a catastrophic revolution.

This, of course, is the problem with the whole argument. There are indeed huge numbers of faith schools in the UK. This raises difficult issues, about which Dawkins has some valid concerns (more later). However, the vast majority of them are Church of England schools, and many of those are VC (where the church has no control over RE teaching, etc). I don't want to belittle the efforts of the heads and staff of these Anglican schools, but a casual observer would be hard pushed to tell the difference between a typical church school and its "secular" counterpart down the road. The differences just aren't big enough to get anybody excited. So, in order to get our attention, Dawkins has to fish around for the most extreme examples he can find, which are totally unrepresentative of the faith school body as a whole.

So he found an Islamic school (one of only just over 100, which may sound a lot, but is only a tiny proportion of the 25,000-odd UK schools). And in that school, there was a Science teacher (just one) who clearly had only the haziest grasp of the science of evolution, and even less interest in teaching it. A random sample? Probably not. This sort of thing is an open goal for Dawkins, who was able to very gently make her look a bit ridiculous (although, incidentally, without in any way convincing her pupils).

And there was the surprise of Faith Schools Menace? Dawko was gentle. In fact, he was positively mellow. After the initial burst of polemic, he settled down to gently leading us through his argument rather than forcing it down our gullets and making us drink it as well, which has been his previous style. This was not the Dawkins of The God Delusion, or Root of all evil. This was more like David Attenborough, except with secular social theories instead of Gorillas. He told us that, of course, everyone should study religion. British people should read the Bible, and study Christian history (although obviously as historical curiosities, not aspects of a living faith). Did I even detect a hint of conciliation? At one point, he told the Muslim headteacher that he should reconcile his holy book with evolution, "which is what the Christians have done". (Strictly speaking, only some Christians have done it, but Dawkins knows that). We could almost believe that Dawkins is now prepared to share the world with people of belief, if only they could share his very reasonable views (in his opinion) on faith schools. Previously he has given the impression he would happily cleanse all believers from the face of the earth.

But back to the argument. Dawkins has some good points. If parents have a principled objection to faith schools, it is very difficult for them when they find that there is no local option for them. Church schools can lead to some very unfortunate situations where parents discover a sudden passion for religion as their children approach reception age. And the opt-out of faith school RE from Government inspection is hard to defend. He made these points well, and even allowed some of his opponents airtime, within reason. Jan Ainsworth (the Church of England's education officer) acquitted herself honourably, but was unfortunately lured into using the word "indoctrination" when describing what church schools do, which didn't help.

The biggest weakess of his case though, is that Dawkins wishes to remove one form of value "indoctrination", only to replace it with another. He says he just wants children to make up their own minds. But children learn from adults, and as he acknowledges, all adults have their own "baggage". And Dawkins has a whole luggage suite of it. His example of this, rather moving, was his advice to his own daughter. He told her to only believe what could be substantiated by evidence, to distrust anything based on tradition, authority, or revelation. In other words, he gave her a pre-packaged belief system. The thing he says he wants was the one thing he could never do for his own child - give her the freedom to believe what she chose to, even if it was a religious belief.

In practice, all children receive the beliefs of signifcant adults in their lives. Whether they choose to adopt those beliefs in adult life depends on a whole host of factors that interact in very complex ways. But young people are never belief-free zones, any more than adults are (if we admit, as we should, that atheism is a kind of belief). One scene was particularly telling. Dawkins stood in a school playground, and asked to us imagine that some children were Conservatives, some Lib Dems, some logical positivists, etc, etc. This, he said, is ridiculous, and only in religious terms do we categorise children in this way. But in fact it is not ridiculous at all (except for the logical positivism, which any primary school child could see right through). Every school playground is full of children who parrot their parents' political and social opinions. That is the way of things. What he doesn't see is that it's not the absence of values and opinions which children need, but the ability to test and evaluate their own views in comparison with others. This is what I long to impart to my own children - not an indoctrination, but a worldview and philosophy that is tough and supple - to engage with other beliefs without breaking, but also to tolerate and respect the other.

I don't think Dawkins is there yet. But perhaps he is on the way. The film ended with the most engaging image of all - Dawkins giving a primary school assembly, looking for all the world like an avuncular old vicar telling the children a story. If faith is less menacing that he thinks it is, then maybe he too is not quite as dangerous as he sometimes makes out.


Charlie said…
For those who haven't seen it, there is now a response to Dawkins by Janina Ainsworth at The Church Mouse Blog -

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