Friday, 30 July 2010

Atheist schools? No, secularism for all please

Ever feel like someone is just missing the point?

Michael Gove, ConservatitMichael Gove, Education minister for the Tories in the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, is apparently open to the idea of atheist schools which could be set up under the new Academies Bill which ironically gives more freedom for faith-based schools.

Well, it's not that ironic. When I set up the original Atheist Agnostic and Secular society at Bristol University, it had two main purposes - the first of which was to provide the same forum, community and representation for atheists that all the other religions had at university, from the creationist nuts in Christian Union to the "Islam is Truth!" crazies in the Islamic society.

So you might think I'd be all in favour of some explicitly atheist schools, especially seeing as even without new legislation, Britain has many many faith-based schools already. It's just a case of balance and choice, right? Well, no, not at all.

Firstly, "choice" in schools is a red herring. There's no better and faster way to over-subscribe successful schools and destroy failing schools than to expand everyone's choice of where they can send their child. It's bad enough having school league tables in England and Wales: they give schools a one-dimensional judgement based on limited criteria which the media then further distorts. Schools aren't like supermarkets - families just need a small choice of several good schools, not a whole market, and bad schools need support instead of being allowed to fail and close.

More importantly, the idea of any school having one particular faith or religion is absurd and backward - and that includes atheism. I might be a fully paid-up atheist, but like Richard Dawkins and the majority of right-minded people it doesn't mean I want to indoctrinate my child to be an atheist. Religion is a personal choice and it's the right of every person - children included - to choose their own beliefs based on their experiences and evidence. It should also be the right of every child to receive an education without the interference of religious dogma or faith-based reasoning.

People often say that religious schools don't influence the education they provide. Bullcrap. As a church, the only point in having schools is so that you can influence children's education, whether it's just prayers in morning assembly or full-blown denial of evolution, the history of the Earth and other science stuff.

Religious schools are apparently instructed to take a certain percentage of pupils from different faiths or no faith. Again, red herring - no school should discriminate againt a child on their faith just as companies can't when employing people. Imagine a company or government department "generously" allowing 5% or 10% of its employees to believe in whatever religion they liked!

There's always the usual crowd who whine about how faith schools provide "moral" education and teach "values". In practice these "values" usually take the form of hatred and discrimination of gay people and people of other or no religion. If you believe schools should teach morality and values, that's great, because morality has nothing to do with god and it certainly has nothing to do with religion. If not, fair enough, because teaching kids right and wrong is mostly down to parents.

Some people think secularism is anti-religion. But here's something ironic - secularism exists to protect freedom of religious choice, and to prevent government and institutions from discriminating against or offering preferential treatment on the basis of religion. That's the second reason I set up that society: to campaign for secular values and equality for everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. In regard to education, it's a principle that ensures schools are not factories where people can make little copies of themselves, but places of unbiased reason-based learning.

Looking back at the BBC article above, it's sad but predictable that at least one person manages to misinterpret Richard Dawkins - even a humanist!
"I am member of British Humanist Association, but against Dawkins idea. I want all schools to be secular with no morning worship."
Me too mate! I think a lot of people want that. But I think Dawkins was mainly making a joke - setting up an atheist school - to point out the ridiculous nature of the legislation. Either way, the article explicitly points out that Dawkins "would never want to indoctrinate children in atheism, any more than in religion. Instead, children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded".

Gove's half-hearted invitation to atheists, secularists and rationalists to support the Conservatives' idiotic reforms (they're not supported by the majority of Lib Dems, that's for sure) is thankfully rejected by Dawkins, and should be by all.

Richard Dawkins, rational awesomeness propagator

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