Religious indoctrination and religious segregation has no place in schools. Children should be able to learn and work out their ideas without officially imposed or sponsored indoctrination from priests, imams, or rabbis. There should be no faith schools. Schools should deal in inquiry and reason, not faith.
That is the basic issue highlighted by the outcry against the mild comments on faith schools made by the Chief Inspector of Schools, David Bell, in a speech on 17 January. Trevor Phillips, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, has endorsed the comments.
Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society told Solidarity: “Our position is that there is a problem in the state sector, and not just in the relatively small number of independent faith schools. One third of our state schools are faith schools, and the Government is embarked on a process of expanding faith schools in the state sector.
“The Church of England has a target of 200 new Church of England secondary schools, which the Government has endorsed. In our view it is not the state’s role to be subsidising proselytisation. But there is a further problem.
“We accept that if we are to have Church of England schools, then we have to have Muslim schools. But that leads straight to religious segregation and apartheid, promoted as a matter of national government policy.
“The only sensible way forward is to make all schools community schools”.
Tony Blair is a fervent advocate of faith schools, including those run by the Christian-fundamentalist Vardy Foundation. He has just appointed as the new Secretary of State for
Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, who does not deny being an associate of Opus Dei, the sinister ultra-Catholic society which grew up under Franco fascism in Spain and is now a worldwide spearhead of the most conservative forces in Catholicism. (She can only be an “associate”, not a member, because Opus Dei admits only men as members).
Already there are seven thousand faith schools in the state sector, now including 44 non-Christian (Jewish or Muslim) ones. There are about 300 independent faith schools, over 100 Christian, about 100 Muslim, and over 50 Jewish.
Bell supports faith schools. But he said: “Religious segregation in schools… must not put our coherence at risk… Faith should not be blind. I worry that many young people are being educated in faith-based schools, with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society. As my Annual Report will say about Muslim schools: ‘many schools must adapt their curriculum to ensure that it provides pupils with a broad general knowledge of public institutions and services in England and helps them to acquire an appreciation of and respect for other cultures in a way that promotes tolerance and harmony…’”
This mild comment earned him denunciation as “Islamophobic”. But there is nothing “Islamophobic” — or “Christophobic” — in saying that when children are faced, through government policy, with a choice of either Christian or Muslim schools, then division, prejudice, and fear will prosper. Northern Ireland, with its education system divided into Catholic and Protestant schools, shows us how.
Houzan Mahmoud, British representative of the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, told Solidarity: “I am against all kinds of religious schools. I want secular education which will promote equality and integration. I am an ex-Muslim myself, but I don’t want my daughter to learn about Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. At her age I want her to learn about more interesting stuff, not those scary things. Different religious schools means segregation for children. But what we want is equality and integration”.
Whether the Christian or Muslim schools are more or less liberal, and provide more or less teaching about other faiths, is not decisive — though with Kelly in charge, only a fool will rely on Christian schools being liberal, and only a double fool will rely on Muslim schools not responding in kind to Christian illiberalism.
The core idea of any such religion is not about love or truth, or any such humanist idea. It is that books (Bible, Koran, Torah) or specially-appointed people (priests, imams, rabbis) can transmit instructions from “God” about what to eat, what to wear, how to conduct sexual relations, and what rituals to perform; and that if we defy those instructions we will be punished.
Such ideas may be hardened or softened, interpreted harshly or liberally, but without them there is no religion. Religion means fear. And religion also implies that other religions are traducing and misrepresenting God. Softened or hardened, it implies some degree of hostility to other religions and to disbelief. And it is by definition impervious to reason, for it is a matter of upholding one set of claims to represent God’s ukases — Bible and priests, or Koran and imams — against another.
Members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in the National Union of Teachers are starting a campaign on this issue, with motions to the union’s conference this Easter and plans for a fringe meeting there.