AC Grayling’s call to abolish RE in schools is dangerously ignorant

A couple of weeks ago I was in a conversation with a BBC producer discussing faith schools and their admissions policies. We talked about the possibility of my appearance on BBC1′s Sunday Morning Live to debate the subject.

In the end it didn’t happen, but I wish I’d had the chance to take on the British Humanist Association’s chief executive, Andrew Copson, as he repeatedly made claims that there was factual evidence that faith schools select wealthy pupils by the backdoor, are divisive and basically have nothing good to offer. He didn’t mention that the ‘factual evidence’ was drawn from the BHA’s own research which only suggests that these might be the case if you join a few dots and squint a bit.

Faith-school bashing continues to be a popular pastime for the BHA and their friends but given that they employ someone full-time to campaign for their abolition,  it’s not entirely surprising; they’ve got to do something to keep themselves busy after all. It also doesn’t help that the Accord Coalition, which includes the BHA alongside the NUT and ATL teachers’ unions, campaigns against faith school admission policies with the support of an eclectic bunch of religious individuals.

“Look!” they say, “It’s not just humanists who don’t like faith schools; there are plenty of religious  leaders who have a problem with them too.” Even though the majority of these ‘leaders’ represent a miniscule number of people. Still, it adds enough credence to their message for the media to take notice and sow a few more seeds of doubt as to whether faith schools should be allowed to carry on as they are despite their continuing success and popularity.

The Accord Coalition might want to dump admission policies based on belief and collective worship, but they do at least admit that Religious Education serves a useful purpose. Apparently not all of their public supporters agree with this, though. The Philosopher AC Grayling, who has been referred to as the ‘Fifth Horseman of New Atheism’, may have his face on the Accord website, but he has written a stinging attack in this week’s Times Education Supplement on not just faith schools but the entire subject of RE, which he sees as being no more than a sad and pathetic branch of philosophy.

AC Grayling is a clever man who has held a number of high-profile positions and now appears to want to take over the role of arch-antagonist-towards-all-things-religious from Richard Dawkins. He has plenty of form when it comes to this matter, having described religious indoctrination of small children as “child abuse” in the past. In his five-page feature that will be sitting on the coffee tables of staff rooms across the country right now, he continues the dogged bombardment, setting out to undermine Religious Education legitimacy as a subject within the school curriculum. He writes:

Suppose that instead of RE, schools taught the history of humanity’s attempts to make sense of itself and the world around it. In this system, it would be seen that religions are just part – and truth be told, a rather primitive part – of a much larger and more complex adventure of thought…

Placing religion in this much larger context dramatically changes how it is viewed by students. How would our schoolchildren react to the Christian story, for example, if they knew that it was an iteration of commonplace tales abounding in Egyptian and Greek mythology? One could show how every feature of the Christian story is lifted from earlier mythologies.

Moreover, the “answers to the deepest questions in life” offered by religions are often very bad ones, and it needs to be made clear that much better answers exist in the secular traditions of thought.

RE should be replaced with a far more general history of ideas, in which the various beliefs of the world are merely one strand. Knowing something about religions is good; it is often remarked that otherwise one could not make sense of paintings in a public art gallery, and this is true.

Religion is organised superstition, and setting an example for children to respect superstition is wrong… The stories are silly, the promises vague and the concepts largely undefined.

Grayling is right when he says that philosophy should be an established part of children’s education, but his view of religion as a feeble-minded strand of it exposes how little he understands about the nature of religion. If all religions were like Buddhism, which requires no belief in the supernatural, then he might have a point. But reducing religious faith to a set of ideas and fairytales that can be fully explained away at a purely rational level completely misunderstands what it means to believe in the existence of a God or gods. Grayling reveals that his atheistic mind is unable to make sense of this and it leaves him little option but to dismiss it all, lock, stock and barrel. To him, religion is little more than an outdated curiosity.

Perhaps AC Grayling could do with a gentle reminder that, as an atheist, he is in a small minority in this country and even more so globally. Atheists make up 2 per cent of the world’s population and the non-religious another 16 per cent. That leaves 5.9 billion supposedly deluded people he and his comrades in atheism have to convince that religion is of no real significance.

It would be an interesting experiment to put Grayling’s proposals into practice and allow him to do the teaching. Would he be able to teach all aspects of philosophy and a neutered version of religion in a way that genuinely allowed pupils to make up their own minds entirely without prejudice? Given his inability to give the New Testament account of Jesus’ life a fair hearing, would he be able to find a way to impart to his students what he has been unable to do himself?

Grayling, in his own disgust, appears to have missed a basic truth. As soon as you begin to teach children, you start to impart your values and understanding of the world on to them. Encouraging independent thinking is not the same as passing on knowledge, and this is always under the control of the teacher. If the whole concept of God is a load of rubbish, then Grayling may potentially have a point about child abuse, but if God is real in any form, then surely Grayling’s staunch atheistic approach is actually the one that is potentially more abusive to children.

We are painfully aware in these times that religious belief can lead to suffering, division and bloodshed. But it is also capable of producing far more good than evil. Deliberately reducing a generation’s already-slender grasp of religion and belief is not going to do anything to increase community cohesion in our multicultural society or make sense of the role of religion in the politics and conflicts we are witnessing daily further afield. Ignorance is certainly not bliss in this case.

Religious Education is far from perfect as it stands. The Church of England revealed last week that more than half of its primary schools are delivering poor quality RE lessons which give pupils little more than a “superficial” grounding in the subject. This serious failure to deliver acceptable levels of understanding is not going to be fixed by abandonment. Instead, there needs to be a move away from the observation and study of religious paraphernalia to the understanding of core theologies and the impact of faith on the lives of individuals and groups.

AC Grayling’s views on this matter are both blinkered and dangerously ignorant. Those who oversee the delivery of Religious Education would do well to look elsewhere for wise advice on the subject’s future.

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