AC Grayling has written a committed polemic for rinsing every drop of religiosity from state education in this week's TES. As a sceptical agnostic, I suppose I should embrace his rationalism; as a philosophy teacher, I should salute his advocacy of the love of wisdom. But I can't endorse his tripartite view of the corrosive power of religion in schools.
Every time I hear a secular atheist propose that people should be free to think what they want, I hear the familiar chime of thought police everywhere: think freely; think as I do. It's easy to decry monotheistic faiths as monoliths of presumed incontrovertible wisdom, and then propose a parallel system of thought and value. Every prophet on the internet believes that only their magic beans are the right kind of beans. The problem is that a society that truly values diversity of thought (and the howling foam of contradiction and dissent that this engenders) has to permit – nay, encourage – alternative perspectives. And that includes views on spirituality.
The belief in an afterlife, in a spiritual aspect to human existence, in the non-corporeal nature of experience, is no fringe belief system, but the settled will of the vast majority of the human race. For all the modern world breeds secular thought, the majority of the world still identify with a faith, and for most of them, strongly so. And taken across time, the section of humanity that spurns all forms of spirituality is an almost minute sliver of the whole. Which makes no argument as to the veracity of any of their claims, but merely provides the context for how we should value spiritual belief systems, and where we place them in an imagined hierarchy of importance. Fail to understand the religious impulse, and you deny the ability to understand humanity.
Claiming that religion's use lies in it's ability to assist us understanding the paintings in the National Portrait Gallery is like saying you took a degree in English literature so you can read a bus timetable. For many, many people religion isn't an artefact of childish compulsion, but something lived and very present. I don't share their religious beliefs, but it's an offence against civility and sense to claim that people are only religious because they were told to be so at the knee of their parents. Jesus may well have been foreshadowed by everyone from Apollo to Dionysus to Osiris, but closing down debate about what that means seems to me to be as Stalinist as any other state-approved narrative. As far as brainwashing goes, that's simply a term we apply to people whose intellectual and spiritual positions vary from ours. It's like conjugating a verb: I educate, you propagandise, they brainwash.
Religion is far, far more than the collective fears of the tribe; it is also the expressed hopes of our imagination. Even I, an agnostic, can see the value in it. It isn't a hiccup on the way to real thinking; it represents the collective accumulation of thousands of years worth of human moral experience. It is, by it's very nature, a rough hessian bag of good and bad thinking, inconsistent, incoherent at times, and of dubious provenance and goodness. Which is exactly what you'd imagine from the communal thought-empires of millions of people. There are points of reflection within every religion that are so profound, so ineffably wise, that I gasp whenever I encounter them anew; deep, human truths that speak to us on levels barely imaginable.
Can this be replaced by philosophy? Possibly. I encounter similar moments in Plato or Hume or Heidegger. But philosophy has no more a monopoly in the creation of moral beings than religion, particularly in its misinterpretation, as reading Ayn Rand, Nietzsche or, indeed, Plato will remind you.
As to the merits, or lack of, of the collective assembly, Grayling might have a point. At the moment it's an odd embarrassment in many schools that shuffle it around their plates before eventually hiding it under their forks like unwanted vegetables. It's a hangover from the old battles between secular reformers and religious reformers over the place of religion in school. Religious education changed dramatically, and moved from proselytising to analysis, but the act of collective worship hung about like a drunk guest. Too many schools have no idea what to do with it, and cough their way through a prayer so wet you could wash your loin cloth in it. Get rid. Worship is fine, as long as it isn't thrown like a blanket over everyone – it has no educational function, and is by rights the preserve of the faithful.
Grayling's claim that tax money is wasted on faith schools is based on an odd presumption that religious people don't pay taxes, and don't have as much right for their preferences to be met as secular atheists. And given that religious institutions were instrumental in establishing national state education (as opposed to the vast array of atheist schools that were set up in...oh, wait), it seems somewhat churlish to say that they can't be trusted with the education of children. Of course, there must be safeguards against outright falsehoods. But as long as an institution prefaces its discussions with "some believe that" and "Muslims believe that" and so on, then probity is preserved.
A good education requires viewing human culture and the human experience in its entirety, not just the parts that we would like children to learn. No matter what your view of religion – and by all means, it deserves a hell of a lot of what it gets – take it out of schools, and you're condemning children to a savage ignorance about what makes the world tick, and a force that has driven history and humankind since we were first aware of ourselves. I have no problem – in fact I applaud – the creation of a syllabus for children that traces the great sweep of human thought, religious or otherwise. But treat religion as an embarrassing footnote in that process, and you sell children very short indeed.
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