Getting to grips with the big guy

Is it necessary to teach children about God to help them better assess all the world views they will encounter?

Pupils cannot be educated in shared human and social values without also being educated about belief in God, according to a Christian academic.

In a pamphlet entitled Doing God in Education, Professor Trevor Cooling of Canterbury Christ Church University argues there is no such thing as an "uncluttered" value: everyone's belief systems, whether religious or atheist, colour their values. For example, while most people will agree that kindness is a good thing, their interpretation and application of kindness will often differ.

In illustration, Professor Cooling cites a list of values drawn up for English schools by community leaders in 1996. Originally, this list stated: "In particular, we value families as sources of love and support for all their members, and as the basis of a society in which people care for others."

In a later version, this was altered to include the qualifying phrase "including families of different kinds". References to particular value being placed on marriage were taken out, and a new heading introduced: "diversity in our society".

Even though the importance of family life is agreed as a shared value, the interpretation of that value differs, depending on beliefs held.

Professor Cooling says: "Pupils need to grapple with what a value might mean in everyday life ... where values come from, and so on ... This cannot happen without taking seriously the supposed clutter of contentious beliefs, which cause people to view the same shared value in very different ways."

Thus, he says, while a particular religious belief may clutter knowledge, atheism does the same thing. "Everyone grows up shaped by a particular view of the world held by their family and others of significance (including their school)," he says.

"Learning ... is the slow and painstaking process of constructing one's own interpretation of the world ... through encounters with reality and with people of other world views."

He cites the example of Camp Quest, established in 2009 as the first atheist summer camp for children. The camp's organisers claimed to offer an uncluttered environment in which children could make rational choices for themselves. But they also invited children to play a game in which they had to disprove the existence of a - heavy-handedly metaphorical - invisible unicorn.

"This ... is as clear an example of nurture into a particular understanding of the world as would be encountered on similar activities run by religious communities," he says. "It is clearly designed to persuade campers that invisible unicorns (like God) do not exist."

Everyone exists, he says, in a world constructed by the interpretations of family, friends and schools: "This is an inescapable part of being human." He therefore suggests that children should be taught to understand both religious and atheist viewpoints, and to evaluate these for themselves.

"Free thinkers are people, be they atheists or religious believers, who have learned to examine and reflect critically upon the world view in which they have been nurtured," he says. "Beliefs, including religious beliefs, are integral to human knowing, and therefore to education."

Religion does not help children to understand or process the reality of the world, a leading educational philosopher claims. And, far from helping pupils to evaluate the world, insisting on collective worship in schools merely ignores the fact that many children are not religious, says Michael Hand of London University's Institute of Education.

Dr Hand believes that Professor Cooling's argument in favour of religious education is invalid. He questions Professor Cooling's statement that everyone grows up shaped by a particular view of the world, held by their family, their school or other significant figures.

The assumption here, Dr Hand says, is that: "Knowing and perceiving only happen within a world view, and are heavily shaped by the content of that world view ... Having a world view is now construed as a necessary precondition of thinking itself: a conceptual framework that makes knowledge and experience possible."

According to this argument, Dr Hand says, the priority in primary education must be to give children a world, by instilling a world view. This will be best achieved if parents can choose a school where the world view presented at home can be endorsed and consolidated: a faith school.

But Professor Cooling also argues that schools should create opportunities for pupils to experience different world views, and so learn to evaluate and understand reality. Therefore, schools should offer collective worship, allowing all pupils to experience religious ways of constructing reality. However, Dr Hand says, the world is divided up according to the senses. While beliefs about "gods, angels and avatars" may offer an explanation of the human condition, he adds, they do not provide believers with a means of filtering sensory input.

"Believers and unbelievers do not have different ways of carving up the world," he says. "They identify exactly the same things: people, plants and paintings, actions, accidents and assertions."

Religious belief systems, Dr Hand concludes, do not qualify as a world view necessary for understanding of the world. "Collective worship in common schools is objectionable, because many children are not religious," he says, "and because those who are religious worship different gods in different ways.

"Claims about the role of conceptual schemes in human knowledge, and about the kinds of formative experiences without which children cannot think at all, are simply not relevant."


Doing God in Education report


Michael Hand profile


National Institute for Christian Education Research

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