Children from secular and atheist homes should be sent to faith schools so that they develop into autonomous thinkers, according to a leading atheist philosopher.
In fact, atheist parents should be as much in favour of faith-based education as religious parents, according to Harry Brighouse, British-born professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
An atheist himself, Professor Brighouse writes in Faith in Education, an anthology of academic essays published this month, that pupils need to be well informed about religious and secular life in order to be able to choose which option best suits them.
In an ideal world, secular schools would fulfil this duty more effectively than faith schools as they would teach a range of viewpoints, he says. But, he points out, we do not live in an ideal world.
Professor Brighouse, formerly philosophy of education professor at London University's Institute of Education, highlights the US system, which officially separates church and state. Instead of encouraging autonomy, schools there often inculcate conformity, he argues.
Many enforce a morning pledge of allegiance and hold pep rallies for sports, and enforce "a slavishly conformist loyalty" to the school.
Professor Brighouse examines the potential consequences of a similar separation of church and school in Britain. Faith schools would no longer receive government funding and would have to withdraw from the state sector, leading to a fall in the number of children attending faith schools. But many of the most religious parents would opt to send their children to private faith schools, where they would be less subject to public influence.
Thus, he says, the current system allows the Government to increase the prestige of mainstream religion while isolating extremist elements. Breaking down connections between state and church, however, could lead to an increase in fundamentalist schools.
Pupils from secular backgrounds would also suffer: "Children from secular homes cannot become autonomous without an appreciation of what the religious life involves," Professor Brighouse writes.
"They need children from religious backgrounds to be in their schools."
But this is only possible when children from religious backgrounds are not withdrawn from the state system, he points out.
Instead, Professor Brighouse would revise faith school admissions. He would reserve 30 per cent of places for children of the school's faith with the remaining ones allocated randomly among remaining applicants, regardless of their religious background.
"Does this proposed reform violate the right of parents to send children to schools that reflect their religious commitments?" he asks. "Sure, if they had such a right. But they don't."
Atheist parents who want their child to have an understanding of Catholicism, for example, have as much right to a place in a Catholic school as parents who want their child to learn to be a good Catholic.
"What should guide us in the design of schooling is the imperative to ensure that children's educational interests are well attended to," he said. "Separation of church and state is an irrelevance."
But Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society, disagrees. "There are already parents withdrawing their children from the state system because it's not extreme enough for them," he said.
"The only solution is to do away with faith schools entirely."
`Faith in Education', edited by Graham Haydon, is published by the Institute of Education.