Have faith in critical thinking

25th July 2008 at 01:00

Many of the religious education techniques used in faith schools would be seen as brainwashing in any other context, a philosophy lecturer has claimed.

Stephen Law, from London University's Heythrop College, draws comparison between faith schools and how a system that catered for different political standpoints might operate.

For example, Dr Law imagines a neo-conservative school in Billericay or a socialist school in Middlesbrough. These schools would select pupils on the basis of their parents' political beliefs, just as faith schools select according to parents' religious beliefs.

Each day would begin with the singing of political anthems in classrooms decorated with portraits of political leaders. Teachers would expect pupils to accept without criticism the political beliefs enshrined in their sacred manifestos.

"If such schools did spring up, there would be outrage," said Dr Law. "They're the kind of Orwellian schools you find under totalitarian regimes in places such as Stalinist Russia." Yet he argues that people are willing to tolerate their religious equivalent - faith schools.

"Religious beliefs are often intensely political," he said. "Clearly, religious points of view on homosexuality, charity, a woman's place in the home, abortion, the state of Israel, jihad and even poverty and injustice are all political. There are few aspects of religious belief that don't have an important political dimension."

Dr Law says there are two ways to induce belief. The first involves making a rational case, based on evidence and coherent argument. The second involves manipulation and peer pressure: brainwashing. Cults, prisoner-of- war camps and fundamentalist churches all tend to use the same techniques: isolation, control, repetition and emotional manipulation, he says.

Dr Law also argues that religious education often relies on similar methods: "Daily repetitive acts of worship . isolation from other belief systems . the punishment of those who dare to question . and emotional manipulation (for example, associating the song "All Things Bright and Beautiful" with the faith, but images of moral chaos and hell with the alternatives) - these techniques are the mainstay of religious education."

But he maintains that a liberal approach to religious education is possible in faith schools, and that they can have a strong religious ethos while still encouraging critical thought.

He suggests teachers at a faith school could say: "This is what we believe, and these are the reasons why we believe it. Obviously, we would like you to believe it too, but not just because we tell you to. We want you to think and question and make up your own minds."

Dr Law recommends that all schools should encourage pupils to think in this way, questioning religious and moral beliefs.

"When you use reason to persuade, you respect the other person's freedom to make (or fail to make) a rational decision," he said.

"When . you take that freedom from them . they're your puppet, and you're pulling their strings."

- "Religion and Philosophy in Schools", by Stephen Law, appears in the book `Philosophy in Schools' (Continuum).

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