Surely, keeping faith in the class is beyond belief?

23rd January 2009 at 00:00

"Do you respect my religion?" The wise teacher would surely say: "My attitude to religion is my own affair and not the subject of this lesson, so please get on with your work."

"That depends on what you mean by religion," I replied. "But more to the point, it depends on what you mean by respect. I respect your right to believe what you want to believe. I respect your right not to be discriminated against or persecuted because of it."

The earnest young man who had asked the question thought about my answer. "That's not what I mean. I want to know if you will respect it in the classroom."

"Ah, that's different. In class, I think you have the right not to have your religion rubbished by me from my position as the teacher.

"And I hope you'd give me the right, if we were not in class, to put my own views candidly, even if they were contrary to yours."

But that, it seems, didn't get to the nub of it either. "But what if you were teaching something that was against what my religion says is the truth. Would you respect it?"

"There again, it depends on what you mean by respect."

Thus far I had trodden carefully. Religion and education are a tricky mix. But now there was no escaping it. Unwittingly, we had walked into the middle of one of the hottest debates in education today: what is the position of religion in the classroom when its tenets run contrary to the orthodoxies of the academic discipline concerned?

Almost as if to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth, this has blown up around the teachings of Charles Darwin in the science curriculum and the counter claims of creationism. It is hardly a new debate, particularly in the United States, where it has rumbled on for decades. But it was given new legs here last year when Professor Michael Reiss resigned from his position as director of education at the Royal Society after a row about whether creationism should be included in science lessons.

This was followed by an IpsosMori poll of primary and secondary science teachers that revealed the amazing statistic that almost 30 per cent of them agreed with the statement: "Alongside the theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory, creationism should be taught in science lessons." The key word here is "taught"; not just mentioned, but included as part of the delivery alongside the actual science itself.

Then someone decided to ask Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and fellow of New College Oxford, what he thought about it. He is, of course, more widely known as Britain's most notorious (or esteemed) atheist and author of The God Delusion.

He wasn't happy. "We are failing in our duty to children if we staff our schools with teachers who are this ignorant - or this stupid," he is reported to have said. Yet Dawkins wasn't too far off the position adopted by Professor Reiss, arguing that in biology classes "it is defensible to teach that there are people called creationists, and they believe what they believe".

That may not seem much of a compromise, but it's good enough for me.

"I'll give you an example," I said to my student. "Many people think God created man in his own image and `gave' him language fully formed. That's a question of belief. If I'm teaching linguistics and we're covering theories about how language originated, I'll mention that that is the `truth' for some people of faith. But it can't have any place in a linguistic discussion in the classroom because there is no evidence to support it. To that extent, I will rule it out of the debate.

"Whether that is showing `respect' to your religion or not, you will have to decide."

"I've decided," he said. "It isn't!"

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