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A religious education

Religion — which I was exposed to more-or-less only through my school — was probably my biggest source of dissatisfaction when I was growing up. While I'm angrier still about other things now, I'm still angry about religion in schools, so thought I'd write something about it. I normally solicit correspondence about my rants, and this one is no different, but since this is a live issue involving many people I know I am particularly keen for interactivity.

There was forced worship at my school, essentially daily. Conformity was enforced reasonably single-mindedly. Even at the age of eighteen, I was once hauled out and told off by the school's chaplain (Stephen Baker, now in Wales) for remaining silent when I was supposed to be singing hymns. I was angry at the time as my nonobservance was not disruptive: I felt that my polite willingness to stand and sit when everyone else did was much more than they could reasonably have demanded.

While my particular experiences were bad (though certainly not uniquely bad, and possibly not unusually bad), I'll be wondering what lessons can be learned in the large from them.

Religion and choice

I have spent some time trying to remember justifications for religion in school. Usually, of course, no serious effort to justify it was made. One was "that the school was a Christian foundation". This was an argument which I found curious since, in other regards, very few of the policy choices made at the time of the school's foundation appeared binding for decisions in the late 20th century.

Another was that my parents had chosen a religious school for me. In actual fact, the school I attended was one of only two schools on the island which accepted boys and offered A-levels, and the other one didn't offer an appropriately full range of courses (no Further Mathematics, for example, though I am happy to report that this gaping omission has been rectified in the years since).

It seems to me that this manoeuvre, where a near-forced choice between a very small number of options is dishonestly interpreted as a vindication of all aspects of the chosen option, is probably a very common one. (It's a similar manoeuvre to that practised by the spin-doctors of the parties who win general elections in the UK).

For example, I have heard stories from the UK of parents feeling more-or-less forced to misrepresent themselves as Catholic in order to secure an appropriate education for their children; the schools however paint a different story, stressing the high demand for religion in education.

At any rate, nobody ever bothered to ask my parents what they wanted, still less what I wanted. Given that, any claims that my family wished me to have a religious education are obvious nonsense.

There is the same illusion of choice within religious schools: in theory, perhaps, one can pull one's children out of religious worship, but this is divisive and impracticable (since the same events are used to impart important logistical data).

Religion in schools

Perhaps curiously, given how much of it I have had to endure, I do not know the scriptural or theological justification for worship. Certainly, I can't imagine that it is thought necessary to remind an omniscient being of his own positive qualities. But, for some reason, it is understood by Christians that worship is somehow beneficial.

Is it thought that the same benefits arise if the worshipper is taking part in the ritual against their will? Is it thought that the same benefits arise if the worshipper strongly believes that the statements which they are compelled to utter are false? I should hope that the answer is "no" to both of these questions, and yet my school seemed not to have considered this point.

For that matter, is it thought that the same benefits arise if the worshippers do not even understand the statements which they are compelled to sing? I wonder how many of the people who have sung the line "lo, he abhors not the virgin's womb" at school know what it means.

Religious education and logic

Of course there is more to religion in schools than the observance of rituals. One example is the approach to religious education itself; and the approach to religious education at my school could be thought of as a formal education in nonsense.

The latter part of it concerned itself, to quite a large extent, with presenting theological arguments (of one sort or another or yet another) for the existence of a god. These arguments were presented as valid logical deductions. There was some weaselling from the teacher that some people were — inexplicably — unconvinced by their logical validity but found them nevertheless helpful in understanding the nature of the divine; however, I rarely find incorrect statements helpful. Certainly, and most lamentably, no serious effort was made to describe the various advances in mathematics, philosophy and natural science that have contributed to our ability to reject incorrect logical deductions. This was a pity: some beautiful ideas (Kant's early observations on what would later be called impredicativity, modern physics, and information theory, respectively) have provided useful ways of appreciating the hopelessly fallacious nature of these arguments. We could have spent our time learning something worthwhile.

Moreover, much more of an opportunity was wasted than this. I have long felt that it would be a really helpful educational experience to be taught to spot fallacious reasoning. It is fairly easy to generate arguments which are superficially plausible, but which in fact turn out to be incorrect. This possibility is exploited by many people, and I think that it would be invaluable to be armed against it.

However, our education took the opposite form. I can remember on several occasions trying to produce fallacies which were parallel to the ones being taught, but more starkly obvious; I can remember being discouraged from this pursuit. I can only interpret this experience in the opposite light: education in religion at my school was not teaching us to be able to critically appraise the validity of reasoning, but training us to uncritically accept authority.

Religious education and racism

There is a sense in which my religious education was atypical, compared to other British people of about my age. British state schools mandate a form of religious education which is non-proselytising and which discusses at least a fair number of world religions. Even my school taught a small amount of material of this sort.

I have reservations even about this type of religious education. To some extent it only exists for extraordinary reasons: presumably because it would be unacceptable to proselytise in state schools, nowadays, but it would also be unacceptable to offer no class at all called "religious education".

My objection is that it tends to reduce other people to their religion. There are many, many aspects to the human condition besides religion: there is language, history, literature, music, politics, food, and all kinds of non-religious aspects to mores and rituals and customs and conventions. None of these are studied at mainstream schools to a depth which compares with the depth afforded to religion.

And many things are much less connected to religion than religious people assume. For example, most people in the UK have vaguely similar moral outlooks despite wide ranges of religious opinions. On the other hand, the range of moral outlooks among Christians through history has been enormously broad: there have been Christian slavers and Christian human rights activists; Christians who have agitated for war because of their God and Christians who have insisted on peace because of their God; there are committed Christian socialists and committed Christian capitalists. One can only deduce that religion and morals are poorly correlated. Hence even attempting to reduce moral beliefs to religion, let alone any other aspect of culture, is not always helpful from an anthropological point of view.

While the content of the lessons is not intrinsically racist, there is an implied reductionism in viewing people by religion alone which certainly is racist, and it certainly has negative consequences. For example, when speculating on the political opinions of people in the Middle East, it is all too convenient to portray their disagreements with us as being purely a result of an alien religion, rather than bothering to examine any social, political or historical causes, and the uncomfortable issues involved.


I guess I have a series of increasingly vague conclusions to be drawing. The first is that my old school, Elizabeth College, should not be proselytising, as it is horrendously inappropriate for it to do so. The second is that no school should be proselytising, as it is normally inappropriate. The third is that schools should seriously consider the emphasis that is currently placed on comparative religion, and redistribute some of it in favour of comparative literature, comparative history, comparative social anthropology, and so on.