Is there a place for God in education?

I'm at the RSA this evening, for a debate over a rather contentious subject: the role of religion in education. I'll be liveblogging it as best I can here.

(Oh, and I'm on my iPad, wishing I had brought my MacBook)

Sheena McDonald is in the chair. Good luck to her.

First up is Trevor Cooling, who wrote the report Doing God in Education. How people handle matters of belief is going to shape our world, he suggests. Learning to live together withe very different strongly-held beliefs is going to be ever more important. The consensus of a fair, broad education masks a fault line. most campaigning for diversity in education is based on the irrelevance of religion. Cooper argues that people's beliefs fundamentally inform their view of knowledge. Why cannot education be predicated on religion as a resource for communities, rather than as clutter in the system?

Andrew Copson argues that humanists are calling for fairness, rather than an unbiased view, and that Cooling's report misrepresents that. The BHA is in favour of teaching about a wide range of religions in school, so they can test their own emerging beliefs. That's the right place for them.

Dr Joyce Miller (a practicing Buddhist) likes the fact that the report addresses the idea the education is not free of inherent values. She feels it's essential that is engaged with in schools. However, she's not comfortable with the essentially Christian view outlined. All voices should contribute to the wellbeing and development of children.

Mohamed Mukadam suggests that our community is built of people of many beliefs and none – and varying levels of those beliefs. Faith schools cater to that diversity. Fairness does not require the closure of those schools, but is a spur for sitting down for a discussion. They are important for the very devout – they are a stepping stone to bring the isolated into mainstream society. Cooling advocates "courageous restraint" For teachers – he doesn't have to be afraid of his beliefs, as it stands as an example to children. But he must engage with criticism and debate. Stand back and give others the space to say what they want to say.

Canon Dr Ann Holt wants to argue that the only way to allow people to be who they are in public is to allow for a diversity of provision. Education has much to do with shaping identity. Faith schools are not funded by the state, they're funded by the people, whose money is administered by the state. Believers pay their taxes like unbelievers. It's not just teaching about religion – that's a reductionist form of knowledge. Every school should teach about religion. But education should not happen in a spiritual and moral vacuum. We need methodologies and curricula that honour that. What are we looking for in management of the public square? Are we looking for acquiescence to a dominance secularity? Or a genuinely tolerant view, because tolerance presumes disagreement.

Cooling thinks that children should be taught to think about the beliefs that shape values, so they can challenge and question, rather than adhering to the prevailing cultural and media norms. Copson thinks he's going too far – partially because he sees values as flexible, changing things. And he's the first to mention Creationism… The gloss science teachers who are christian and humanist put on their teaching will be different – but the worldview is irrelevant, because the base science is the same.

And that's why our curriculum is so boring, says Holt. There's a rich history of philosophy and religion, and an empty view taught in schools leaves them feeling hopeless.

Mukadam suggests that we gave to give God a role in schools. A curriculum which doesn't include a spiritual element is utilitarian – it teaches kids to be economic units, rather that to question the big issues: who am I? why do I exist? Why can those who have decided against God get to enforce that in education? And…he's close to preaching rather than arguing now.

Miller doesn't think science is as neutral as Copson argues. She likes the Buddhist idea of heart and mind as one, and we ned to think about the whole child.

Cooling responds to Copson by saying that he doesn't think that world views are inflexible. But he does think that the secular position that religion is irrelevant to most subjects is a belief and a worldview in its own right.

First questioner is editorialising, rather than asking a question. Pluralism. Blah.

Professor Richard Norman who came up with the clutter idea, agrees that the humanist position is that religion is a resource that can be drawn from throughout the curriculum. However, he suggests that the use of "worldview" in the report suggests an all-encompassing framework more than a resource.

And it's just been pointed out that we have one unbeliever amongst five on the panel… By the chair of the British Humanist Association. He suggests that Cooling's report is a manifesto for the colonisation of schools by the religious. He feels that it is possible for people to behave in a neutral way – it's part of the professionalism of being a teacher.

Ex-Catholic gay man asking a question. The institutions represented at the table are institutionally homophobic and misogynistic, he says. Why should people be allowed to do this to children? Cooling apologises for the harm does by religion, but he qualifies it by saying that atheists do harm, too.

A statistician from Brent says she was lucky to grow up there, because there were no faith schools, so she experienced a rich diversity in education, and formed her own views. isn't this about the children not the parents, she asked?

Mukadam argues that the question confuses the value (homosexuality is wrong) with hating the people. These are not the same thing. Miller says this is exactly the debate that should happen in RE, but without an evangelistic bent, just as they're not allowed to promote party politics – and declares that as a Buddhist she is not a believer. It's two to three not four to one.

An ex-teacher suggests that his experience is that all teaching is coloured by a worldview. Another asks if room for religion means room for all political ideologies, too. Miller points out that ideologies is a loaded world. People who agree with you have worldviews, and those who disagree have ideologies…

One teacher points out that learning is a metacognitive process, and should be viewed through the lens of beliefs as a result.

It's disappointing that so many of the questioners from the audience aren't actually asking questions, they're just having their say (rant?).

Mukadam is "surprised" by the depth of feeling against religion in schools. Hasn't been paying attention to public debate of late, it seems. Copson wants to see the reform of state-funded faith schools is because they're not forced to give a balanced teaching of different belief. He doesn't buy the spiritual vacuum argument leading straight to faith schools. Miller is amazed that no-one has mentioned forced collective worship in schools. Cooling found it disturbing that people are accusing him of believing all sorts of things he doesn't. He believes that you can't have values without beliefs (religious or otherwise), so children need to be helped to understand that.

And we're done.

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  1. ‘Metal’ Matt

    Well, off to a cracking start, thus far. I do believe interfaith schools will never flourish in urban areas; population density seems to play a factor in interfaith relations… so much so that interest groups are feasible in these areas. However, small-town interfaith relations, I would hope, would work in terms of multifarious immersion.

    It’s not all that different to faith as it is to big city life vs. small town life: small groups find common ground, large groups diversify. Is any of this yet coming up?


  2. Eric the .5b

    Is the setup really one “unbeliever” and four believers of a different religion apiece? That seems unfortunate and polarizing.


  3. Adam

    Not so far, alas.


  4. Adam

    No. The questioner doesn't understand Buddhism


  5. ‘Metal’ Matt

    If you have a chance to interject — be it “that” kind of symposium — perhaps ask why religion is culturally invigorating and art isn’t. I mean, sure there’s a way to enrich children without those kind of dogmatic overtones.


  6. Adam

    Stuck my hand up, didn't get picked.


  7. Chris Gaiser

    Interesting. I miss panel discussions like this from school. As an ex-Catholic gay man myself, I find the ex-Catholic gay man mentioned in your post incredibly counter-intuitive…Rather than asking an actual question he seems bent on attacking institutional religion as an oppressive regime.

    One other question: Did anyone bring up the intimate connection between history and religion? So much of history has been influenced by religion, how can you avoid talking about religious beliefs in a history class?

    Granted I skimmed the post…is the focus more on the role of theological beliefs in education, or religion in general?


  8. ‘Metal’ Matt

    Ah, left off on an interesting, albeit sullen, note. I tend to think that values based on beliefs is a cogent argument… until one assumes our values, be they alike, must all come from the same place in order to be valid. Shame that someone hadn’t informed them that having convictions was still a common-place thing even before 0 BC.


  9. Eric the .5b

    Well, the questioner doesn’t understand certain takes on Buddhism, at least. The argument that Buddhism doesn’t count as a religion requires very narrow (and whether consciously or not, Abrahamic) concepts of what constitutes religious belief.

    Meanwhile, millions of other Buddhists will tell you they’re “practicing” a religion, thank you very much…


  10. Adam

    @Eric – the Buddhist panelist didn't view herself as a religious person, for what it's worth.

    I'll add links to biogs, etc, when I get home.


  11. Eric the .5b

    Questioners ranting instead of questioning is probably unavoidable with a hot issue, but the “one speaker per group” setup feeds that sort of thing. When the issue is on conflicts between groups, a single speaker gets taken as a “representative” – someone giving the view for a group and serving as a target for any problems with that group. For instance, when there’s one Catholic talking in a discussion of religion, at some level strangers don’t just see This Catholic Guy talking, but The Catholic Church talking. Instead of one Muslim guy of some unstated sect, All Muslims, one atheist guy, The Secular Menace, etc.

    More than one Muslim or Buddhist, etc. discussing and inevitably disagreeing on various things undermines that reduction. However, for a number of reasons, the one-per discussion setup tends to win out.


  12. Eric the .5b

    @Adam – I’m encountered that from some Western Buddhists and other people of entirely different beliefs; it requires a remarkably narrow definition of “religion” that tends to reduce down to is like Christianity. YMMV.

    But who identified her as a “practicing Buddhist” in this interfaith discussion, anyway? 🙂


  13. Adam

    @Eric She did. 🙂


  14. Alexander Williams

    I find it mildly disheartening no one pointed out that faith-based teaching systems were largely (read: entirely) the norm until just before the Renaissance. A strictly comparative view would suggest that the less religion is involved in education, the greater and more powerful the ensuing civilization is.

    Or, to put it more succinctly, “You guys had your chance. Get out.” Possibly appending, “I don’t want to pay for your useless babbling.”

    The real question at issue is not whether religion is talked about in school. Impossible to avoid, historical grindstone, etc. The real question is whether I (in the Everyman I sense) should have to pay for it. What others are willing to pay for, I don’t really care about; private charter religious schools? Knock yourselves out and skip teaching evolution for all I care. If my kids can’t out-compete half-educated phytoplankton, I’ve failed as a genetic superior. But public schools funded, at least in part, by my tax dollar?

    Its “What do you want to be held at gunpoint to fund?” People tend to be touchy about that.


  15. Eric the .5b

    Ehn, faith-based schools have been useful more recently than the Renaissance. As long as you’re not talking about sex ed, many Catholic schools are very well-regarded in the US, as just one example. (And interestingly, they exist largely because early American public schools weren’t all that secular and were in fact often stridently sectarian for whichever Protestant church was dominant in that state.)

    As for the public funding of religious stuff, I just write that off as one of the US/UK things it’s not worth worrying about. You and I don’t pay into the UK’s coffers, after all. 🙂


  16. Robert

    It was all the very polite and civil.

    Sheena did say she didn’t think the time we had was enough, and quite rightly so. It wasn’t really one of those discussions where we would come to a vote, or conclusion, more like just a place, for a bit of a chat.

    It wasn’t going to be a Christopher Hitchens v Tony Blair style debate, although it would have made it a bit more lively.

    I thought Andrew was quite restrained, and didn’t call anyone delusional or ask how can you be trusted to teach children anything as what you believe is a myth.

    Andrew and Joyce did the occasional head shaking when Ann Holt spoke.

    Ann I think was saying that non-religious education was moral free zone, although I often found myself drifting off when she was talking. (Although I’m probably biased against theologians)

    Mukadam was actually quite clear about what he thought, and expressed himself rather well.

    I would have liked to have heard more from Dr Miller, as she seems to have been very reasonable.

    I thought Cooling had a difficult job, as when your defending a report, people have a habit of remembering bits of it here and there, and not the parts that you think are important. He was also defending the faith.

    My answer to some of the comments above is that I belive that Buddism is not actually a religion but a philosophy, but it acts like a religion.

    As per paying taxes, Anne said she was a Tax payer as well, and should expect her children should get an education that she wanted.

    But I suspect there re anti-discrimination laws at work here. As a lot of schools are COE, and the govt funds them as it’s the established church, it’s probably (?) not allowed to discriminate about funding other faith schools.

    Personally I think Blair will be remembered for two things, the war in Iraq, and the incredibly divisive faith schools. The schools will eventually cause more damage to the UK than the war.


  17. Mark MyWord

    Seems to me just refute the old testement, and you have taken care of the big three in one shot. Prove it, and all of the multi god faiths have been put to rest.
    TITLE: God’s Role in Education: What Do You Think?
    URL: http://mnewman.typepad.com/blog/2011/03/gods-role-in-education-what-do-you-think.html
    BLOG NAME: Quantum Wyrd & Lithe Mind
    DATE: 03/07/2011 08:26:04 AM
    In a recent post by Adam Tinworth, as to God’s place in education, I have spent some time pondering a contention of one speaker, in particular. Dr. Ann Holt argues that “that’s why our curriculum is so boring… There’s a rich history of philosophy and…


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