The weird fashion for bashing faith schools
Far from being factories of conformism, many faith schools turn out youngsters with high levels of BS immunity.
As someone who attended faith schools from the ages of four to 18 - and also a faith nursery, faith youth clubs, faith swimming lessons, faith teenybopper discos, faith football matches and faith outings to the seaside - I find the commentariat’s fear of these institutions fascinating. Nothing freaks out today’s privately educated ragers against religion quite as much as a school where the teachers talk to the children about God. They need to calm down, because the real secret about faith schools, the hidden truth, is that they more often produce intellectual sceptics than mental slaves.
Some people look upon faith schools as alien institutions, the churners-out of brain-raped youngsters who will hate homos and want to strangle single mums. ‘[W]e have no idea what children are being taught in those classrooms’, says Catherine Bennett, providing Observer readers with their weekly satisfying shudder at the thought of how the other half live. These schools ‘brainwash impressionable children’, the New Statesman has warned, quoting that old Jesuit boast, ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man’, as evidence. Now Richard Dawkins, like a bull in a Padre Pio bookshop, has caused the Bimonthly New Atheist Controversy - it’s like they have a contract with the papers - by saying faith schools should not be given ‘a free pass to do religious education in their own way’ and must be prevented from ‘indoctrinating’ children. He was promoting his scary-sounding Channel 4 show, Faith School Menace?.
There are at least three problems with this sport of Hate The Faith School. First there’s the insulting idea that the kids are being brainwashed. Are the social circles of the liberal, atheistic, PC classes really so narrow that they have never met anyone who attended a CofE, Jewish, Muslim or Catholic school? They mustn’t have, because if they had they would know that the idea that faith-school children have their minds turned to mush by all-powerful priests, rabbis and imams is hilarious.
Take my school. (Warning: anecdotal evidence ahead.) A convent-based school in a rundown part of north-west London, administered by Dominican sisters who saw it as their duty to beat – sometimes literally – us Catholic boys and girls into shape, it was fairly full-on, religious-wise. We prayed before lessons, read the bible, raised money for black babies, had a chapel. (I say chapel. It was more of a glorified shed, which, being made of wood, got damaged in the great storm of 1987.) But were we Pope-fearin’ Stepford kids? Far from it. Me and a friend beheaded a statue of St Vincent de Paul. The school Bibles were awash with cartoon penises sticking out of Jesus of Nazareth’s smock and speech bubbles above the apostles’ heads saying ‘I am gay’. In flagrant defiance of priestly teachings, a legend scrawled on the walls of the boys’ toilet said: ‘Wanking is evil / Evil is a sin / Sins are forgiven / So get stuck in.’ In their own little way, those four lines pose a serious theological challenge to the many contradictions of the Catholic faith.
What the faith-school fearers forget is that, yes, 12-, 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds are wet behind the ears and sometimes dumb, but they also don’t believe everything they are told. They are developing a sceptical streak, which in 13-year-old boys might express itself crudely in the agonising cry ‘What do you mean I can’t masturbate?!’, but which nonetheless speaks to an inner questioning of supposed big truths. When a teen is told that everything from bodily pleasure to playground arguments to wanting to be super-wealthy is sinful, he will instinctively recognise a contradiction between his desires and what is expected of him. This often leads, not to brainwashing, but to an instinct to ‘kick against the pricks’ (to quote Acts, chapter 9, verse 5). As Patrick West has argued, it’s a myth that faith schools are ‘factories for producing unquestioning, God-fearing drones’.
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Indeed, in my experience, people who have been to faith schools often have a natural scepticism towards spiritual crackpots. Perhaps all those years ingesting, considering and often rejecting religious education strengthens our bullshit immune system. Everyone I know who attended a Catholic school is now an atheist, an agnostic, a lapsed Catholic or a pretend Catholic (someone who attends Mass only so that his or her child will get into a Catholic school, hilariously giving rise to fake-faith schools). Meanwhile, it is often the trendily and liberally educated who later in life most feverishly embrace New Ageism, Buddhism Lite or end-of-the-world environmentalism. Suckers. Some of us had done that whole finding God and losing Him again by the time we were halfway through puberty.
The late Cardinal Basil Hume gets mobbed
at O’Neill’s alma mater
The second problem with the fashion for bashing faith schools is that it is seriously, properly illiberal. The idea, expressed by Dawkins and others, that educating a child in a religious faith is a form of ‘emotional abuse’ is really an attack on the right of parents to raise their children as they see fit. In an Oxford Amnesty lecture popular amongst New Atheists, one militant secularist argues that children ‘have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas’. An alarmingly intolerant campaign run by the British Humanist Association seeks to bring faith schools to an end, in the name of children’s freedom of belief.
This is an Orwellian use of the language of ‘freedom’, for it is really an attack on adults’ freedom of association, on parents’ freedom to get together with whomever they please in order to share ideas and find the education system they feel is right for their children. As Hannah Arendt, a far more profound thinker than today’s New Atheists, argued in the late 1950s: ‘To force parents to send their children to [a certain] school against their will means to deprive them of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies - the private right over their children and the social right to free association.’ Campaigning for the government to shrink the faith element in faith schools would force some parents into precisely this scenario.
And thirdly, in answer to Catherine Bennett’s hair-tearing question about what on earth is taught in faith schools, the fact is they increasingly teach much of the same nonsense as ‘normal’ schools. Catholic schools, for example, teach far less of that anti-sex, pro-God stuff and much more of ‘mankind’s a rotter for wrecking the environment, multiculturalism rules, the key lesson of the Holocaust is “don’t bully Johnny”, you shouldn’t eat chips’, and so on and so on. My old school recently won a Friends of the Earth award for being super-green by sticking a solar panel on the roof and getting the children to recycle their rubbish. Not surprisingly, none of the brave warriors against faith schools has a word to say about children being ‘indoctrinated’ in the meek, fearful, self-loathing pieties of the liberal zeitgeist. I just hope the kids one day do to their recycling bins what I did to St Vincent de Paul.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.