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Segregating schoolchildren by faith is a bad idea

My Times column is on religion in schools:

We now know from Peter Clarke’s report, published today but leaked last week, that there was indeed “co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamist ethos into some schools” in Birmingham.

Whistleblowers first approached the British Humanist Association in January with such allegations, weeks before the appearance of the Trojan Horse letter. The BHA (of which I should declare I am a “distinguished supporter” though I’ve never done much to deserve this accolade) properly passed on the information to the Department for Education.

Pavan Dhaliwal, of the BHA, has made the awkward point that much of what went on in the Park View Trust schools would have been permissible if the schools had been designated “faith schools”. The BHA campaigns against the very existence of state-funded faith schools, pointing out that Britain is one of only four countries in the world to allow religious selection in admissions to state-funded schools. The others are Estonia, Ireland and Israel.

In short, we can hardly be shocked to find religious indoctrination going on in some schools if we encourage segregation on the basis of faith. Since 2000 the proportion of secondary schools that are legally religious has increased by 20 per cent, and their freedom of action has greatly increased. The best way to prevent young girls in Birmingham being told that “if a woman said no to sex with her husband then angels would punish her from dusk till dawn”, as happened in Birmingham, is to leave religious practice — though not education about religion — out of school altogether.

I know such a view is considered intolerant, even bigoted — a charge frequently levelled at non-believers. “The trouble with that Richard Dawkins”, a lay preacher said to me some years ago, “is that he’s welcome to his views, but I don’t like him forcing them on others.” Passing up the temptation to point out his own hypocrisy as a preacher, I gently reminded him that, whereas I had to go to prayers or chapel every day at my school, nobody has ever been forced to read Richard Dawkins on atheism.

August sees a great global gathering of atheists and humanists in Oxford for the World Humanist Congress, the first time this body has met in Britain since 1978. Professor Dawkins will be on the stage, along with a galaxy of infidel stars, including the Nobel prizewinner Wole Soyinka, Philip Pullman, Jim al-Khalili, Nick Clegg and the Bangladeshi blogger Asif Mohiddun, who was attacked and stabbed in the back, shoulder and chest by a group of radical religious fundamentalists because of his criticism of Islam.

Not there in person will be Mubarak Bala, the Nigerian detained on a psychiatric ward for being an atheist, whose case has been highlighted by the International Humanist Ethical Union. His father had Mr Bala sectioned for expressing doubts about religion and he got out, two weeks ago, only because of a strike at the hospital. Nor will Alexander Aan— the scientist in Indonesia who was arrested and imprisoned for two years for expressing doubts about God — be present. But many similar activists from Africa and Asia will be there, including Gululai Ismail, who runs the Aware Girls project in northwest Pakistan, challenging patriarchy and religious extremism, and under constant threat of violence. It was her organisation that Malala Yousafzai was working for when shot by the Taliban.

It is clear that the kind of rational scepticism that we British have been tolerating for three centuries is resulting in terrible persecution throughout the Muslim world, and it is getting worse. I say we tolerate atheism here, and we do, but still grudgingly. Atheists lose count of the number of times we are told we are lacking in imagination and wonder, or that we just don’t see the human need for spirituality, or that we must have trouble justifying morality.

British Christians are generally prepared to be much ruder about atheism than they are about Islam. Some of the stuff Professor Dawkins has to read about himself would be condemned as hate speech if said about a Muslim. This is partly because atheists do not threaten our critics with violence, whereas any “Islamophobic” remark or cartoon leads to death threats. It is also because Christians are continually trying to make common cause with other religions in defence of “faith” as a source of morality and harmony in the world. Did I dream it, or did a recent archbishop muse about the virtues of Sharia?

Anglicanism is a mild and attenuated form of the faith virus and may even act as a vaccine against more virulent infections, but Christianity is becoming more evangelical in response to its global competition with Islam. This has always happened in religious history: where religions compete, they become more extreme — the crusades, the 30-years war, Ulster.

So for all the pious talk of “faith communities”, the two religions are not on the same side. To combat the rise of radical Islam and radical Christianity, we should try the secular, free-thinking approach. Mild Anglicanism should make common cause with humanists in defence of tolerance.

The experience of the past three centuries is that if lots of people stop believing in gods, they do not become less moral. On the contrary, the number of people attending church has gone down at about the same rate as the number of people who commit violent crimes. I am not suggesting a causal connection — though I suspect religious people would if the trends were different — but these facts give the lie to the idea that godlessness leads to immorality. (And don’t tell me that communist regimes were irreligious — they enforced a worship of their leaders with all the techniques and fervour of religion.)

Unlike the almost triumphalist mood among atheists in the 1960s, when Francis Crick foresaw the end of religion and started a competition for what to do with the college chapels in Cambridge, rationalists no longer expect to get rid of religion altogether by explaining life and matter: they aim only to tame it instead, and to protect children from it. Nonetheless, they are slowly winning: witness the fact that more than 12 per cent of funerals in this country are now humanist in some form. And humanists are showing no signs of turning intolerant, let alone violent.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times