October 13, 2017

Faith Schools, Indoctrination and Non–exclusivist Religious Claims

Ruth Wareham (University of Warwick)

faith school signs

Some think that, since faith schools traditionally teach for belief in religious propositions, they are (when successful) necessarily indoctrinatory (e.g. Hand, 2003; Hand, 2004; Siegel, 2004).Others argue that, as long as religious educators pay adequate attention to the development of their pupils’ critical faculties, it is possible for religious schools to retain a confessional purpose while avoiding the charge of indoctrination (e.g. Thiessen, 1993).

Andrew Davis appears to align himself with the latter group when he maintains that the “modest religious pluralism” that he advocates is compatible both with “taking religious differences seriously” and with “the confessional approach still sought by many faith schools” (Davis, 2015). For Davis, the non-rational state of believing that is symptomatic of indoctrination – what Callan and Arena (2009) call “close[d] mindedness” – is closely associated with an exclusivist or fundamentalist approach to the transmission of religious belief; one which tells pupils that, in virtue of being a member of a particular faith group, they have “a Business Class route” to God.

According to Davis, this position is questionable, not simply because it is difficult to fathom how a God who exercises His powers in a partisan manner could be deemed “perfectly loving and perfectly good” (Davis, 2010, p.192), or even because it seems to entail a disrespect for the ‘other’ that could easily lead to forms of extremism (Davis, 2010, p.191), but because it is rationally untenable. Dogmatism is a form of intellectual arrogance. Pupils who are taught to be dogmatic about their religious worldview will lack the intellectual humility necessary even to consider that those who occupy different faith positions “may also have insights into Divine truths”. As an upshot, they will be bound to their religious beliefs in an inappropriate manner; their beliefs will be held unshakably (White, 1967). What’s more, when members of different faith traditions describe their beliefs, they may simply be talking about the same thing in different ways. In these circumstances, the possession of unshakable, dogmatic beliefs about inerrancy could cause pupils to see conflicts where there are, in fact, none.

Despite his stance on exclusivist faith instruction, Davis still thinks that religious educators may stack the epistemic deck in favour of their own religious position. True, exclusive (or fundamentalist) religious claims must be avoided, but as long as pupils are encouraged to retain a degree of doubt about their own religious outlook, the threat of indoctrination can be side-stepped. On this view, indoctrination is predominantly a matter of the probability that I am taught to assign to each of my religious beliefs; of their credence. Less-than-certain or ‘hedged’ religious beliefs may be encouraged, but those implying certainty must be set aside.

While Davis is correct to locate a threat to rationality in the inculcation of exclusivist religious beliefs, I am not convinced that his arguments for this conclusion hit the mark. Teaching with the expectation that the beliefs transmitted will be held with certainty is not, in itself, a violation of rationality. A great many of our beliefs are justifiably unshakable – for example, my belief that, in normal conditions, gravity will pull a dropped object towards the ground, or that, at sea level, water boils at 100 degrees. Pupils should be taught to hold these beliefs with a high degree of credence, because the evidence warrants it. They may not be similarly compelled to hold religious beliefs because, although a great many persuasive arguments pertaining to the truth of religious propositions exist, none is “rationally decisive” (Hand, 2004), and reasonable people disagree about the efficacy of those arguments.

Exclusivist appeals to truth will only necessitate indoctrination in contexts where those appeals are not sufficiently warranted. The harm arises not because of exclusivity per se, but because that exclusivity is unjustified. It is this lack of justification that sets up a barrier between religious beliefs and the believer’s reasons for holding them. It is this barrier, not the exclusivity, that makes attempts to impart religious belief indoctrinatory. Although highly unlikely, it is surely not beyond the realms of possibility that suitably compelling evidence for the truth of an exclusivist religious position could emerge at some point in the future. Under those circumstances, teachers would be able to impart exclusivist religious beliefs without indoctrination.

Of course, currently at least, no fundamentalist group is able to justify their perspective via an appeal to incontrovertible evidence. So, given what we know about the error-prone nature of humankind, Davis seems right to suggest that teaching pupils to adopt a fallibilist position with respect to their faith beliefs (and, possibly, most other beliefs) may mitigate the worst harms of indoctrination.

Nevertheless, even teachers who merely aim to get pupils to accept that a specific set of religious propositions are probably or more likely to be true than other sets of similar propositions, will need to go beyond the evidence and draw on arguments that are rationally contested to assure their preferred outcome. In the absence of rationally decisive evidence, they will still need to use some form of psychological or emotional manipulation to impart non-exclusivist religious propositions. But, to the degree that pupils are expected to hold the religious worldview that those propositions underpin – to the extent that they are steered towards accepting a specific conclusion on religious matters – they will have been indoctrinated.

Now, it does seem that this weaker form of indoctrination is potentially less malign than the stronger form to which Davis objects. The intellectually humble student, who is able to reflect on her own position in light of other views, appears to have access to a route out of her beliefs, should she require it. However, there is good reason to think that even this form of religious confessionalism is undesirable. Like exclusivist religious positions, non-exclusivist religious positions are rationally contestable, so their successful inculcation still requires a schism between belief on the one hand, and reason and evidence on the other.

True, the willingness to allow students to consider “insights” from other traditions suggests a degree of permeability with respect to this (irrational) barrier. But, when schools adopt the cultivation of faith as an overarching aim, they risk only acknowledging those “insights” that confirm their existing prejudices and merely paying lip service to doubt. This will be especially likely if too much weight is placed on the claim that apparent conflicts disguise underlying consensus. Here, the purported route out of faith belief is illusory, nothing more than a dead end.

Where we lack decisive evidence for a position, even if that position is predicated on the understanding that it might be mistaken, we have no business expecting students to believe it. Unfortunately, to the extent that a faith school is an institution designed to encourage belief in religious propositions, it will necessarily be indoctrinatory.

This need not mean that religious organisations must abandon hope of being involved in education altogether. It may be possible to introduce children to religion via a “faith-based” curriculum (Hand, 2012), which brings students to “the threshold of theology” (Whittle, 2016), without attempting to steer them to specific religious conclusions. However, these permissible forms of religiously minded education will involve putting confessionalism, even non-exclusive confessionalism, to bed once and for all.

A version of this article appeared in the 2016/17 PESGB Newsletter


Callan, E. and Arena, D. (2009) ‘Indoctrination’ in Harvey Siegel (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davis, A. (2010) ‘Defending religious pluralism for religious education’, Ethics and Education, 5(3), 189–202.

Davis, A. (with Barnes, P. and Halsted, M.) (2015) Religious Education: Educating for diversity, with P. Barnes and M. Halsted, London: Bloomsbury.

Hand, M. (2003) ‘A philosophical objection to faith schools’, Theory & Research in Education, 1(1), 89–99.

Hand, M. (2004) ‘The problem with faith schools: A reply to my critics’, Theory and Research in Education, 2(3), 343–53.

Hand, M. (2012) ‘A new dawn for faith-based education? Opportunities for religious organisations in the UK’s new school system’, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 46(4), 546–59.

Siegel (2004) ‘Faith, knowledge and indoctrination: A friendly response to Michael Hand’, Theory and Research in Education, 2(1),75–83.

Thiessen, E.J. (1993) Teaching for Commitment: Liberal education, indoctrination & Christian nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press.

White, J. (1967) ‘Indoctrination’ in R.S. Peters (ed.), The Concept of Education. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Whittle, S. (2016) ‘What might a non-confessional theory of Catholic education look like?’, Journal of Beliefs & Values, 37(1), 93–102.

May 09, 2017

Faith Schooling and Children’s Rights

By Peter Hemming (University of Cardiff)


Opponents of faith schools often draw on the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to argue, usually from a theoretical standpoint, that faith-based education can undermine children’s rights. Article 14 is particularly well-cited – children’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – and is typically discussed in the context of debates about pupil autonomy and indoctrination. However, I would suggest that there are a number of problems with such positions:

1) Assertions regarding indoctrination often seem to begin from the idea that religious indoctrination is the main kind that can exist within education, yet schools of all types are in the business of nurturing a range of attitudes and beliefs in pupils on a daily basis, whether through the official or the ‘hidden’ curriculum. Values promoted in schools can never be neutral and a judgement must therefore be made as to whether or not a given set of values are acceptable and respectful of children’s rights.

2) Article 14 of the UNCRC is actually more nuanced than critics often recognise. In its full form, the Article represents an unresolved tension between the developing right of the child to freedom of religion and the right of parents to provide religious guidance. Determining the extent to which this right is respected will therefore depend on specific judgements about the relative balance of the child’s views vis-à-vis their parents, something that is likely to change as the child grows in age and competence.

3) Commentators seem to assume that pupils are always willing to be indoctrinated, constructing children as passive and unable to develop their own point of view. However, research has shown that children are social actors in their own right, capable of demonstrating religious agency, albeit within structural constraints. As such, pupils may well resist or negotiate religious values and practices promoted and enacted in schools, through a variety of means.

Taking the above points together, I would suggest that the extent to which faith schools may or may not undermine children’s autonomy and right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion will be dependent on the particular values and practices of any given school, something that is likely to be highly variable. As such, the issue effectively translates into a question that can only be adequately addressed through empirical research rather than theoretical debate.

My recent work has taken this position as a starting point to explore religion and children’s rights through qualitative fieldwork in rural Anglican primary schools, with a specific focus on ethos values and religious practices. I found that whilst the former tended to find favour with a wide range of stakeholders due to their inclusive nature, the latter could cause problems for older, non-religious pupils, particularly in the case of prayer.

The full findings of the research are reported in: Hemming, P.J. (2017) ‘“No Offence to God but I Don't Believe in Him”: Religion, schooling and children's rights’, Ethnography and Education (latest articles).

Peter Hemming is a Lecturer in Social Science at the University of Cardiff.

March 11, 2017

‘We are teaching you to serve humanity’, British Muslim seminaries and social capital

By Abdul Hafeez Siddique, The Flowhesion Foundation

Islamic Art

Religion has always been a vital source of social capital and compassion throughout history. Indeed, before the introduction of The Elementary Education Act 1870 most educational provision in England was provided by the church of England and its associated parishes focused on educating, feeding and assisting masses of the unfortunate English population which had found itself drowned by the ever-rising wave of capitalism.

I attended a traditional Muslim seminary in Lancashire to undertake priesthood studies at the age of 11. Nestled away in the affluent area of Bromley Cross in Bolton, the imposing building resembled something out of Hogwarts and was occupied by 175 eager resident students who had come from far and wide. As a former hospital respite unit for those suffering lung cancer before World War Two, its architecture, grounds and facilities were meticulous. As a shy little boy who had just migrated with his family from the bustle of Birmingham to the quiet shires this was a real eye opener. My father, who was a simple man, felt his younger three children would benefit from becoming ‘people of the cloth’ and not be destroyed by the social degeneration of the city that had impaired the actions of his elder three children. Thus my eight-year journey began.

However, to disappoint many a critic of faith based institutions, my story has a very happy ending. I managed to see the light on the road to Jerusalem. I can confidently say the ethos, role models, learning and solid grounding of faith I experienced have holistically contributed to the man I am today.

One point from my experience was very clear, Traditional seminaries teach discipline, humility, sacrifice and service. These are not abstract terms I band about lightly but terms that I have seen personified in the staff I was fortunate enough to meet over the course of my eight year journey and whom I revere and respect to this day. The staff at the seminary taught these qualities not through rote learning, vague case studies, ‘indoctrination’ or research but through the physical actions, practices and choices made by them as they had given up their own lives in order to make ours better. They served as our role models and beacons of how servitude ought to be practiced.

For this reason, our teachers did not command respect – they earned it. A case in point, many of the staff at the institute taught for free and got by on running their own business or worked in other professions. They made themselves available for over 25 hours of free tutoring (including on weekends) on a weekly basis. They were burning with a ‘spirit of sacrifice’ I have not seen matched until this day – they felt taking financial gains for their work would stain their sincere intentions.

Compare this to the 21,400 teachers who began teaching in English state schools in 2010, of which 30% had quit by 2015 and a further 50% wish to quit in the next five years, citing workload, pay and conditions as factors. (Guardian, 2016)

Whilst at the institute, other staff happily worked and taught for minimum wage for many years (including on weekends) though their level of qualifications and experience meant they could easily have been lecturing in Islamic studies at state run establishments. It is this practical service which should be recognized and shared – it is how social capital and value is built. If only staff in the state sector could take a leaf out of their book.

We learned about the great body of work our staff were doing nationally and internationally. From work helping the poor and needy in third world countries to interfaith forums, workshops and awareness sessions. From building schools, orphanages, roads, hospital and institutions to working with the red cross and United Nations in delivering humanitarian aid to the most needy across the globe. We listened and we wanted to emulate this. I suppose if state school staff had such zeal it may serve as point of aspiration for their students.

The seminaries have been dubbed ‘The Etons and Harrows of the Muslim world’ – nothing can be further from the truth. They are not built on capital and large philanthropic donations. The fees paid to study at the seminary I attended was a mere £1,300 a year, including boarding, food and all related utilities. That equates to £3.56 per day! For that price we were taught Islamic theology, history, jurisprudence, Arabic morphology and linguistics to name a few alongside the core national curriculum. We were taught to respect people of all faiths and none, taught how all of creation was God’s family and the best person in the eyes of God was the one who serves His family well.

We were taught professional interpersonal, communication and soft skills to engage with members of all communities. This was done on a Saturday through Anjuman group workshops where I would stand, aged 11, and address a room of 50 students on a given topic. I shook and quivered to start but became more confident with time. I gained confidence and networking skills which I utilize to this day.

In our final year of study, we were encouraged to go to University and undertake degrees in the social sciences to ‘serve humanity’. I chose Applied community studies, went on to do an MPhil in community cohesion and an MA in social work. I now work in this field.

Though committed to work for the last five years, I have taken a day out every week to help at the seminary, particularly in GCSE English. If state schools could provide such role models and inspirational tutors, perhaps their students would return in droves to volunteer like I do.

I feel that the seminary provided me with a holistic education, gave me the core skills, knowledge and temperament to wisely navigate difficult terrains and landscapes. But most importantly, in a world obsessed with wage rises, promotions, profit and ‘what’s in it for me?’, it taught me to serve humanity. I suppose my simple father gave them a child and in return they gave him a man. ||

Abdul Hafeez Siddique: Muslim chaplain and Director of the Flowhesion Foundation

February 24, 2017

Are Faith Schools Indoctrinatory?

By Andrew Davis, Durham University.

St Paul

Suppose a Faith School assumes that its favoured religion implies the partial or even total falsity of others. Would this not constitute indoctrination if ‘indoctrinate’ means persuading pupils to believe something without appropriate rational support?

Reasoning could not possibly support the relevant fundamentalist view of faith and therefore the latter constitutes indoctrination. In a Theistic religion, fundamentalism effectively claims that a loving God has provided a Business Class route to Him for the favoured faith, while others either have Economy class or cannot even board the plane. This wildly implausible posture provides us with reasons for not believing in any religion. Hence, no Faith School could persuade pupils to embrace fundamentalism without indoctrinating them in some fashion.

Many World faiths engage in thinking and discourse about a ‘transcendent’ God. In certain ways, at least, they see Him as radically different from anything else that exists. Hence much human language, when applied to the Divine, undergoes a radical shift in meaning. Some of this transformed language may reasonably be described as figurative or metaphorical. Metaphorical descriptions can appear to conflict with each other, and would indeed conflict if taken literally. Doctrines in one faith, especially when involving descriptions of the Divine, can appear to contradict those of another. Yet fundamentalism fails to take account of the point that the language and thinking concerned is not, and cannot be literal, and that, therefore, apparent conflict may not be real at a deeper level.

If, for instance, Christians describe a Trinitarian God while Islam’s depictions of Allah are strictly Unitarian, then at first sight, Christians are not speaking of the same being as Islam. So the truth of either faith would imply the falsity of the other. However, it is possible both to think about something and to refer to it, even when the descriptions concerned are not accurate. That is just as well if we wish to speak of a transcendent deity. Inaccurate descriptions may sometimes appear to conflict, but, again, real conflict may not be present.

To avoid indoctrinating, Faith Schools are not obliged to abandon their commitments. They have no need to say that any old religious belief will do. That would be religious pluralism gone mad. It is rather that they ought to communicate an attitude of humility about their position, and to try to help students to appreciate that others may also have insights into Divine truths. Interpreting social situations and works of art may afford non-religious examples that can be used in teaching. To avoid indoctrination, Faith Schools should promote a modest religious pluralism. In doing so, they would hold back on persuading their pupils to take a definitive view of the implications of their faith for the claims of others. ||

Andrew Davis is published on these themes. See:
2010: “Defending Religious Pluralism for Religious Education”, Ethics and Education 5 (3), pp. 189-202
2015: Religious Education: Educating for Diversity, with Phillip Barnes and Mark Halsted, London: Bloomsbury

Andrew Davis: Honorary Research Fellow at the Durham School of Education
Contact: a.j.davis@durham.ac.uk

A version of this article was previously published here: http://ajdav35.wixsite.com/andrew-davis-educ/new-page-2

November 14, 2016

Theresa May's plans to relax faith school admissions will do nothing for social justice

Ruth Wareham, University of Warwick

With competition for school places set to intensify over the next decades, the government’s recent proposal to relax admissions rules for new faith schools has been met with mixed responses. While the move to allow new faith schools to select all of their pupils by religion has been welcomed by many religious schools, others have expressed fears that allowing schools to select their entire intake by faith will lead to increased segregation.

The 50% cap on religious admissions was introduced in 2010, and has led to a situation where new faith schools (post 2010) can only select half of their pupils based on religion, whereas established faith schools (pre 2010) have continued to be able to religiously select up to 100% of their intake. Although not all of the schools that are still able to religiously choose all of their pupils actually do so.

In her “great meritocracy” speech, Theresa May argued that the current 50% cap on these new faith schools “is failing in its objective to promote integration” because minority faith schools do not attract pupils of other or no faith.

And in one sense, this is correct. Data from the School Census shows there is little ethnic mixing in minority religious free schools. These are schools for groups that tend to experience high levels of societal discrimination – such as Muslim or Jewish schools. The communities these schools serve are often stigmatised by society – so it is foolish to think that a cap alone could solve problems faced by these groups.

This said, data from religiously selective secondary schools shows that Christian free schools which have the 50% cap in place actually have greater levels of ethnic diversity than fully selective Christian schools.

Religious selection

To allow new schools to religiously select 100% of their pupils is not only problematic in terms of social integration, it is also unfair. Particularly given that faith schools claim to offer better quality education and higher attainment levels.

What’s more, the way in which faith schools deliver the religious aspect of the curriculum has started to change. Although faith schools aim to provide a good general education and introduce children to the beliefs and practices of a particular faith, many opponents claim that the second aim is “indoctrinatory”. To try and address this, faith educators have increasingly turned away from traditional “confessional” religious instruction and have instead moved towards an education that considers religion from a more open perspective – allowing children to make up their own minds.

The government’s decision to lift the 50% cap on faith-based admissions to new free schools prompted differing reactions. (Shutterstock)

This means the education that many faith schools now offer is more accessible to pupils with other religions, or to those with no faith. And recent research shows that the “faith aspect” of faith schooling matters far less to those contemplating school choice than academic standards, location or discipline.

Priority pupils

The prime minister has failed to notice this change in attitudes towards faith education and has even cited the Catholic Church’s view on the cap as another reason to abandon it. The church argues that not prioritising children from Catholic backgrounds contravenes the rules of the church – known as “Canon law”.

The church’s position eventually led to the abandonment of a free school application from a fee paying school – St Mary’s College in Crosby. In this case, the Archdiocese of Liverpool refused to support a bid because of the cap.

But the claim about Canon law is disputed – with critics noting there are many non-selective Catholic schools elsewhere in the world. Private Catholic schools are also far less likely to select on religious grounds than those in the state sector.

May made the announcement as part of a major overhaul of secondary education. (Shutterstock)

The abandonment of the cap is based on a concern to meet a need for additional school places, but the logic is flawed. This is because the school places the policy will provide will only be available to a small subset of pupils – and the families who need the places most will probably not benefit from these new schools at all.

Evidence suggests that – despite the Catholic Church’s claim its schools are more socially and ethnically diverse than the national average – faith schools are more likely to admit pupils from affluent families or with higher levels of prior attainment than nondenominational schools.

Exclusive education

It is clear that advocates of faith based education now face a dilemma. Either they maintain that faith schools can provide “non-indoctrinatory” education – which is accessible, attractive and valuable to families of all denominations. Or they argue for a distinctive form of religious instruction – which would only be suitable for children of faith. Only schools of the second sort can adequately justify religiously selective admissions. But given that public attitudes to the funding of separate schools have hardened in recent years– and the extent to which indoctrination is considered “morally unacceptable” – such schools would be unlikely to win public support.

Admissions policies fundamentally determine who becomes part of a school’s student body. So the role that higher levels of religious selection could play in worsening social injustice – by “creaming off” the best, most motivated or wealthiest pupils – should not be underestimated.

If the positive outcomes associated with faith schools could be directly linked to the religiosity of pupils, it might be possible to defend the policy to admit higher proportions of children from faith backgrounds.

But, in the absence of compelling evidence to support this, the only other way to justify religious selection is to show there is something distinctive about faith education – something which makes it exclusively of worth to pupils from religious families. Unfortunately for supporters of fully religiously selective schools, it’s difficult to show this is the case. ||

The Conversation

Ruth Wareham: Research Assistant on Faith Schooling: Principles & Policies, University of Warwick

This article was originally published here on the The Conversation.

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