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

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Sophie Ward

    If we had Art Schools that promoted only Cubism they would be derided as narrow-minded, and it is difficult to see how Faith schools can avoid the charge of indoctrination for the same reason: to promote one faith or standard of taste is to reject all others. Your suggestion that we might use art works to illustrate this is interesting, as history suggests that the setting of parameters around what constitutes ‘art’ has often gone hand-in-glove with projects of spiritual and political indoctrination. The rise of Faith schools has been accompanied by a decline in arts education funding: arguably there is a troubling lack of political reflection on how the pursuit of a narrow conception of education (the EBacc) might mirror the loss of tolerance of diversity exemplified by the willingness to indoctrinate our children.

    01 Mar 2017, 16:05

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