All entries for October 2017

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.

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