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May 09, 2018

Faith Schools Part Two: Crazy, or just a bit Weird?

By Kevin Mott-Thornton (Part 2 of 2)

In the first part, I suggested that in order to justify the promotion of a belief within a programme of educational initiation, as required for example in a programme of civic or moral education, there must be intrinsic references, beyond the epistemological status of the belief itself (as exemplified in scientific justification), to the student’s identity, interests and social situation. If such a rationale can be provided the potential for rational disagreement about the promotion of the required beliefs can be eliminated even while the possibility of strong rational disagreement remains.

It might be claimed, however, that unlike our political example, faith schools will promote many beliefs that are both controversial and in direct conflict with science. I have already dealt with scientific creationism, which does fall into this category. But, consider the following list of highly controversial propositions that faith schools might promote ‘as true’.

1. The world was created by an all-powerful, loving God who guides and controls the natural universe.

2. Regular worship and prayer offers a way to communicate with God and make sure that our lives are aligned with God’s wishes for each of us.

3. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in Palestine around 2000 years ago was the most important event in human history as it demonstrated the nature of love and restores the relationship between God and sinful human beings.

4. Sex before marriage should be avoided.

5. Human life begins at conception and abortion should therefore not be regarded as sinful. img_0198.jpg

6. Homosexual sex is sinful.

7. Traditional dress codes and assigned roles for men and women should be respected.

Propositions 2, 4, 6 and 7 are fully compatible with a scientific understanding of human life and they are intelligible and therefore not irrational at least by virtue of their logical coherence.

Proposition 1 is not incompatible with science since science cannot adjudicate on the possibility that the material world originated through some non-material agency. Such a possibility is simply beyond the scope of scientific thinking. While this possibility remains open, and given that it is possible to hold this version of creationism without adopting anti-evolutionary creationism, it is not irrational and teaching students to accept it, in faith, should not be regarded as epistemologically harmful.

Religious claims that some events have miraculous non-scientific explanations, like the reference to Jesus’ resurrection in proposition 3, might be thought counter-scientific. However, I would firstly point to the range of understandings within Christianity about the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. Many liberal Christians, and perhaps the majority, would hold as axiomatic the principle that their idea of ‘resurrection’ cannot contradict the established scientific understanding of life, death and the workings of the human body. More traditional conservative understandings of resurrection hold that miraculous events are occasions where the normal laws of the material world are suspended or overridden by the actions of a non-material being or force. The evidence for such claims is, however, entirely historical and past-bound unique events that are therefore beyond the scope of experimental replication. While I accept that miracle claims are counter-scientific they are not incoherent, and while there is no existing evidence by which the dispute can be settled, they are not irrational. They are counter scientific in a different way to scientific creationism because miracles don’t claim to challenge the veracity of a specific scientific law or set of laws. They make the otherwise counter-scientific claim that in some particular events the relevant scientific laws and /or their usual pattern of interplay in the natural world was suspended or altered by some non-material agency. There is no contraction, here, of established scientific laws but a challenge to one of the key metaphysical assumptions underpinning scientific research, i.e. that,

‘the fundamental laws of physics describe the only forces at work in every material event that has ever occurred in the history of the universe’.

However, while this a reasonable hypothesis, it should not be regarded as an established scientific fact, since determination of its veracity must fall outside the scope of purely scientific investigation. Clearly, and on its own terms, the jury must be out on whether it will hold for future events and it cannot, as I have suggested, apply to the question of why the universe works in the way scientific laws correctly describe. In addition, it is at least possible that miraculous events (like the resurrection of Jesus) provide historical evidence that this positivist metaphysical assumption requires modification in the light of some events that happened in the past.

None of these key propositions are attempts to offer a rival to any scientific theory, though 1 and 3 might be misinterpreted in that way. None, I would venture, are incompatible with any scientific theory that is not also associated with a metaphysical commitment to scientific reductionism or reductive materialism. What these highly controversial propositions contain is a commitment not to the idea that science and its laws and modes of justification are wrong but rather that scientific rationality provides at best only a partial explanation when the subject of a proposition incorporates an intelligible reference to personal agency, whether human or divine. This idea is itself controversial but it cannot be classified as non-rational or irrational simply because any such justification will have to range beyond the standards of rationality appropriate for understanding the material world alone.

We can conclude that virtually all of the most controversial beliefs that might be promoted as true in faith schools can as beliefs be the subjects of reasonable disagreement but are not indoctrinatory because they are coherent and don’t contradict any established scientific laws. They can, contrary to the positivistic conception of indoctrination (outlined in part 1), be given a rational justification which is revisable in light of counter-evidence and argument. This applies both to the truth or otherwise of each proposition and for the educational rationale behind the particular faith-based programme of initiation. It appears that they may only be judged indoctrinatory if the school could offer no rationale to justify that initiation into its way of life (together with inculcation of its beliefs) is appropriate given the identity of the child and her fundamental interests. Judging the adequacy of the rationale in each case would of course be an empirical rather than a logical matter (McLaughlin 1984, p79f and contra. Hand, 2002, p546).

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.

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