Dialogue is only useful if both sides can envision a situation where evidence could prove them wrong. This doesn’t work when one party doesn’t believe in evidence itself. A couple of days ago, American science populiser Bill Nye spent close to three hours in a public debate with a creationist Christian author, Ken Ham over whether the Bible can answer scientific questions. Also recently archaeologists have shown more evidence that the Old Testament basically didn’t happen, or at least not in the way it’ written in, you know, The Bible. And still there will be your die-hard believers that cling on to the opposite. I say treat these groups the same as we’d someone with a belief in a flat earth: with sympathy, and little pats on the head.
For the last few days I’d been trying to work out an op-ed on UK’s fixation with Religious Education as a school requirement, and how it doesn’t work. I have a 5 year old in school, and on occasion he comes home with fantastical tales of this character called Jesus who could apparently walk on water, come back from the dead and do all sorts of other things that would make him a good candidate for an X-Men character. These stories come from the same source he’s meant to rely on to learn maths, spelling and various facts about the natural world. How’s he supposed to be able to tell when the information being passed on is factual, or when the instruction session has deviated into the mythical?
The sticking point is that I can’t can’t seem to find any arguments that haven’t already been made by others, quite possibly better than I’d do myself. So I’m moving on and dumping some things I found here in the o’le blog. For example: Terry Sanderson asked (via the National Secular Society) earlier this year: “How do we keep religious education out of the hands of the evangelists?” The short answer is that you can’t. Slightly contextualized: You can provided you don’t have Religious Education as part of a school curriculum, but leave esoteric matters of a “soul” up to individuals. But this point has been made by others…
As Terry of the first paragraph points out: “Religious education so easily morphs into religious instruction and thence to religious propaganda and evangelising. Enthusiastic believers who are drawn to teaching sometimes cannot stop themselves. This week I was on a radio phone-in show in which parents told horror stories of their own experiences: how a five-year-old had been told by the RE teacher that if she didn’t believe in God she would go to hell, or how a nine-year-old asked in class ‘if God made everything, who made God?’ and was told to shut up.” (bold added by yours truly). “The only way to stop this kind of abuse of a child’s intellect is to abolish the concept of ‘religious education’ entirely.”
Religious Education can’t be reformed. As a member of the Pirate Party UK, I’m happy to be part of one political entity interested in scrapping it. Let’s briefly take a look at the trap and how it’s set: You have UK wide curriculum requirements, then how the different local authorities interpret them and how each school applies them. The requirements fluctuate based on which party is running each government at any particular time.
The Department of Education says Religious Education is compulsory in maintained schools for all students from age 5 to 18 and must include “a daily act of collective worship that should be broadly Christian”… or some other faith (if the school has applied for and received an exception). The caveat here is that it has to be a faith of some sort. The school must prove that there’s a broad interest in some other religion if they’re to substitute one for another. How does one go about determining which faith the majority of a primary school’s population requires in order for their little souls to avoid the alleged fires of hell as mentioned teachers like the one Terry references?
More locally, Lewisham Council muddies the the already swampy waters created by the National Curriculum. Here’s what it says under the heading “Why children have religious education”…
- Religious education encourages pupils to learn about different religions, beliefs, values and traditions while exploring their own beliefs and questions of meaning. (Except that it’s predominantly Christian, with a mostly Christian advisory committee. I haven’t heard any reports about tales of Vishnu’s battles with demons, or the Buddha’s transcendence.)
- It challenges pupils to consider and discuss issues of truth, belief, faith and ethics. (Children at age 5 want to believe that people can be magic and defy death. I don’t get any reports from school that these stories may in fact not be true.)
- Religious education encourages pupils to develop their sense of identity and belonging. It enables them to flourish individually within their communities and as citizens. (Peckham teacher Caitlin Prentice clearly illustrates how this is not the case. Religious Education highlights division and in-group/out-group thinking. Children are taught by their respective faiths that others are going to hell. Invited to talk about this at school, they quickly decide which of their classmates are saved, and which are damned. It’s incredibly distressing to children not yet burdened with this awful, and false, concept.)
- Religious education has an important role in preparing pupils for adult life, employment and lifelong learning. It enables pupils to develop respect for and sensitivity to others, in particular those whose faiths and beliefs are different from their own. It promotes discernment and helps pupils to combat prejudice. (Though, as we can see from Caitlin’s example above, it doesn’t do any of this. More troubling is mentioning the notion that it helps with employment. In a secular society, religion should have no baring on that at all. At some age children should become aware that some people believe things that may or may not be true. If they are to successfully navigate the world it’s in critically thinking about these beliefs and an understanding of how evidence and informed skepticism can help determine what’s real from what’s not.)
Children are defacto atheists until members of the previous generation start informing them they have a non-tangible appendage called a soul, that there is an unseen creator of things, and that unless they pray to this thing, their fragile little soul is in serious peril. How brilliant a time it is until they’re stuck with that kind of conceptual baggage from the past! It’s too much to expect that there would be a lesson that essentially said all that is false, kids, no worries. But it would be great if they just left it out of the classroom, where it has no observable place.
So the case has been made by others. I’m adding my bits to the movement here. This blog isn’t about bitching or pretending things are something other than they are, though. Schools still preach god. How to cope with that fact…
- The direct approach seldom works. Talk about it when your kid brings it up, and be interested. Raise parallel, entertaining comparisons. Point out stories about other gods as well. Thor, for example. The goal is to embed the idea that there have been lots of gods people have believed in over the ages.
- Find others working on creative ways to deal with it.
- Encourage facts. When your kid learns a new neat factual thing, have a natter about it. If it happens to be the case, mention how it’s interesting that people held some other belief until that fact was learned (the earth being flat, etc.). It’s not directly related, but encourages interest in things that are real and observable.
- Know time is on your side. Some schools are upping their RE sessions because Ofsted found the more than 50% of schools aren’t meeting the government’s required regular allowance of holiness. That’s happening because Christianity is declining in UK faster than previously expected and the Church of England is in a snit over that fact. Focusing on RE is an easy win for school’s Ofsted inspections, so when the scores are discussed at school meetings, attend and keep the focus on the non religious parts of Ofsted that actually matter.
- Know what’s in the curriculum, what the law says and follow any campaigns challenging it.
- Support changes to the requirements, such abolishing “collective worship” at schools as mentioned in the Pirate Party UK manifesto.
Always end on a pirate note.
One of the more positive aspects of Glenn Greenwald moving from Salon to the Guardian is that he’s let people see that there’s a lot of other interesting stuff going on in Salon. He still stands out at The Guardian, but his online footprint was starting to outsize Salon’s. This post isn’t about that, it’s this: As of late I’ve noticed Salon publishing a number of decent attacks on the “New Atheists,” or the “Neo-Atheists.” And as an atheist, it was a nice Easter reading list, because few things bug me more than seeing things I agree with used in incredibly annoying ways.
- Ian Murphy lists five atheists who ruin it for everyone else.
- Frans de Waal asks, has militant atheism become a religion?
- Nathan Lean takes on Dawkins, Harris and (the late) Hitchens, asserting the ‘new atheists’ flirt with Islamophobia.
Ian Murphy’s 5 Worst Atheists piece was much needed, but I can summarize it for the tl;dr crowd: Sam Harris is a troll-baiting shill; Bill Maher doesn’t believe in vaccines, either (make of that what you will); Penn Jillette is one of those performers that boys like when they’re between the ages of 9 and 13, and then should promptly grow out of; Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a case study in favour of Frans de Waal’s thesis (see below) that the most ardent anti-theists are those traumatized by religion; And S.E. Cupp, I’ll just say it: I don’t think she’s an atheist: She’s a TV performer for Christian conservatives pantomiming what they think atheists are and/or should be.
I enjoy well-written criticism and decently accomplished contrarian debate. That’s why I could watch the late Christopher Hitchens verbally corner an opponent, and will still pick up a book by over-educated troll baiter Richard Dawkins and give it a chance. Both of these men are not without their serious faults, but they also have raised a pertinent question at the right time: Why is faith accorded special status? And why can’t we recognize that this special status is contributing to some very serious social and political problems? It’s not the intellectuals that should concern people, but the zealotry of their fans, who seem to seek as simple an answer to the universe as those they criticize. It’s telling that on the web’s biggest atheism forum, the top items are almost always image-and-text memes, while posts linking to actual articles and criticisms barely register. So, which atheists should atheists be reading and watching?
- Frans de Waal: In “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, the primatologist and ethologist looks at the actual function it has and continues to serve and how it could have emerged in a species without the need to try and humiliate present day practitioners.
- Jared Diamond: The American scientist’s latest book, The World Until Yesterday includes the chapter “What Electric Eels Tell Us About the Evolution of Religion.” Diamond takes an anthropological route to illustrate religion’s endurance through not only serving primary needs but in meeting several other uses for both traditional and modern societies. He doesn’t need to lampoon people for it, and instead shows how it’s likely enabled survival of our ancestors over tens of thousands of years.
- Francesca Stavrakopoulou: An atheist biblical scholar is, to me, the best kind. Her BBC series from a couple of years back is still online. If you want to know why the Abrahamic trifecta still hold the sway it does, it doesn’t hurt to study the languages, historical and social context in which it emerged.
Many religions are good at taking a load off of individuals’ minds. They synthesize multiple complex needs into manageable concepts that can easily be put on the shelf. Fear of death: sorted. Why be good: sorted. Need a group: sorted. Like singing: sorted. Need a patron for a mural: sorted. Our brains like to reduce things in order to conserve energy. Religion does this in grand style. Some people see progress in religion’s decline and creeping secularism, while others see it as a sign The End is nigh. Instead, let’s consider adaptation. In this information age, we have new methods to more easily synthesize complex ideas into easily consumed ‘memes’ (a word coined by Dawkins). Twitter is one. In the midst of a Tweet binge, the good professor recently asserted that one can criticize a religion without having read its text. That was said in the way of a justification for this one about Islam being the greatest of evils, which just doesn’t wash. Stalin didn’t need it to slaughter tens of millions. Neither did Pol Pot. Hitler wasn’t reciting from the Quran. The U.S. didn’t didn’t use it as an excuse to kills hundreds of thousands in Iraq. Try nationalism. Try again.
On an entirely pedantic level, it may be true that one can be critical of a faith without a review of the source text. But that’s a technicality, and not that good of science, which shouldn’t be as interested in outing origins myths as false as it is in discovering their actual origins for the sake of knowing them. For that, you need the source documents.
The supposed neo-atheists’ message is doomed, because they aren’t doing anything except telling people who agree with them how to say things their way, which many others find off-putting. Secularism is “winning” all the same, so they maybe they can just enjoy the ride. But these evangelical atheist’s ability to sell their books and get TV appearances in increasing numbers is a byproduct of the cultural and social shift under way, not a contributor. The emerging methods available for synthesizing complex ideas are doing the actual work. This shouldn’t be confused with ‘better’ or ‘more accurate.’ Adaptation is about the survival of things that tend to change to work better than others amid a given set of circumstances. The neo-atheist’s gimmicks have a limited shelf life.
UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald reads my blog. How do I know? I published this post on the 2nd of April, and he published this on the 3rd.