1 October

Faith Schools and the Future of Secularism

With publication of a series of YouGov polls the State’s funding of religious education is once again in the news. Secularists have renewed their assault on all things religious, and public and religious leaders have responded saying that State-backed faith schools are a ‘precious right’ and that it is wrong to drag children into an ideological ‘battleground’ or to deny them the opportunity to go to some of the UK’s best schools.

Notwithstanding the close historic ties of State and established Church in England and (albeit in a different mode) Scotland, by which one might reasonably suppose all-but-automatic justification for State support of Christian schools, the cry that faith schools perform mass indoctrination at government behest is shaky to say the least. More than a few people in  government (not least the Deputy Prime Minister) are anxious to send their children to top-performing (faith) schools, even if they publicly proclaim themselves (whatever about their spouses) to be atheists. The people at large are, it would seem, more pragmatic about education than is pleasing to the National Secular Society (NSS).

However, the problems presented by schools becoming overly partisan are not of a kind to which government or general public are likely to turn a blind eye, even if they were not in receipt of State funding. Any indoctrination of young minds into harmful sectarianisms must be a matter of public interest in its own right.

The debate hinges on twin issues: ‘discrimination’ by a public institution on the basis of a protected characteristic, namely religion or its absence; and the right of parents to bring up their children in accord with the culture in which they were formed. Secularists argue, once again ignoring the establishment of religion, that since religion must be a private matter the State should not concern itself with supporting religious institutions. The right of parents to educate their own children in the manner they wish has hitherto held sway since it is they who shoulder most of the burden of bringing up the next generation. As long as this continues, and while ‘faith schools’ continue to perform well above the national average, there is good reason to suppose that these institutions will retain support from central government.

The perennial nature of this debate serves to highlight a weakness in the secularist critique of our public life. Its stark dividing of our work, duties, beliefs and practices into categories of ‘Public’ and ‘Private’, between which there is supposedly a solid ‘wall of separation’, fails to account for ordinary life as it is lived by most people. Public duties are naturally matters of private reflection, while our private thoughts and beliefs naturally inform our public conduct. We need conscientious officials to bring private consciences to bear on public matters lest we eviscerate our public institutions of any capacity to act conscientiously. Moreover, the suggestion that there should be a blanket ban on State support of religious education implicitly, but as a necessary consequence, calls for a radical re-think of our public sphere to an extent that the NSS seems unwilling to acknowledge or even to contemplate.

Experience of religion of some kind has in fact played an important role in the lives of many millions of our people and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. As more and more people arrive from overseas, from countries that have little experience of our native form of atheistic secularism, it is clear that religion must continue to play a part in our public discourse. But it is also true that our historic capacity for tolerance in public matters will be as necessary as ever before. The pragmatic nature of our institutions in matters of faith and politics has allowed for a stability in our public life that is the envy of many other countries. It is also true that a form of mild native secularism has played its role in creating such tolerance and stability, and we should all support a healthy secularity. Indeed, the country might benefit from what we might provocatively style a more sophisticated secularism: one that might support faith schools at the same time as promoting a healthy and robust discussion of religion and of our shared social values.

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