What’s so bad about religious schools?

October 6, 2015

Why shouldn’t parents be free to send their kids to a religious school if they so wish? Even many non-religious folk seem to think, ‘Where’s the harm?’
I think we suffer from the anaesthetic of familiarity when it comes to religious schools. There was a time when slavery was such a familiar part of the cultural landscape that many didn’t notice how awful it was. The same is true of sexist attitudes towards women. Looking back, it’s hard to understand how we failed to see the indignity that was right before our eyes. I suspect many will look back in a couple of hundred years’ time and be similarly baffled by our currently very relaxed attitudes towards religious schools.
Here’s an analogy I’ve used to explain why I suspect there’s probably a lot more wrong with faith schools than most of us currently think.
Suppose political schools suddenly started opening up and down the country. A Marxist school opens in one neighbourhood, followed by a neo-conservative school in the next. Soon there are schools catering to every political persuasion.
Suppose these political schools select on the basis of parent’s political beliefs. Non-communist kids aren’t welcome at the Marxist school. Left-wing kids are turned away from the neo-con academy.
Suppose these school begin each day with rousing political anthems. Children assemble in rows to recite political maxims that they have learned by heart.
These schools devote time each day to teaching the school’s political philosophy. In many, care is taken not to expose children to other, conflicting political beliefs that may only ‘confuse’ them, especially early on.
Portraits of political leaders beam down from classroom walls. There’s a smiling Margaret Thatcher hanging in every classroom of one, while Karl Marx frowns down from the corridors of another.
Teachers, and especially head teachers, are selected on the basis of their political views, and political parties donate time and money to the schools’ upkeep.
What would be our attitude to the arrival of such schools?
Many of us would be horrified, and rightly so. These are the kind of schools you find in totalitarian political systems, such as Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. Indeed, they employ many of the same ‘educational’ techniques.
Surely, these political schools threaten to undermine any healthy democracy by suppressing free thought and factionalizing the next generation.
Yet if we cross out ‘politcal’ and write ‘religious’ in my description of them, we find that thousands of these schools already exist across the West. In fact, in the UK, my taxes go towards funding them. People are amazingly relaxed about their existence. But why? If the political versions of such schools are clearly toxic, why are the religious versions acceptable, even desirable?
Perhaps some will suggest that religion is different. But how?
For notice just how political most religions are. Religions form powerful political lobbies and wield great political influence. And religious beliefs are often highly political. Consider religious views on the role of women, on those less fortunate, on abortion, on gay people, on foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. For the most part, religious organisations are political organisations and their schools are political schools.
So why are so many of us so relaxed about them?