Press Column Saturday 03 March 2001

I have had my doubts about the ability of church schools to indoctrinate ever since my daughter came back from her Church of England primary school with a story about Jamie Simmonds and Victoria Mountsey kissing in the playground. "Yuck!" said her friend Sophie as she watched the couple: "That’s so gay." I don’t care what they’re trying to teach: whatever it is, they’ve failed. But the Great Debate about church schools would be entirely spoiled by too many facts of this sort. It suits almost everyone to pretend that Church schools transmit religious beliefs. Thus, atheists can denounce them as evil, and Bishops can pretend they show the fundamental Christian values of the middle classes.

On balance, I think the atheists have the best of this bargain. Being beastly about religion is for a certain kind of intellectual, the nearest one can get to the satisfactions of playing rugger. Remove that suit, those prissy spectacles! Get covered in mud! Sing at the top of your voice! Punch men in the scrum, or throw yourself headfirst at their balls as they run past you! And the more gloriously antisocial your behaviour becomes, the more you are admired by your respectable colleagues. Just as the strapping young men of HTB spend all week loving their neighbours and three hours on a Saturday afternoon trying to make them one with the mud of the pitch, so do philosophers like Grayling spend all week extracting the dusty truth with all the scrupulous delicacy of archaeologist wielding a sable paintbrush — only to jump for the controls of a bulldozer when God appears.

The characteristic tone of spluttering condescension was nicely caught by Yasmin Alibhai Brown, quoting an un-named scientist in her Independent column: "The next thing will be a state-funded mullahs and mass baptisms in the Thames. Just get them praying young and they will never think for themselves or learn that the world is in their hands, not with fake fakirs or conning clerics who live off the great brainwashed."

This is all very well so far as it goes, but does it go far enough? Am I safe in introducing my daughter to Isaac Newton’s subversive ideas? The man was a well-known religious maniac, after all.

The Independent’s letters page has been almost entirely consumed by religious education ever since Saturday, when the paper’s political correspondent picked up an article by Richard Dawkins in the Times Educational Supplement and knotted it into an ancient piece by AC Grayling, who had written "Children should emphatically not be taught as ‘facts’ the myths and legends of ancient religious traditions: to do this to anyone unable to evaluate their credibility is a form of brainwashing or even indeed abuse. Public money should never be used to that end".

The story thus became : "Dawkins leads atheist revolt against ‘evil’ church schools." Full marks for enterprise there.

Dawkins himself had a mild letter in the paper: "Not for the first time, I am represented as more extreme than I really am … I simply pointed out that, if we hadn’t become historically habituated to the idea, we’d find it bizarre to classify small children by their inherited cosmological and ethical opinions … I simply pointed out that if we hadn’t become historically habituated to the idea, we’d find it bizarre to classify small children by their inherited cosmological and ethical opinions."

He didn’t, however, dispute his juiciest quote to the reporter: "The idea of expanding single-religion schools seems positively evil". I had never realised that when my friend the rector goes off to chair a meeting of the governors of his primary school he was actually participating in the same kind of activity as Slobodan Milosevic. I shall now look at him with fresh respect.

There were quite a number of readers who did not properly appreciate the moderation of Dawkins’ use of the term "positively evil". One letter concluded, with the cunningly disguised fanaticism typical of religious believers: "English denominational schools, on the whole, work well. That in itself should commend them. Education in England has suffered enough from the deliberate destruction of the successful in the name of ideology. In the politics of education, atheism is just another ideology."

It was left to Christians to make all the interesting points against Church schools. The Rev’d Kenneth Wilson, wrote in from Wolverhampton. "Experience as an Anglican vicar, as chairman of governors of a church primary school, and as a member of the diocesan education committee has led me to the following conclusions: many families attend church only until they have secured places for their children at church schools. Non-middle-class families find it less easy to maintain the necessary church-going habit, to admission to church schools is socially selective … there are some seriously worrying beliefs among church educationalists about what they are doing (exemplified by a diocesan director of education who would me there was a ‘Christian’ mathematics; different from a ‘non-Christian’ mathematics.

"The hierarchy of the Church is in denial about all of this, simply maintaining that church schools are a Good Thing."

This is a delicious letter which not only demonstrates the honesty and intelligence which Christians can bring even to an apparently atheist cause, but also ending as elegantly as one could wish:

"If Professor Dawkins can persuade Mr Blunkett to change his mind on this matter, then I will hope to be eternally grateful to him."

And all this appeared in a paper which has entirely abandoned the news reporting of religion.

Several reporters have risen to the challenge implicit in Steve Bates’ Guardian piece which ended by wondering how the Church’s official organs would announce the end of the world, and sent in cruelly accurate suggestions. One entry, though outside the rules, is just too funny not to publish. It is Lord Habgood’s statement on the end of the world: "This need not be an embarrassment for the Church of England. But the phrase 'second coming' needs a lot of unpicking". He added: "And media hype about the matter is somewhat unhelpful."

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