"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Friday, July 30, 2010

'Free-schools' and the Dawkins delusion

How do salvation religions respond to the fact that the world is evil, asked Max Weber? His answer was that they can either: 1) retreat from it quietistically, 2) engage with it ascetically or 3) try and take it over theocratically.

Some might argue that the whole business of 'faith-schools' should be slotted under 3 but this is a misunderstanding. 'Theocratic' is slowly becoming one of those words like 'fascism' in that it is being emptied of meaning - its overuse spreading like a semantic virus.

The quest for state-funding for religious segregation and indoctrination in education is unjustified - but it does not represent a theocratic take-over. It should be slotted under 1 and 2 - both of these essentially being about the religious attempting to carve out a space for themselves in this world where they can keep their garments unstained by the spirit of the age.

The extent to which this is pursued depends on the intensity of the belief. Someone of a religious disposition may, for example, send their children to a supposedly secular school but insist that their children are withdrawn from activities such as sex education, music classes or swimming.

But if the religious convictions are held with any depth at all, generally an educational space that provides institutional withdrawal from theologically disagreeable pursuits is often preferred.

Those of us who think this is undesirable - and who particularly don't appreciate being compelled to finance services that exclude our children - are inclined, therefore, to be very sceptical about Mr Gove's educational reforms since everyone, opponents and advocates alike, agree that they will facilitate more of this kind of thing.

It is on this front that Richard Dawkins has done the cause of secular education an enormous disservice with his suggestion that he would like to set up an atheist 'free-school'. His groupies have completely missed the point by rushing to his defence and saying he said 'free-thinking' and not atheist. Nevermind that anyone with an ounce of historical sense should understand what this term has served as shorthand for in the past. Dawkins has implicitly given his support for government policy and inadvertently reinforced the impression - one he rightly takes issue with - that secularism is just one of a number of 'worldviews' that customers should be invited to buy in some postmodern supermarket of ideas.

Instead of trying to build an escape hatch within the system - a retreat from this world - he should be challenging this felt need to have an atheist school at all. And if he wants to refute the lie that secularism is just a form of religion-like ideology like any other, it might help if he didn't behave like a Seventh Day Adventist himself.
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