Whose rights should prevail: those of a parent to bring up their own offspring in a way that is consistent with their deeply held religious worldview, or those of a child to enjoy a balanced and objective education free from indoctrination? Of course, the right to freedom of religion is an integral pillar of any free society. People should be able to believe whatever nonsense they like, provided they are not hurting others in practising their beliefs. But what about the children of people who believe in said nonsense? What rights do they have in respect of, say, determining what their own beliefs are? Shouldn’t they be free to enjoy a balanced, secular education? Should they immediately be labelled as a religious child, years or decades before they can come to their own conclusions about such questions?
Around one third of the 20,000 state schools in the UK are “faith schools”: that is to say, they teach a standardised general curriculum, but are affiliated with and emphasise the importance of a particular faith. While the issue of childhood indoctrination may not be as worrying in the UK as it is in other parts of the world, there is still something disquieting about the notion of a ‘faith school’. The idea that children should be segregated at a very early age based on the religious beliefs of their parents is innately divisive, creating an illusory and needless separation between children based solely on religious affiliation. The curriculum faith schools teach is largely a standardised one, controlled by a government regulator, with the exception of the subject of ‘religious studies’. Faith schools have their own independent inspectorate for this subject, meaning they can basically get away with teaching religious doctrine as fact. And this is exactly what happens in some schools, as witnessed by Richard Dawkins in his Channel 4 documentary on the subject. Dawkins was refused entry to Catholic and Jewish schools for the documentary, but was granted access to a Muslim school in Birmingham, which taught the theory of evolution, but taught that it was false and antithetical to the Qur’an. Needless to say, when Dawkins questioned the students of a science class on topics such as evolution, they confidently responded that the Qur’an is the only necessary source of scientific knowledge.
In certain other countries, the situation is significantly worse. In Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it is illegal for teachers to discuss the evidence for evolution. That’s right; there is actual legislation in place in these countries to actively prevent the dissemination of knowledge. It is profoundly depressing to think of the vast numbers of students who are deliberately deprived of an important and fascinating part of their education because adults in authority have imposed their own religious beliefs on their society’s education system. Many students in these societies (ie, the female ones) often already face a great struggle just to obtain the right to simply attend a school in the first place; a direct result of the religiously-inspired patriarchy invariably spawned by Islamic theocracies. If these girls do manage to avoid having acid thrown in their faces for the crime of wanting to learn stuff, they’ll make it to school to end up being taught drivel anyway.
And it really is drivel. A Saudi ‘science’ textbook offers the following little nuggets of wisdom: (i) Allah ‘created for organisms characteristics and structures that enable them to live in their different environments;’ (ii) Muslims who wrongly accept the theory of evolution are ‘unaware of the blasphemy and error in it’; (iii) Charles Darwin has denied ‘Allah’s creation of humanity’, and (iv) ‘evidence of evolution crumbles at the first test… it has merely resulted from misunderstanding, miscalculation, or deceit or forgery’. It would be amusing if it wasn’t so tragic. I can laugh at these extracts now as a British twenty-something having enjoyed a secular education, but they are extracts from a real science book, which is really being taught to many tens of thousands of children by their adult authority figures. Children are often powerless to resist this sort of debilitating idiocy being inculcated into their minds and thought processes, and it can be extremely difficult to break free from the shackles that such an education creates.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the situation in America was in no way comparable to that of theocratic societies such as Saudi Arabia. The United States Constitution – an exceptional document heavily influenced by the values of the enlightenment – explicitly separates church and state, protects free expression, and allows for freedom of (and, importantly, from) religion. It would follow, then, that teaching religious pseudo-scientific dogma in classrooms is unconstitutional. And, indeed, the United States courts have for the past half a century consistently found that teaching creationism in class while disallowing the teaching of evolution violates the Establishment clause of the constitution. This has not stopped the parties of God attempting, with varied success, to force-feed children creationist babble in schools. Many children educated in bible-belt states continue to be subjected to religious indoctrination in schools, while being taught that evolutionary biology is a dangerous falsehood which should be roundly rejected.
In a bitter irony, the reason indoctrination of children works so well is a direct result of evolution, the very ‘theory’ many indoctrinators discount as false. Children’s brains are malleable; like sponges, absorbing information proffered by parents; information which would be critical to survival and the subsequent propagation of genes through thousands of past generations. “Don’t touch that spider;” “Stay away from that area;” “don’t eat that poisonous berry”. If you were an infant while our species was itself in its infancy, and you didn’t heed the advice of your elders, you’d die pretty quickly and you’d be out of the gene pool. Children have been intelligently designed (ahem) by the process of natural selection to trust their elders and believe what they’re told by them – if the infants of Homo sapiens had not developed this mechanism of learning, we’d be extinct, like 99% of all species that have ever existed. Quite the design, God! Oh and cheers for inventing those parasitic worms that eat their way through the eyeballs of kids in sub-Saharan Africa; lovely touch.
If children are encouraged by their teachers to formulate their worldview on blind faith and acceptance of divine authority, they risk being intellectually stunted and can often struggle to emancipate themselves from faith-based dogmas in later life, condemned to perpetuate the cycle with their own children. If, on the other hand, they are taught how to think critically, how to examine the evidence of claims and approach the world with a sense of rational enquiry and scepticism, then they will be equipped with the skills to think and conclude for themselves. And they’ll all become rapists and murderers without religious ‘morality’, of course, but that goes without saying.
This short Youtube video provides a stark and poignant juxtaposition between those two different methods of teaching children. At the beginning of the clip, we see Carl Sagan – one of the foremost scientists of the 20th century – revisiting his childhood classroom to give a lesson on astronomy. The latter half of the video is taken from the documentary ‘Jesus Camp’. It speaks for itself.