by Lynn Davies
Research tells us that conflicts are much harder to resolve when they have a religious underpinning. Identities become hardened, there is no basis for bargaining or exchange and both parties think God is on their side. Faith-based organisations are good at picking up the pieces after conflict, but religious divides present a constant threat to security. In my new book called Unsafe Gods: Security, Secularism and Schooling (IOE Press and Trentham Books), I argue strongly for secular politics as a way of containing this threat. There are many types of secularism – not quite 50 Shades of Secularism, but near enough. My version is not the hard secularism of Communist Russia or France, but what I call a dynamic secularism that is able to accommodate religions and actually ensure religious freedom.
But religion is also risky for education. I see three threats. The first is that when religious divides are replicated across educational institutions, this does nothing to challenge sectarianism. Whether Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Bosnia-Herzegovina or indeed some of our UK cities, when children are deliberately separated on the basis of their parents’ religion, they receive the dangerous message that it is vital to be educated separately from others. The second, linked, threat is a potential narrowing of views – which is becoming more prevalent with the expansion of free schools. One headteacher at a Muslim free school left, complaining, among other things, that girls were being asked to sit at the back of the class. Some Christian free schools are exploiting loopholes to teach creationism as a valid scientific theory. Free schools are not necessarily progressive, particularly if they present supernatural views as absolute facts about the world, and religious edicts as incontrovertible.
Third, then, is the danger that comes from ring-fencing religion as somehow above critique. In my work on extremism I have found it crucial that young people learn to analyse religious messages, to question sacred texts and to be aware of rights around free speech. Religions don’t have rights, people do. And in international law, there is no right not to be offended. In a democracy, we have the right (and duty) to freely critique government and politicians, economists, environmentalists – in fact any of our opinion leaders. Religion and religious worldviews should not be exempt from this critical appraisal – particularly if parts of religious texts can be used to support violence, revenge or gender oppression. Unless young people learn the skills and habits of healthy doubt, healthy enquiry, healthy politics and healthy satire, we leave them highly vulnerable to dogma. It is up to schools to teach these skills. A secular state-funded education insists on a full curriculum, a critical religious education and a safe space to engage in no-holds-barred debate and dialogue across as wide a range of student background as possible.