The Guardian has arranged for various prominent figures to ask Prime Minister David Cameron some searching and not so searching questions. Terry Wogan asked "What does the PM think the public think of him?". I mean, really, what sort of answer is that going to elicit? Nothing that is going to tell us anything interesting about Cameron or his views.
Richard Dawkins did ask an important question:
Why do you support faith schools for children who are too young to have chosen their faith, thereby implicitly labelling them with the faith of their parents, whereas you wouldn't dream of so labelling a "Keynesian child" or a "Conservative child"?This is an important question in a modern, secular society. Peter Robinson has today announced his intention to appeal to the whole community in Northern Ireland, to try to create a united Northern Ireland. This is probably a fool's errand until measures are taken to reduce sectarianism in that blighted province, and it's hard to see how he could get from here to there without removing the deep divide that is caused by faith schools. Of course, I don't pretend this change would be sufficient; just a necessary one.
The situation is less serious in Great Britain, probably due in no small part, I suspect, to Catholic persecution in the centuries after the Reformation - Catholicism has simply had very little standing in the body politic, so it has been unable to influence policies and attitudes sufficiently to generate conflict within communities. But in an increasingly pluralist society, the ghettoising effect of faith schools is unlikely to decrease inter-community tensions. So, can we hope for a serious engagement with the issue from David Cameron? He replies:
Comparing John Maynard Keynes to Jesus Christ shows, in my view, why Richard Dawkins just doesn't really get it.Clearly that would be too much to ask!
Notice, first, that Cameron simply dismisses Dawkins's view out of hand, mockingly, as the over-arch Anglican blogger Cranmer notices. So, it's often said that Dawkins mocks believers and that he fails to take their beliefs seriously. Yet here we have the Prime Minister of this country, half voted in by the populace, responsible to us for his decisions, refusing to engage with Dawkins's question seriously and effectively mocking him.
Is it fair to say he doesn't engage? I think so. Dawkins is not comparing Keynes and Christ, although I dare say Keynes's contribution to the well-being of society may be the greater. He's comparing what it's appropriate to teach kids in our publicly funded schools. Is it appropriate to teach them that Keynes's policies are the right and only way an economy should be run? I don't think so. Is it appropriate to teach them that Christ's way is the right and only way to run one's life? Again, no, I don't think so.
Now, to be charitable I suspect that what Cameron may be hinting at, but not expressing, is that there are normative elements to teaching children about Christ that are missing from an economics lesson. But this makes his case even poorer, because, in a secular society, peculiarly normative elements of any religion, or dogma, must be excluded to ensure pluralism isn't threatened by state sanction of one particular view. This point, if that is what he is hinting at, tells against faith schools.
Cameron goes on:
I think faith schools are very often good schools. Why? Because the organisation that's backing them – the church or the mosque or the synagogue – is part of the community.The organisation that's backing the school is part of the community? This is almost tautological. Of course they're part of the community, as is the local council. Just being part of the local community is not sufficient qualification for running a school, else local political parties, or even hoodie gangs, would qualify.
And it brings a sense of community and the backing of an institution to a school.Again, we have many institutions that don't run schools; being an institution is not a sufficient qualification to run a school.
The church was providing good schools long before the state got involved, and we should respect the fact that it's not just the state that can provide education but other bodies, too.Well, churches have provided bad schools long before the state got involved too, so this point has little purchase. But, more importantly, we're talking about state-funded faith schools here, not private religious schools. Again, Cameron offers an argument that barely qualifies as one, and refuses to engage properly with the important issues that are at stake. Plainly other bodies can provide education, but the question is what sort of society do we want to build? Do we want a society populated by well rounded critical thinkers, or do we want it populated by blinkered dogmatists? If the first, then what do we need to do to provide such a population?
Faith schools are more likely to teach one dogma in preference to another, else why Cameron's initial dig at Dawkins? So my contention is that faith schools are more likely to teach a specifically Christian/Muslim/Jewish dogma in preference to all others, and Cameron seems to think this is a justification for faith schools. So they are more likely to deliver blinkered dogmatists. I suppose it's possible that Cameron would prefer a society of blinkered dogmatists, in which case I understand his answer to Dawkins's question.
UPDATE 28th November 2011:
It's ironic that Cameron is being so cavalier with his approach to faith schools when, as I mentioned above, Peter Robinson is wrestling with their effects in Northern Ireland. Here is what he said on the Today programme this morning:
We bring children up in different schools and then we scratch our heads when there's division in society.
He called for an end to "religious apartheid" in NI schools.