The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science publishes on its Facebook page select questions submitted by the public and invites its Facebook community to respond. One recent submission caught my attention in particular, it read:
“Hi, I have two daughters in public school. I had recently got a paper from their school asking if I would like to sign up for a bible study group. The group has children get on a school bus during school hours to attend this. Me and my husband are atheists and we are outraged that a public school would promote such a thing during school hours! We believe school should be for learning, not mindless bible studies! I wonder if this is even legal? I also would like some advice on what to say to their principal about this?”
There was a time when I would have shared this mother’s outrage and her almost instinctive recourse to government action as a solution. However, now that I’m a little less ignorant, in the purest sense of the word, I understand that religion is not the root cause of this kind of problem.
I do understand this mother’s frustrations, after all as a tax payer she is effectively paying for her children to be potentially taught things she holds to be of no value or even harmful, but unfortunately, like many atheists, she is misdiagnosing the problem – i.e. it’s all religion’s fault. This leads to the belief that government action in the form of new laws to prohibit the teaching of religious doctrine in State schools is the solution, and indeed generally a way to make the world a better place. But, giving the State the power to prohibit courses of action which in themselves do not restrict the freedoms of others and therefore cannot be treated as crimes, but which some people (in this case atheists) prefer to avoid, represents social degradation – not progress.
The fundamental problem is not the existence of religious belief, but the fact that we give one group of people (those who work for the government’s department of education) the power to decide what all schools can and can’t teach, and to some degree even how they teach it. Permit me to explain. Imagine if the government had no involvement in education. Each and every school would be free to teach anything and everything that parents were willing to pay for their children to be taught. This freedom would almost certainly lead to a proliferation of schools of all sizes, and specialisation and diversification among schools in terms of their curricula and their approach to teaching. Why? Because parents, who each have their own preferences and wants for their child’s schooling, would be able to express them through the educations they choose to buy and those they refrain from buying.
A one-size-fits-all system of education run by the government can only give everyone the same education and as a result very few students get schooled in the way that works best for them, which is why many, if not most, children today endure school rather than enjoy it. Education emancipated from State control, however, has the potential to give parents the types of schooling they want for their children, by virtue of the same spontaneous forces that result in other markets providing the masses, from poor to well-off, with the wide variety of phones, computers, clothing and food that they want at prices they want to pay.
The general point is that if there was more than one provider/supplier of education and instead many that were free to teach their own curricula, then atheist parents would almost certainly find it much easier to protect their children from exposure to religious doctrine because they could send their children to schools that specialise in providing religion-free educations, which would undoubtedly exist in areas where secularism is a significant influence. Similarly, religious parents could avoid secular influence by sending their children to schools that specialise in providing religious educations, if they so desired. Some or perhaps many atheists, I suspect, would probably strongly object to the notion of religious schools like this, but if atheists who want the freedom to avoid religious influence in schools are genuinely interested in justice, and not just beating religious people with a government stick, then they must accept that the religious must have the same freedom.
At this juncture some atheist may want to introduce the argument about whether religious indoctrination is “child abuse”, as Richard Dawkins has allegedly declared it, and therefore that it should be forcefully prevented or punished in the same way violence is. However, without diving fully into this discussion, if explaining beliefs to children as if they are facts is a crime, then every parent is a criminal because undoubtedly every parent or teacher has innocently told a child something is true in the belief that it is, but without knowing that in fact it isn’t. Ignorance and poor reasoning on behalf of parents and teachers is not a crime, but atheists may argue that it can cause psychological harm to children in their trust or is wrong when beliefs are knowingly and therefore dishonestly taught as facts.
The impression I get from recent liberal media coverage here in the UK and social media activity from groups like the British Humanist Association is that there exists a level of fear and anxiety among atheist/agnostic parents that religious groups, Muslims in particular, are exerting increasingly strong influence over locally run Free Schools and the public school system in general. This could well be happening for all I know, but the point to make is that in a society with no centralised education system to infiltrate and take over, it would be impossible for religious groups to cause such angst to atheist/agnostic parents and vice versa; for each would have the freedom to avoid each other. Because there is only a single supplier of education, groups of parents with conflicting ideas about what education should be are smashed together and thrust into an endless struggle to get State schools to prioritize their preferences over everyone else’s.
Imagine that there was only a single supplier of clothing, which was the government. There would be endless bickering and debate between secular and religious groups on which lengths of skirts, depth of necklines and tightness of tops and trousers is ‘best’, ‘fair’ or ‘appropriate’ etc. And what society would get is either clothing that no one likes or else clothing designed to suit the preferences of whichever group was able to exert most influence over those who work for the Department for Clothing.
The only lasting solution to the problem of atheist parents’ children being exposed to religious doctrine in State schools, especially for ethnically and religiously diverse populations, is to allow a free market for education where entrepreneurial atheists and atheist educators would be free to open and run schools that provide religion-free educations. The problem disappears and yet peaceful people don’t have to lose freedoms. That’s the libertarian way.