The British Humanist Association’s campaign to have state funded faith schools closed seems like a classic “won’t somebody think of the children!” moment, but from the perspective of individual liberty (within the confines of the UK’s democracy) it is troubling and even somewhat sinister. I was once, many years ago, compelled to become a member of the BHA and so I find this rather sad.
Not playing by the rules & rulers not applying them
The BHA wants faith schools closed because they receive state funding but often don’t behave according to government rules. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many don’t teach what the government says they should in the way the government says they should teach it. And, much to the BHA’s dismay, those in government who are ‘in charge’ of education have been slow or reluctant to take punitive action against these schools over the last few decades.
That some faith schools have gotten away with disobeying government edicts for a long time is most likely due to back-scratching arrangements/agreements between local councillors and members of the central government’s Department for Education and/or the Office for Standards in Education.
Human nature and the nature of power means government mostly functions according to the incentives faced by its members, the causes they are sympathetic too or the favours they owe – and not to the rules, policies and plans created by politicians in the highest positions in government. If the BHA expects government in a democracy as ethnically and culturally diverse as the UK’s to work otherwise or ‘as advertised’, then its members will be forever disappointed. And, worse still, forever campaigning for rulers to robotically enforce the rules.
Seeing faith schools as a social menace
The presence and rise of state-funded faith schools annoys the BHA, not just because their proprietors seem skilled at gaming the system, but also because, it seems to me, many of its key members view faith schools like human beings view cancer. The BHA sees faith schools and religion in general as a disease that the UK’s democracy needs curing of to reach its zenith.
What makes this belief a threat to free and peaceful society, indeed to human liberty, is that the BHA sees the law and the expanding of the coercive apparatus of the State as the cure. But in reality the State is society’s cancer, its biggest threat by far, because it is the only agency with the legal right to use compulsion against anyone (which, of course, is its most appealing feature to all lobbying special interest groups).
Mistaking symptoms for causes
The BHA claims it is outrageous that non-religious parents in some areas of the UK have no choice but to send their children to a faith school because such schools dominate their community. I don’t deny that this is a problem faced by some non-religious parents (and, of course, one faced by religious parents in areas where secular schools dominate). But to blame religious people who run faith schools and religion in general for this social problem is to bemoan the rules of a game and yet blame the players (who have no choice but to play) for the outcomes produced.
The problem is not religion, and people of religious faith are not the enemy. The problem is that instead of all parents determining the total number of and distribution of faith schools, it is a relative few people in local and central government who are. In other words, it’s not the many via their individual economic choices (in the same way that the many ultimately decide the number of supermarkets in society and their distribution by what and how much they consume), it’s a relative few via their political choices – which are mostly driven by their own immediate self interests as councillors or politicians.
Freedom in education
The number and distribution of state-funded faith schools in the UK today reflects the past choices of people in government power. It doesn’t reflect the wants and preferences of parents across the nation regarding educating their children.
The BHA rightly identifies this as a problem, but it wrongly diagnoses the cause. The cause is not people who run faith schools, it is the exclusive control that the State has over the education market and much of the funding for education. It is the State monopoly on education and schools.
Absent the tax-funded State education system, or in other words with a free market in education, it would be impossible for faith schools, as they sometimes do today, to monopolise schools in communities where most parents want secular schooling; they wouldn’t make a profit and thus they would quickly go out of business. Secular education would prevail and flourish in every area where it was valued more highly than faith schooling, which evidence suggests is most of the UK.
Tyranny exercised for the good of its victims
If the BHA was the agency making and enforcing the law in our society what would it do? Judging by its actions and stated intentions, I suspect it would show zero tolerance for the running of state-funded faith schools and it would make illegal the running of privately funded faith schools. Running one would likely carry a punishment similar to the crime of child abuse. Just as it is not what a man does that exalts him, but what he would do, it is not what an organisation does that morally demotes it, but what it would do.
As 21st century people who hear much about the middle east, we’re familiar with religious tyranny, but the society desired by the BHA would be a secular tyranny born of the liberty-killing combination of modern liberalism and democracy; a brand of totalitarianism that has a human face.
I suspect what is motivating the BHA is more its contempt for religion than its aim to raise the standard of education for all children. This is why I’m suspicious of its campaign against faith schools and have grave doubts about its virtue.
Who gets to decide?
The BHA would argue that closing state funded faith schools is the only way to make sure that all children are “given the education they deserve”, as they put it. But who decides what children or a child deserves? Who decides what kind of education children get? Is it parents, i.e. those individuals who are morally and legally recognised by society as the exclusive authorities over their own children and responsible for their well-being? Or is it someone else?
It is incumbent upon anyone who answers that they, or anyone else besides their parents, should decide what kind of education everyone’s children should receive to explain why. Because the only way to take away from parents this right and power to choose is to use coercion (in the form of laws) against them and against those who want to run faith schools.
The use of force must be morally justified, not merely legal
Thus the would-be-usurpers of parental authority need to explain how using coercion against peaceful people can be justified in a society in which controlling people by threatening violence is considered immoral and is prohibited by common law (widely held moral principles codified as law).
According to UK law the only legitimate use of force in our society is defending person and property, and even then it is necessary to prove that it was proportionate. Sending one’s child to a faith school is not an act that physically harms the child nor restricts anyone else’s freedom to use their own person or property as they wish in peaceful pursuit of their own aims (e.g it doesn’t prevent other parents from sending their child to the school of their choice).
The BHA should campaign for free market in education
It is fine to argue that subjecting a child to a faith school education is an act that results in less educational and intellectual benefit to them than sending him or her to a secular state school, but causing less benefit is not the same as causing harm. The child, obviously, isn’t left with reduced or damaged cognitive skills or intelligence as a result of his faith schooling. He isn’t left worse off than before he started to attend. He gets something out of it, of course, but just less relative to a broader education in a secular state funded school. Although, given the terrible standards of some state schools I suspect the difference isn’t always as great as the BHA might imagine.
The strongest possible argument for using government force to prevent the running of faith schools and to prevent parents from sending their children to them is that it is an enforced experience that can cause psychological harm or trauma to children (fear, stress, anxiety etc).
But, if the BHA were to use this as its main defence for advocating government action to close faith schools, then for consistency it would also have to argue for abolishing compulsory state education altogether; for it too is an experience forced upon children, which is known to cause psychological harm and trauma to children.
In order to avoid being hypocritical to the point of being ridiculous the BHA would have to argue against the continued existence of the institution that it believes forms part of the cure to rid society of the disease of religion; it would have to campaign for the abolishing of State education. Is it ready to do that? If it did it would be very much to its intellectual credit.
The sad irony of all this is that the BHA is a politically liberal and humanist organisation and yet its campaign against faith schools can only be described as illiberal and displaying a distinct lack of faith in humanity.
It seems to me that there is an important choice for the BHA to make. It needs to decide whether it’s more interested in restricting the freedoms of religious people and corrupting the democratic principles of the State education system to stamp out state funded (and even privately funded) faith schools.
Or most interested in increasing the freedoms of parents and everyone involved in providing education such that faith schools won’t disappear, but their number will shrink to its natural level, i.e. according to demand. And, most importantly, with the effect of creating the ideal conditions for raising the quality and lowering the cost of education.
If the BHA stops lobbying government and focuses on promoting the philosophy of living ethical lives based on reason and humanity, and on promoting a free market in education, then it can truly play its part in raising the standard of education received by children.
If, however, the BHA finds the thought of a free market in education frightening or intolerable, then this is most revealing. It tells us that its patrons have much less faith in individual freedom as the way to social progress than they do in its opposite: the use of coercive force (by the State). Which is a great shame, and a grave mistake for an organisation dedicated to achieving social good. Faith in the former is rational because its well supported by reason and evidence, but faith in the latter is irrational because it isn’t. And it represents a far bigger threat to social progress than the threat the BHA believes faith schools pose.