High Tension

A lot of vexed religious issues around at the moment. There is the Vardy foundation which wants ‘to take over seven comprehensives and turn them into Christian Academies promoting Old Testament views of the world’s creation. This includes the claim that it was made in six days, 10,000 years ago.’ There is the never-ending stampede of both political parties in the US to outdo each other in god-bothering. There is the prospect of Shari’a in Ontario (and the campaign against it). There is a group forming to ‘defend’ the hijab. And there is the Begum case, which is under discussion at Crooked Timber.

So, one way and another, there is a lot of debate and discussion of this question of special rights for religion and religious believers, especially in matters of education. One thing that doesn’t seem to get discussed much, no doubt because of the very reluctance to challenge religion head-on that I’m talking about here, is that there is (surely) an inherent tension between education and religion. At least, depending on how one defines both terms. But surely education that really is education is not supposed to teach counterfactuals. Nobody wants schools teaching that the French Revolution happened in the 14th century and the Black Death happened in 1927. A lot of education is not as straightforwardly factual as that, of course; not as answerable with a yes or no, true or false. But still – schools usually distinguish between fiction and the other thing; they don’t teach Jane Eyre as a biography. So where does that leave religion? Religion can of course be taught as a subject without asserting anything about supernatural entities – but religion as religion can’t. In short, it seems to me there is a radical tension between schools’ responsibility to refrain from teaching falsehoods, and religions’ commitments to their version of the truth. This is no doubt why religions want special rights, but it’s also why they shouldn’t have them.

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