Deference to authority

Stephen Law asks a crucial question:

[M]y greatest concern is that the smoke generated by the battle over whether religious schools are a good idea has obscured a more fundamental question, a question about the kind of religious education schools offer: to what extent should schools be allowed to encourage deference to authority when it comes to moral and religious matters? To what extent should they be able to suppress independent, critical thought?

How about deference to authority and downright obedience of existing rules (no hitting, no knifing the teacher, no breaking windows – you know the kind of thing) in combination with no suppression at all of independent, critical thought about the rules? How does that sound? Obey the ones that are in place, and by all means think about them, discuss them, analyze them, along with other moral and religious matters. Sound reasonable?

Let me be clear that there are some excellent religious schools, schools that dare to educate rather than indoctrinate. But far too many, while officially liberal, are busy applying psychological techniques that, if not quite brainwashing, lie on the same scale. Some don’t even pretend to be liberal. The other day I heard the head of a British Islamic school agree that in any good Islamic school, “Islam is a given and never challenged”. Any school that insists its religion should be a given and never challenged should no longer be tolerated, let alone receive government funding.

Which suggests the idea that secularism and independent critical thought go together, and theocracy and authoritarianism do the same. That’s probably obvious enough, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

Authoritarian political schools would be a shocking new development. But there have always been authoritarian religious schools. Familiarity, and perhaps a sense of inevitability, has blunted the sense of outrage we might otherwise feel. I think it high time we got that sense of outrage back.

I’ve already got it.

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