I want to outline an argument that occurred to me recently regarding religious instruction in public schools. These are sort of preliminary thoughts that I’m not sure I fully hold and I want feedback and constructive criticism, especially since what I’m about to lay out goes fairly contrary to the typical approach to secularism. It’s also worth pointing out that this is likely only feasible in Canada and other countries without explicit separations of church and state, since the religious teachings are very clearly banned in US classrooms.
It is arguably an end-goal of the atheist movement to reduce the influence of religion in society and to hopefully see religion dethroned from it’s position of untouchable power. PZ Myers expressed it nicely when he said that he wants to see religion treated as a quirky hobby, akin to knitting, where it’s something some people do, but does not hold sway over the political sphere.
It is also arguably clear that the best way to promote such a moderate approach to religion is through further education. (See here and here) Higher education leads to critical thinking which tends to lead to a rejection of dogmatic beliefs and a tempering of religiosity. Many educated people remain religious, however they tend to temper their belief and shift toward liberal religions and away from fundamentalist religions.
While most atheists here likely regard all religion as wrong, religious belief that is less fervent is preferable to the more extremists. I for one would much rather live in a country where religion plays much less of a role in civil rights issues (gay marriage, abortion).
Now, the other trend worth identifying is the increasing enrolment in private schools (at least in BC and Alberta). This is due to a combination of factors, including massive public school funding cuts and a new focus on ‘school choice’ as an alternative to the former one-size-fits all option. In Alberta and BC, many of these private schools are religious (can someone find me a statistic?), which leads to the conclusion that many fundamentalist parents use private religious schools to shelter their children from what they perceive as an evil secular public system.
Currently in all of Canada, except Quebec, there is no mandatory religious or ethics education in public schools. Some districts may offer philosophy or ethics as an option or may have secular religious studies courses, but none are required.
It could be argued that some parents feel their children are missing out on moral education and therefore enrol their kids in church-run Sunday school programs (since they still see religion as equivalent to morality).
So what we have now is a situation where kids may be being pushed toward more fundamentalist religions by parents who feel the public school system is failing them.
My thought is that we could potentially make space in the public system for one of two things that may help to combat this trend. First, we could offer, like Quebec, ethics or religious courses that promote tolerance and understanding as opposed to dogmatic adherence to tenets of faith. Alternatively, we could potentially allow a portion of the day (or week) for students to attend religious (or secular?) services in school.
The goals of a program like this would be to keep kids in public school, expose them to new ideas, and also provide stepping stones away from religion. Rather than let extremism build in churches and mosques, the school system can work to instil civic responsibility, while recognizing the unique differences between the faiths.
By offering religious education/instruction, we could hopefully convince parents that the public school system is where their kids should be. Further, we can hopefully expose the children to different ideas about religion and morality, which, demonstrated by the uproar over the comparative ethics course in Quebec, can challenge the basic notions of faith as a virtue.
Yet there’s still a benefit even if we don’t directly present multiple viewpoints to the children, and that benefit is that by remaining in public school, the children are exposed to a greater diversity of viewpoints among their peers than they would see if they were segregated off to religious private schools. By interacting on the playground, Muslim, Christian and atheist children may realize there’s little that actually differentiates them, and would hopefully temper their fervour on that ground alone.
No solution is perfect, and I want to admit many challenges exist for this program.
First, it sets a poor precedent in terms of funding religious activities and education. That precedent already exists in Alberta and BC with private/charter schools that received upwards of 70% of their budget from the provincial government, but the trend is strongly in the other direction in our public schools.
Second, perhaps the biggest threat is the difficulty of implementing something like this in less-equipped rural schools. Ideally we could easily accommodate protestant, Catholic, Islamic and Jewish faiths and a secular humanist education, however many less diverse areas could suffer and may only be able to offer one course for all students. I could easily foresee protestants in Catholic classes (and vice-versa), or worse (for myself), atheists in Christian class.
Third, many parents may still be upset that the school-education won’t perfectly align with their views. Fundamentalists would likely still prefer biblical schools where creationism is taught. Rather than enticing them to stay, we may offend them instead with watered-down religion.
Finally, it would likely just end up as a waste of money and time for students. The majority ignoring the class entirely, and others being forced to take something that offers little to their future academic careers.
This is mostly just an idea that I’ve tossed around in my head while considering the paradoxical rise of religion in the USA contrasted with the decline of religion in monarchic European democracies. As well, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book Nomad (which I’m only half-way through) has me thinking about the challenge of keeping the children (especially daughters) of Muslim immigrants in public schools.
I’m not convinced that the current system in BC and Alberta is improving the situation, but I’m also skeptical of even what I just laid out for you. I think a strongly funded public school system is vitally important, and that the discriminatory Catholic school boards ought to be abolished.
What are your thoughts? Should we offer comparative religious classes, religious instruction, or continue to avoid the whole topic? Should we allow private schools to continue to fill the void for fundamentalist parents?