Face to Faith piece
Just stumbled over this old unpublished piece. It was submitted for Face to Faith in The Guardian, but the old editor of that section reacted in a very hostile manner! Of course, it cover stuff I have written about in depth elsewhere.
Face to Faith
The smoke generated by the battle over faith schools has obscured a far more fundamental dispute – that between liberals and authoritarians.
Liberals believe individuals should be encouraged to think independently and make their own judgements about, say, whether stealing from supermarkets is wrong or if Jesus literally rose from the dead. Authoritarians believe individuals, and particularly children, should defer to some external authority that can make these judgments for them.
The issue here is freedom of thought, not freedom of action. We can all agree children shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever they like. But should they be encouraged to think freely. Liberals say yes. Authoritarians are far less enthusiastic.
This liberal/authoritarian divide cuts across the religious/atheist one. Christians can be Liberal. A Liberal Christian school would teach children about Christianity, but it would also encourage independent critical thought about Christian belief. And of course, atheists can be authoritarian. Stalin and Mao were just as determined as the Holy Inquisition to stamp out free thought.
Suppose your little Johnny ends up with mistaken moral or religious beliefs. A liberal educator will try to explain to him why he is mistaken by giving Johnny reasons and arguments. But for those at the Authoritarian end of the scale, rational persuasion is not an option. Rational persuasion involves getting Johnny to apply his own powers of reason and think for himself – exactly what Authoritarians dislike. Authoritarians prefer other methods.
The most brutal include torture and murder. The Inquisition forced acceptance of religious and moral belief on pain of death. Under Stalin, those found guilty of thought crimes faced a slow death in the Gulag. Nowadays, torture and murder are no longer deemed acceptable ways of shaping belief (though several Islamic states continue to execute unbelievers) But there are still plenty of other techniques available to an enthusiastic authoritarian. These include isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation.
Isolation. If, as an authoritarian, you want children to believe what you tell them, it is unwise to let them mix with unbelievers. Better to put them into religious or political schools where they will not be “corrupted”.
Control. Restrict the range of ideas to which children have access. A political or religious authoritarian may remove books from libraries and cancel talks (I have had mine cancelled) on the grounds that they will only “confuse” children.
Uncertainty. Authoritarians tend to play on the discomfort we feel when faced with uncertainty. They often offer a simple set of principles designed to give meaning to and cover every aspect of life. By constantly harping on the vagaries and meaninglessness of life outside their belief system, the pure, geometric certainties offered by a political or religious Authority can be made to seem increasingly attractive.
Repetition. Another popular method of molding minds is rote learning and mindless repetition. This seems to work especially well when applied in a situation in which there is powerful social pressure to conform. Totalitarian regimes are fond of lining up pupils up in playgrounds for a daily recitation of the regime’s key tenets. Regimented acts of worship have the same effect.
Emotional manipulation. Constantly associate your belief system with positives, such as love, brotherhood and happy smiling children. Associate alternatives with negatives: meaninglessness, selfish materialism, amorality, hell, and so on. It’s also a good idea to hang images of Authority – be it God or Joe Stalin – on classroom walls as a constant reminder that, like Big Brother, Authority is always watching.
Kathleen Taylor, a scientist at Oxford who recently published a study of brainwashing, writes:
“one striking fact about brainwashing is its consistency. Whether the context is a prisoner of war camp, a cult’s headquarters or a radical mosque, five core techniques keep cropping up: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation.”
Taylor doesn’t make the connection, but what’s striking about these five techniques is that religious schools have traditionally been heavily reliant upon them. Some will balk at the suggestion that traditional religious schooling of the sort to which many would now like us to return involves brainwashing. But perhaps we should call a spade a spade.
By all means let’s have faith schools. But let’s make sure they are liberal faith schools. An authoritarian religious school is surely just as unacceptable as its political equivalent.