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Posted by on Jan 3, 2009 in faith schools | 24 comments

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Just stumbled over this old unpublished piece.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

Stephen Law

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.


  1. Good post by SL. I’m always reading that faith schools get much better academic results than others. Is this actually true? If so, any ideas why?

  2. Better results?If you have the mechanisms set up for successful brainwashing you might as well get some factual education in there as well. If you can get children to remember and recite verses from a holy text of some kind then getting them to remember a few potted essay outlines or the order of events leading up to the Treaty of Versailles ought to be easy.sakers

  3. A blindingly obvious contrast between democratic and totalitarian thought processes gets a “very hostile” reaction from the ‘Guardian’. I wonder why. I wonder, too, what values that once-great liberal newspaper sees itself as guarding nowadays.

  4. I’m always reading that faith schools get much better academic results than others. Is this actually true?I read that this was because faith schools, in defiance of government guidelines, tend to recruit the ablest students.Yes, we need continually to be reminded of the points raised in this post. I do not believe that faith schools can ever meet these high ideals since their raison d’être is to propagate their particular brand of “faith” (i.e. irrational beliefs).Rational thought must always inevitably be inimical to irrational “faith”. Teaching independent thought in a faith school would only “confuse” students and hence cannot take place though a pretence of it may occur for cosmetic reasons.

  5. So here I am running my liberal faith school. It’s isolated because otherwise it would have to be multi-faith; it controls, not by removing books, just by never putting them in the library in the first place and it doesn’t need to cancel talks because contentious speakers are never booked; it trades in the uncertainty of the job market without qualifications; repetition is found in prayers and sermons and emotional manipulation is found by emphasising the brotherhood of the school and the threat of “exclusion”. I’m glad its so obvious that a liberal faith school is a good thing. When are you going to call for liberal faith universities?

  6. I agree with Martin. A “liberal faith school” is an oxymoron. Where they have the power, religions and sects always seek to dominate and exclude. The history of our own educational system over the past three hundred years abundantly shows this.

  7. Someone pointed out (I can’t remember who it was, but I think it was an historian being interviewed on the ABC) that successful civilisations were the ones that were open to new ideas. This is so obvious if one thinks about it. Stagnation is the logical and unavoidable result of freezing knowledge.Regards, Paul.

  8. Stephen, apologies for my cheeky reply above. Having checked in your Philosophy Gym I note that the “divide” between Authoritarians and Liberals is what you term a False Dilemma. I think that my rather sarcastic comments were trying to highlight this, but I lacked the vocabulary up until now. Having established in your article that authoritarian faith schools would be no use, I don’t think you tell us anything about the worthiness of a liberal faith school. Well done to the old editor of The Guardian for spotting this and saving you the embarrassment of having this published at the time.(Having recommended your definition of False Dilemma in The Philosophy Gym, I have to say there’s a glaring error in the example which follows – Trying Only To Confirm. You must turn all four cards over to confirm the hypothesis, there’s no other way way to do it.)

  9. I wouldn’t say that a liberal faith school is a total oxymoron. But I do think that being even nominally affiliated to a religion, almost unavoidably, produces some of the effects you mention.For example, linking schools to this faith, that faith or the other faith means that families of this, that or the other religion are always going to be more likely to send their children to the “right” school. (Non-Christian schools in the UK have a particular problem attracting from outside their designated religion.) The arbitrary affiliation of the schools means that a degree of isolation – or at least, a significant pooling of children who “belong” to one faith, is inevitable.

  10. “Trying Only To Confirm. You must turn all four cards over to confirm the hypothesis, there’s no other way way to do it.”Nope.Don’t forget that Stephens cards have a letter on one side and a number on the other.

  11. Wombat, thanks. Sorry there, my misreading of the problem.

  12. Martin, with the cards E, F, 2 and 5, it is only necessary to flip over two cards to establish “cards with vowels on one side have even numbers on the other” as being true.For instance, if you flip over the F card and find that there’s a 4 on the other side, your finding is irrelevant. It STILL doesn’t affect the truth of the statement above. The same goes with the 2 card. (So what if its other side is a G?)This is a logical problem made famous in evolutionary psychology by Tooby and Cosmides, who showed that a problem that involved identical logic but actual people in a specific scenario was answered correctly MUCH more frequently than the cards scenario was. Their hypothesis is that we are rather better at detecting ‘cheaters’ in social spheres than we are at abstract logic per se – even if the logic is the same!

  13. Oo, sorry – posts crossed Martin.

  14. What I’m finding really hard to come to terms with is this; if our government is aiming for (at the very least) “tolerance” between the various ethnic and religious groups currently making up the nation – why is it actively funding institutes that encourage segregation?Faith schools are allowed to teach veiled misogyny and racism, as well as implicitly condoning violence (verbal, mental, physical) towards homosexuals.Do I seem paranoid to assume that as the government must realize these things already, but actively encourages the institutions, the government actually wants people to remain stupid, hateful and mistrustful of one another?If anyone can think of a more reasonable explanation, please tell me (I hate feeling paranoid!).Thanks.

  15. This government, unfortunately, believes that it can square circles, blend oil and water, and synthesise chalk and cheese. When it is between a rock and a hard place, it looks the other way.

  16. I imagine Stephen is aware that a liberal faith school would fail at indoctrinating in the way that an authoritarian one would. I may be approaching apologetics here but I rather suspect he would only suggest a liberal faith school as being ok just so that others might think about how to attempt such a thing and realise that it wouldn’t work.

  17. I want to know about the hostile response from the editor. Details!

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. Hey Stephen,Speaking of faith-based education, I had the misfortune of running into this website called “Fallacy Detective”. Here’s the article that got me shaking my head:'d really have no problems with it, if it actually taught good argument and reasoning. But it can’t even get the principles of logic right, and it claims to be a credible source for homeschool eductation. Most of the articles are horrifically off base when it comes to logic, and are filled with claims of the following nature:”Should Christians use logic? Don’t we have faith?”Faith and logic are not opposed to one another. Faith establishes the principles from which we reason logically. The Bible teaches that God is logical. The Bible says that God does not contradict Himself, and when God declares that something is true, then it is really true.”I nearly peed my pants laughing. Would you believe they have an article on “Appeal to Authority”? ha ha ha

  20. Phaedrus – I took a look. Yes, it’s weird…

  21. Phaedrus, I only had a brief look at that website, but I’m not sure what your problem is with it. I can understand that if you don’t believe in God then you will find most of the discussion irrelevant, but why does that make it laughable.It is a resource for those who share similar beliefs to authors of the website. That it is not written in a way that you find palatable is hardly surprising.

  22. The final section of:“Was logic invented by an pagan philosopher named Aristotle?”but fortunately the author comes up with a quote from St Augustine and so is able to conclude:“Logic is not a dubious non-Christian method of reasoning. All of the fundamental laws of logic can be found in the Bible.”There is a fantastic internal consistency to the above which I can admire.In Advances in Psychiatric Treatment I read that: “The following techniques make delusions entrenched:a humouringb distancingc collusiond confrontation.”What particular methods would readers suggest for tackling a God delusion, assuming the holders of such beliefs were willing to come in for treatment?

  23. As they don’t regard themselves as deluded, they won’t be willing to come on for ‘treatment’. End of discussion?

  24. Oh, I don’t know. I think Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, has just reeled in Stephen Green of Christian Voice.I think she might be trying to usee ridiculeto make her point.

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