Oh come on, Brendan. A campaign against state-funded faith schools is not ‘intolerance in action’

Primary school children
“Hands up if you know how many dinosaurs were on the Ark!” (Photo: Alamy)

Do parents have “fundamental right… to socialise their children into the values and beliefs that they consider to be true and profound”? And is it part of that right that the state-funded schools they send those children to help them to do so, and bar children who believe other things from attending? I ask because my colleague Brendan O’Neill thinks so, and thinks that the British Humanist Association’s campaign to “say no to faith schools” undermines that right.

I’m very fond of Brendan, who is a nice chap and a good and entertaining writer (and who annoys a lot of people, which can be very entertaining to watch, even if I am sometimes one of those people). But he is talking complete and utter nonsense here.

First up, parents may or may not not have a “fundamental right” to inculcate whatever values they like into their children, but if those values are dangerous or harmful, they certainly don’t have a right to get a school to help them. I’m not (seriously, I’m not) saying that most religious values are dangerous or harmful, but a few are. We certainly wouldn’t be happy with a faith school run like a fundamentalist madrasa in Pakistan, for instance, preaching that women are worth less than men, preaching that gay people should be put to death. We wouldn’t let the Westboro Baptists run a school either, I sincerely hope. Rights have limits; they come with responsibilities.

Second, schools have a duty to educate children in stuff that’s true, to the best of our understanding, not merely in stuff that the children’s parents would like to be true. Schools that teach that evolution is “only a theory”, for instance, might as well be teaching that the Roman empire might actually have collapsed in 1962. It is simply wrong, and it is a cruel injustice to instil children with these factoids instead of the true, interesting and useful reality of the world.

Third, this stuff is taxpayer-funded! Fair enough – well, not really, but slightly less unfair – if the school teaching that the world was created from the sweat of the ice giant Ymir, or whatever, is funded entirely by fees from Thor-worshipping Vikings. But I fail to see how it is intolerant of me to complain that my money goes to support schools which won’t let my future child in, because he or she doesn’t believe the right creation myth.

“A fundamental part of religious freedom, and a key aspect of parental autonomy, is the right of parents to impart their beliefs to their offspring,” says Brendan, and (within reasonable limits) I agree with him. But that right does not extend to having the state education system tell the child your preferred legends on your behalf, or to deny access to education to other children because they do not believe those legends. Call me illiberal if you like, but as far as I’m concerned you can tell your child the ancient untruths on your own time, and leave the schools to teach the stuff for which there is evidence.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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