The problem with faith schools

There was an article published on the Sydney Morning Herald’s website this morning reporting on the outcome of a legal decision in the Land and Environment Court to allow the building of a new, 1200-​​student primary and secondary Islamic school in Bass Hill, NSW.

The building of the new school was opposed by residents and planning permission was refused by Bankstown City Council. The group behind the school project appealed the decision and won their case.

I’m not terribly well-​​versed in the particulars of this specific case so I won’t comment on them, although there was an interesting comment from the judge presiding the case and quoted in the SMH article:

The judgement also referred to “the elephant in the courtroom” or “whether the council would have raised quite as many contentions as it did if the application had been for an Anglican school”.

Ooooooh… Way to play the prejudice card and hint at racist undertones.

As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that to criticise Islam is not to be guilty of racism. Islam claims to be a universal truth transcending race and ethnicity which is why anyone can become Muslim. Of course, the “uniform” (for want of a better word) has very strong roots in Arabic tribal custom and therefore it’s very easy to equate the religious practise with the tribal tradition — but this is a mistake and it’s worth making the distinction.

Having said that, the judge makes a fair point — if the proposed new school was affiliated with the Catholic church there would probably have been little objection raised. Australia’s religious heritage is Christian in nature (specifically Anglican) and another school with Christian connections is hardly out of the ordinary.

But this is precisely the problem. A Christian school would have gone through on the nod and the objections against the Muslim school would have been equally valid if levelled against a Christian school.  Minority religions are often right when they claim to be the victims of bias and prejudice, but the answer is not to grant them the same level of rights as the majority faith, but to strip back the incumbents until they are forced to operate at the same level as every other faith.

Why? Because of the concept of “faith” — the true elephant in the room. Faith basically means belief in something for which you have no evidence. It is generally accepted that if the existence of any deity could be proven, faith in that deity would evaporate like a puddle in the Sahara, because there would no longer be any need for it. Why believe in something you know to be true?

Which is why the very idea of faith schools is a disgrace. Bringing children together to tell them what their beliefs are, before they are old enough to make up their own minds, is as abusive as any other practise which we hear about in mainstream media. It’s not the children who want these schools, it’s the parents — seeking to prevent change and dislocation within their communities defined through the contexts of religion, as well as the community “leaders”, seeking to prevent any challenge to their authority or to accepted dogma by isolating the next generation.

“Faith” does not equal “good”.

Does this mean that I think religion should be excluded from schools? Not at all. Religion has formed ourselves and our societies for millennia. Ignoring religion is akin to ignoring the importance of slave ownership in many economies throughout history — just because it doesn’t happen any more (much) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know everything about it. Comparative religion is an intensely important thing to learn, but not as “faith” and certainly not as “truth”.

My own path to non-​​belief actually came from learning about comparative religion at a Uniting Church secondary school at the hands of an intelligent and kindly clergyman. I’m sure that’s not the outcome he would have hoped for, but I’m grateful nonetheless.

What do you think? Is this just another “strident atheist rant” which will be condemned and dismissed as such? Are we the ones missing the point, or are we the only people who can see the Nidhogg the wyrm gnawing at the roots of Yggdrasil?