Fundamentalists vs. Neutrality

One of my aims for this blog is to promote understanding of what Christian fundamentalists believe. There is very little knowledge in the UK of this type of belief, either in terms of what it entails, or how many people hold these views.

Communication between fundamentalists and society at large is very difficult, because there are irreconcilible differences in their respective uses of language. For example, let’s look at two adjectives: “liberal,” and “secular.”

Many moderate advocates of a tolerant, pluralist society use these terms. “Liberal,” to these people, means broad-minded, free from bigotry, avoiding dogma, and willing to consider all ideas.

My Accelerated Christian Education schoolbook, on the other hand, said that liberals are those who “reject God’s absolutes.” Every time the word was used in an ACE text, it was to denote the opposite of godliness, and I inferred from context that liberal equated to evil.

“Secular,” to our impartial observer, has a connotation of neutrality. It means not concerned with or related to religion; having no particular religious affinities.

Unfortunately, the Christian fundamentalist rejects the idea that neutrality is possible, and in particular, that neutrality of education is possible. As a comment on my old blog put it, “all institutional schools indoctrinate something.” You may have heard references to “strident secularism” from within the church, a charge which makes little sense using the dictionary definition of “secular.”

You’re Either For Us Or Agin Us

The reason for this is simple: Jesus said in Matthew 12:30 (and Luke 11:23), “He that is not with me is against me.” As far as Biblical literalists are concerned, if you’re not preaching Jesus, you’re pushing the devil’s agenda.

In her PhD thesis for the University of Warwick, Sylvia Baker of the Christian Schools Trust argues, citing an array of Christian sources, that “all schools are in a sense religious.” She quotes (pg. 26) Terence Copley’s Indoctrination, Education, and God, which argues that “indoctrination by omission” is possible: that not mentioning God in the classroom is a form of brain-washing:

A child from a home in which religion and God are never mentioned and encountering a curriculum in which they do not occur, except perhaps, en passant in history lessons, may not only have no belief in God, but may view the entire question of God as unnecessary and irrelevant, even incomprehensible. How much “choice” has such a child had in forming this view? … Surely this too is indoctrination.

Observe this table, presented by Baker, from the Christian Schools Trust, an association of around 40 British Christian schools. It demonstrates their perceived difference between Christian and secular education. Note particularly that it suggests, among other things, that humanism is a faith, and that evolution is at odds with Christian education, and that secular education automatically leads to hopelessness and disillusionment.

Christian School's Trust chart

The institutions Baker calls “the new Christian schools” seek to ensure that their pupils “develop and retain the belief system and moral position taken by their parent bodies and founding churches.” The Christian school I attended went further and sought to teach me the “right” views on history, politics, Biblical criticism, and even the arts.

These are questions to which there is not one right answer, or if there is, no human can claim to know it with certainty. It follows, then, that the most ethical course must be not to tell children what to believe in this instance, but to give them the tools to make up their own mind.

Education has no business teaching children what to think. It should only teach them how to think.

I am not talking here about the home. I am not claiming that parents should not have the right to pass on their beliefs to their children. I am talking about schools. The purpose of education must be for students to learn how to acquire and evaluate knowledge. To teach children what to believe, rather than to teach them about beliefs, is immoral. The New Christian Schools supporters won’t accept this, because they believe an education without God is, in effect, educating children into atheism.

Interestingly, both critics and supporters of this type of education maintain that without this instruction children are more likely to stray from faith. Richard Dawkins, in his article Viruses of the Mind, makes the same point as Sylvia Baker’s Christian schools. Opponents of this very directive kind of Christian education decry it for exactly the same reason its supporters want it.

The following is the most important realisation I have ever had:

The truth has nothing to fear from inquiry.

Fair-minded people of all faiths know this is right. Jesus said “the truth shall set you free.” There is simply no need for education to indoctrinate. What is true will stand up to scrutiny. Understanding and respect, on the other hand, only come from meeting people with different ideas. Schools that select by faith and teach a “correct” spiritual line, then, are unnecessary, and cost us the opportunity to educate children to engage meaningfully with ideas they do not share.

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About Jonny Scaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on April 27, 2012, in Accelerated Christian Education, Education, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Hi Jonny, I hadn’t heard the argument that omitting to mention God is lack of neutrality. I think it can be addressed reasonably simply on the basis that the school won’t take a position on x number of other things, and that doesn’t mean the school is showing lack of neutrality on those things – quite the opposite. Not only regarding other mystical creatures such as deities, fairies etc, but also political ideologies.

    I think it also suggests a religious arrogance – that God DOES exist and not promoting him = lack of neutrality. It also assumes the school will share the same god as the person who says god should be promoted in that school.

    Sometimes I hear the argument that secularism, even though it is supposedly neutral, “favours atheism”. I disagree with that. My employer, and all the schools I went to, were not “pro-Conservative”. Does that mean they favour those that are anti-Conservative or even just not Conservative? No, it just means the way they treat their employees/students/parents etc, is Conservative-neutral. As an employee/student/parent of those organisations, whether you are pro-Conservative, anti-Conservative or just not Conservative, you are neither advantaged nor disadvantaged, because the school doesn’t have a position on it.

    I’m looking forward to your post about religious private schools. My gut instinct is that they should not be permitted. But apart from the general civil liberties issue presented by the “private” issue, which I acknowledge, what if parents choose to home-school, like some do? It takes on quite an uncomfortable angle then.

    But when we talk about ‘religious schools’ (private or state) there has to be a substantive, harm-based approach to any objections. For example, I would be relaxed about a school having reference to religion in its name, or maybe even saying it has an “x [brand of religion] ethos”. That would not necessarily make it harmful. The school might say it has a Christian ethos and just pick one nice bit of Christianity as its guiding principle, such as “love thy neighbour”. But if the school selects pupils or employees on the basis of religion, or if it teaches creationism as science, or if sex education is provided on the basis of Leviticus, then we have clear harm.

    • Thanks for leaving such a detailed comment. I am in agreement with you. I am looking only at fundamentalist schools currently, and I agree that we have a case of clear harm. It also seems weird that fundamentalists think that denying their children freedom of religion is a legitimate expression of the parents’ same freedom.

      Of course, the religious arrogance is there: In “Why Fundamentalism Is Not Faith” I show how fundies know they are right. That’s why you can’t talk them around, and any regulation of the schools has to be by the state.

      • I like your point, “fundamentalists think that denying their children freedom of religion is a legitimate expression of the parents’ same freedom.”

        I consider myself lucky to have had a secular upbringing. Yeh, my parents had me baptized and I got a certificate, and they even wheeled me to church every now and then, but I was allowed to make my own decisions. There are many like me who will have had a similar upbringing and take that for granted – but since I have become interested in secularism I don’t take it for granted.

        I can’t imagine what it’s like to have had the type of upbringing/education you did. At least you’re one of the lucky ones. Leaving that must be the same way an innocent man feels upon release from prison.

      • That’s exactly how it feels. I’m truly happy, after years of being told (and telling everyone else) that a personal relationship with Jesus is the *only* happiness, and that anyone else who thinks (s)he’s happy is deceiving himself.

        Thanks for following my blog. When I post on civil liberties, I hope you’ll point out all my mistakes.

  2. I thought this was really interesting, especially the table. Apart from defining evolution as a belief, and the hopelessness/hope, disillusionment/peace, I think I broadly agree with them. And I am an atheist, secular, humanist! They think we are innately sinful and must be disciplined into becoming self-denying, submissive, servants. What I don’t think I could ever understand is thinking that is a good thing! Unless it is simply a matter of avoiding hell.
    Regarding religious education in general. I am 100% opposed to state funded faith schools, but private faith schools are a different matter. I don’t really know about that one and look forward to hearing more about it from you.
    My upbringing was much like Re-Enlightenment’s and I hope you don’t think this is patronising, but you have my admiration for breaking the spell.

    • Hey Dave, thanks for commenting. I don’t find it patronising. It was years of hard work and mental anguish to get out of it, so I’m glad just to have people recognise the dangers of that way of thinking.

  3. “Education has no business teaching children what to think. It should only teach them how to think.”

    Keep this in mind and then check out the links below
    (copy & paste into your browser)

    * http://www.aceministries.com/aboutus/

    * http://www.aceministries.com/curriculum/?content=main

    * http://www.aceministries.com/downloads/?content=main

  4. Religion or theology should ideally be approached pretty much in the same way we study myths and legends or the paranormal because we read so many diverse views that at times it becomes impossible to digest, and get your screaming brain to process this ambiguous subject, that has been tampered by man for so long! Fundamentalism is screwy, same way a sensible person wouldn’t give a child a cuban cigar to puff on so that it pollutes and damages his little lungs, therefore one wouldn’t attempt to force fathomless, migraine inducing dogma upon the tender mind of a child thus negatively impacting how he sees life. I am trying to write this with as much clarity as possible, I have a feeling that fundies have mind blocking radars in operation to scramble the thinking processes of the sane…..I am a little tired!!!!!

  5. Growing up in a fundamentalist church in Canada, my upbringing mirrored the ideals you list in this post. While my education was “secular,” I was always taught to be “in the world, not of the world,” and finished high school with many of these beliefs intact. Post-Christian and years later, I am still ripping out some of the tacit assumptions that I’ve maintained since childhood.

    I completely understand when you say it was “years of hard work and mental anguish” to exit fundamentalism. It is an incredibly painful experience to question everything you have based your life upon. Good for you, I look forward to following your blog and your journey.

  1. Pingback: the 3 forms of influence: rewards, indoctrination, and punishments « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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