Thursday, 19 August 2010

Richard Dawkins on "Faith Schools"

"It is absurd to suppose that ends are not present [in nature] because we do not see an agent deliberating."
-Aristotle, Physics

"Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use."
-Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)

Unlike Richard Dawkins previous forays into television broadcasting, his film about faith schools was not so strident or polemic and actually made quite a good case. This was a Dawkins who acknowledged the cultural legacy of religion and considered it to be important for that to form part of a school curricula, and who declaimed whole passages from the King James version of the Bible. He also praised Christianity for its accommodation of the theory of evolution, especially in the Church of England, although if he knew a little more history, he would have been aware that Christians like Charles Kingsley supported evolution from the first; it was Thomas Huxley who invented the myth of conflict, along with his trouncing of Bishop Wilberforce in debate.

At the beginning, Dawkins spoke to Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary responsible under New Labour for the expansion of faith schools. Clarke acknowledged that there was a problem, but basically took the attitude that any government which attempted to force faith schools to survive with out government sponsorship would thereby be forcing them to close, and the general public as voters would never countenance any government which did that. Mildly, Dawkins commented that the whole argument seemed to be based not on whether faith schools were discriminatory but simply whether their removal would be an unpopular vote loser.

I was surprised that Clarke did not also bring to bear the argument that where faith schools are subsidised by the government but not only wholly funded, then their replacements would impact upon increased public expenditure and probably higher taxes. He was trying to get to this, when he asked Richard Dawkins what an Education Secretary would do if the schools simply closed down rapidly after funding had been withdrawn (as happened with some adoption agencies), and whether that would be responsible, but he was sidetracked by the argument about what the public wanted. Yet this would certainly be the case in Jersey, where an increased burden, plus the cost of building extra schools, would fall to the public purse.

Dawkins was able to show that faith schools gave a discriminatory entrance based upon whether parents were churchgoers or practicing Jews or Muslims. He even found a woman who had converted to Catholicism in order to gain a place for her daughter at a Catholic primary school. This of course is nothing new -- it was highlighted to comic effect but making the same point in the first episode of "The Rev", where the Reverend Adam Smallbone suddenly finds his congregation boosted in numbers just prior to entrance selection at the local Anglican secondary school. But Dawkins also made a very good argument: if we would not tolerate discrimination based upon race, why should we tolerate discrimination based upon religion?

Moreover, the argument about the schools conducting their own inspections, or having independent inspections of their religious teaching by people from their own religious tradition did not really stand up to scrutiny. As Dawkins so rightly observed, if the inspection was "as good as OFSTED", and the teaching was up to scratch, then why on earth did they not let the OFSTED inspectors examine it with the rest of the curriculum? The implication, unstated, but present, was that it was not up to standards, but Dawkins cleverly left the viewer to draw this conclusion themselves.

The one school which opened its doors to the cameras was a Muslim school. Here, despite being told that 60 pupils receiving science education from a science teacher were "left to make up their own minds" upon whether evolution was true, all 60 believed that it was false! Cleverly, Dawkins let this blatant improbability stand without making too much comment - as the numbers themselves demonstrate that whatever else was happening in the teaching, there was a strong bias against evolution; this was clearly influencing precisely how the pupils made up their own minds "independently".

It was also clear that the science teacher and pupils had absolutely no idea of what evolution really was. A pupil said that it was about human beings being descended from apes and asked if that was so, why were there still apes around? Dawkins painstakingly explained that human beings were members of the ape family, but not descended from apes; instead both human beings and apes were descended from a common ancestor millions of years ago.

I was surprised that he didn't take a leaf out of the late Stephen Jay Gould's book, because the model that the pupil and science teacher working from was clearly that which Gould identified as a ladder, often shown in cheap popularisation of evolution where a fish gives way to an amphibian, a reptile, a mammal, an ape, an apelike man, and modern day human beings, implicitly suggesting that one replaces the other. Gould came across this misrepresentation time and again:

Evolution usually proceeds by 'speciation'-the splitting of one lineage from a parental stock-not by the slow and steady transformation of these large parental stocks. Repeated episodes of speciation produce a bush. Evolutionary 'sequences' are not rungs on a ladder, but our retrospective reconstruction of a circuitous path running like a labyrinth, branch to branch, from the base of the bush to a lineage now surviving at its top.(1)

Dawkins concluded by reading the letter to his daughter about the value of evidence in assessing what is true, and the false modes of truth such as tradition, holy books, and revelations. This works fine with the domain of science and I wished at this point that he had put in place the kind of demarcation between science and that which is simply not science that one finds in the works of Karl Popper. The "evidence" base upon which Dawkins bases his understanding of the world is really quite weak for any robust philosophy of science, as Popper explains:

I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appear to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred...The most characteristic element in this situation seemed to me the incessant stream of confirmations, of observations which "verified" the theories in question; and this point was constantly emphasize by their adherents. A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation - which revealed the class bias of the paper - and especially of course what the paper did not say. The Freudian analysts emphasized that their theories were constantly verified by their "clinical observations." (2)

Moreover the danger and the weakness of the evidential position is that it deals only with matters of fact and not with matters of value. As the philosopher Mary Midgeley has shown, making moral judgements, while sometimes being critical of moral traditions from which they came, requires those traditions which Dawkins would discard -- one cannot create morality from scratch. The notion that a mythological story or parable may also tell us something important about moral behaviour is also excluded by Dawkins' methodology and yet such stories shape our culture and understanding of the world as much as science. We are creatures whose understanding of life is bound in narrative as much as fact.

But science itself can become "scientism", a modern myth. As seen in the final section when Dawkins was responding to primary school children on matters of science, while some of his answers stressed the need for evidence, and gave the evidence, with others he was simply conveying information - which was good - but there wasn't time for "evidence" to the quick-fire questions, and I didn't see him give that much. [As an aside, it was wonderful to see how well he engaged with the children here, and in the playground later; he is a born and gifted educator.]

Yet science without the evidence base is in danger of itself becoming a kind of secular religious narrative, dispensing its own mythology of human beings as "selfish gene machines", or the brain as essentially some kind of computer, drawing upon metaphors from popular culture rather than "evidence".

Isaac Asimov's masterly Encyclopedia of Science avoids this by presenting science through the history of discoveries and problem solving, and much the same was done by Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield. Science programmes on BBC3, such as the ones on Chemistry, or Light, do this extremely well. But Horizon has degenerated into a vapid presentation of science which often lacks any evidence but covers up with glossy visuals. But far too much science in schools is compressed into mere facts devoid of the contexts of discovery.

One interesting point which emerged was that young children are prone to seek explanations in terms of purpose in nature and natural events. As Dawkins argued, this makes them ripe for believing that kind of explanation -- technically called "teological" - when it is presented to young minds by religions.

That is a good argument but it would be equally interesting to know why some people despite, like Dawkins himself, being conditioned at an early age, nevertheless discard this kind of explanation. Clearly whatever indoctrination is given in faith schools, it is far from perfect in ensuring that all the adults who have been through the process will believe, and it would be interesting to know the numbers involved.

I know that, for example, Christian converts at University to the kind of Christianity espoused by Evangelical Unions often "fall away" in large numbers much to the distress and discomfort of the organising body which has developed its own narrative for explaining and coming to terms with this phenomena. I am therefore not convinced that however receptive a child's mind may be that the Jesuit adage - "Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man." - is true. Yet Dawkins, without any evidence, appears to believe it's so.

Dawkins starts with the child and gives good evidence for how children's beliefs are shaped by projections of purpose in the natural world; he doesn't look at the adult sifting through those beliefs and discarding them. Perhaps that should form the subject of another programme - why do people not believe? I don't believe that "evidence" is the whole story, and that most people who have lost their childhood faith have rationally decided that it is false; people are more complex than that..

(1) "Bushes and Ladders," Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, Stephen Jay Gould
(2) "Conjectures and Refutations", Karl Popper

Referenced in the text:
"Can't We Make Moral Judgements" by Mary Midgeley
"The Architecture of Matter" - Toulmin and Goodfield
"The Fabric of the Heavens" - Toulmin and Goodfield
"The Discovery of Time" - Toulmin and Goodfield
On the way in which the Huxley / Wilberforce legend was created by Huxley.

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