Sometimes in politics a line is crossed in a way that is particularly chilling. The announcement that Education Secretary Michael Gove has allowed advocates of creationism to set up three free schools is one of those moments. Not that it should come as any surprise – the seeds of this particular development were sown when Tony Blair as Prime Minister famously failed to condemn the teaching of creationism, and in New Labour’s adoption of the principle of academies, dealing state comprehensive education what looks increasingly like a fatal blow.
As the Guardian report I’ve linked to above is at pains to point out, creationism cannot be taught in science lessons. But, honestly, who really believes that this is a safeguard? Does anyone really believe that teaching it in religious education lessons instead will mean that children will place it in that context. Having myself been educated in an Anglo-Catholic prep school suffused with ideal of hot sweet piety (by a school chaplain who is now serving a prison sentence for interfering with his charges) I find it hard to believe that such boundaries will be observed. After all, why do creationist groups go into the provision of schools?
Why does this matter? It is because the apparent tolerance of creationsm – because it is a belief system held by some people who have wealth and power - as a potential alternative to evolution, which has more than a century of rational underpinning and scientific method behind it, is antithetic to the very idea of education. If the purpose of education is to allow people to grow up as informed, critical thinkers, then this can only be a deeply retrograde move. And it is so obviously one that reflects political power – evangelical Christianity good, mudassars bad. Would free schools run by homeopaths, scientologists and eugenecists (to pick three random forms of intellectual twaddle) be given anything like the same sort of free run as evangelical Christian schools? Do we believe that climate change deniers should be given the right to use schools to preach their anti-science (provided of course that they only do it outside formal “science” lessons)? But, despite their well-funded lobbying, they do not exercise the emotional power of organised religion.
But, leaving aside for a moment this debasing of intellectual standards, there is I think a deeper issue, one which is all of a piece with the way in which our political discourse generally is increasingly detached from a rational base. Why – leaving aside issues of cultural dominance – are Christians given a free run? Why do we accord religious convictions a special status?
There are some serious issues about freedom and society here. I am certainly not going to argue that those with religious belief should not be allowed to practice those beliefs – but there is obviously a real issue when those beliefs influence wider society. Look at the good old Anglican church – where a liberal wing that is accepting of sexual diversity is locked in a permanent battle with an evangelical wing whose homophobia exhibits a hatred that we in a secular society find difficult to comprehend. Ultimately this is a debate about faith and the revealed word of God through prayer and that personal relationship with the divine that suffuses religioius faith, and the unfounded dogma that the much-translated Bible is the definitive word of God. These are private things, and – to use the Popperian phrase – unfalsifiable things. Resort to these things and you have destroyed public discourse.
Related to this is the cult of sincerity. Mainstream media tend to use phrases like “deeply-held” as a term of honour; there is a cult of emotionalism which seems to confer legitimacy on solipsism. A functioning society has to be empathetic; it has to respect diversity and recognise that people have differing beliefs, but a civil society has to distinguish between private and public and needs to find a common language in which to express that distinction. In Western society, evidence and rationalism largely provide that language and allow us to find a balance between private and public.
But we are living through what looks like a time when rationalism has been abandoned in public discourse – instead we are living in a time of narratives, with the neoliberal myth as the most potent irrationalism of all. We see speeches by Cameron – on welfare, for example, or immigration – in which a shallow emotionalism is substituted for a consideration of evidence; the discipline of evidence is disappearing and, with it, empathy disappears too. There is no more telling example of this than the way in which the Con Dems have demonised the disabled and others on benefits. The attack on empathy may have started with Margaret Thatcher, but she was a rank amateur compared with the unholy trinity of Cameron, Clegg and Murdoch, or the lies and evasions of Tony Blair. Ultimately, the priest undermining the self-worth of the vulnerable girl discovering her sexuality is no different from the DWP spin doctor anonymously spreading lies about disability benefit fraud – both are indulging a politics of hate. Emotionalism and the denigration of empathy; in extreme circumstances the building blocks of totalitarianism, and if Britain remains for the most part an open and secular society it is because we continue to resist those things.
And this is why the admission of creationists into the academy is so dangerous. Schools are public places, where we learn to develop the language and boundaries that make a society possible. By placing education into the hands of people whose methods - indeed whose specific aim – is to replace discourse with faith, we are flirting with the destruction of the open society. There is no place for the priest in the classroom.