I am an atheist, but as Damon Linker argued in The New Republic last year, atheism is divided in its attitudes towards religion. Linker’s article is a critique of the ‘ideological atheism’ of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, which believes religion is a dangerous superstition that must be stamped out. He quotes Dawkins describing Catholic education as child abuse, and Harris wanting ‘public schools [to] “announce the death of God” to their students’.
Linker prefers, as I do, ‘liberal atheism’, which is to:
…accept, … that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way–that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not.
Ideological atheists would take the side of two critics of church schools quoted in today’s Age. In a feature article, psychologist Louise Samway as reported as saying of Christian schools:
these schools are balkanising the community, “driving us apart”. “Values are the foundation of human bonding,” the psychologist and educationist told The Age. “If we don’t have agreed values that everyone can understand and respect, that are common, it leads to a whole lot of disparate sub-groups that are suspicious of each other.”
These people often form a narrowly focused school that is aimed at cementing the faith it’s based on … If we continue as we are, I think we’ll just become more and more isolated sub-groups in our community,”
As I argued in the schools debate with Andrew Leigh last year, public schooling is an illiberal institution, always intended by some to suppress diversty in the name of ‘social cohesion’. This is the point at which right illiberalism (against migrant groups who allegedly don’t fit in) and left illiberalism (against people with contrary views) meets.
The social cohesion argument is both philosophically objectionable and empirically unsound. As Linker suggests, there are many possible worthwhile ways of living. I hardly think that Barry McGaw or Louise Samway (who is she, anyway?) are likely to succeed where thousands of earlier prophets and philosophers have failed: to find the one true set of beliefs with which we must all be indoctrinated.
As John Locke convincingly argued more than three hundred years ago, not only is the project of creating common belief futile, it creates the conflict it intends to resolve. And this is as true today as it was in the seventeenth century, except now the religious believers are quietly getting on with their lives while the public school lobby stirs up conflict by attacking them. The ‘social cohesion’ argument is a euphemism for intolerance.
Empirically, neither of the Age articles provide any evidence that religious groups are undermining social cohesion, other than by inspiring anti-religious sentiment in McGaw and Samway. Nothing on their atittudes; in my research on this people who have been to private schools do not differ significantly in their beliefs from people who went to government schools.
Nor is there anything on the social behaviour of religious believers. In my own experience growing up in an obscure corner of Christianity, and having been friends with religious believers from a wide variety of faiths, religion is not a significant social divider. In the West, we long ago learned tolerance, and in the last couple of generations have moved to a high degree of mutual acceptance.
We need more research on both these subjects, certainly much more than the hunches of McGaw and Samway. But there are no obvious causes for concern, and no basis at all for suggesting the state act against religious believers who want to set up their own schools. Liberal atheists should of course continue to explain their case and argue against wacky ideas like creationism. But these should be exercises in persuasion, not coercion.
I was totally against a national curriculum anyway, but McGaw’s statements reinforce my objections. Intolerance by a national government is worse than intolerance by a state government.