‘Social cohesion’, a euphemism for intolerance

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.”

More importantly, Barry McGaw, head of the new National Curriculum Board, is quoted in a news article as saying:

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.

43 thoughts on “‘Social cohesion’, a euphemism for intolerance

  1. One of the arguments I tried to place in an oped page before the last election was that wall-to-wall ALP governments would leave religious schools without any friends in government – indeed their enemies would be in government. Yet, at the time nobody was interested. This is an interesting sleeper debate…


  2. Yeah, I am very suspicious of arguments about “social cohesion” – except that surely it is devotees of organised religion, not their critics, who are in favour of that sort of conformity.

    And I really cannot see how, if you believe that religion is factually wrong, you can see organised religion as other systematically propagating error in pursuit of preserving the power and social position of the organisers. Tolerating error is one thing, tolerating brainwashing of children into it another.


  3. Kids are going to be brainwashed more by their parents than their teachers. So maybe we should consider taking them away from parents with unsuitable beliefs. Oh wait …


  4. DD – But of course the people propagating ‘error’ think that they are propagating truth, and think I am the one propagating error. Mutual tolerance is far more sensible than using force against each other.

    Though I was once a militant atheist, though never one who would set the state onto believers, I can now recognise the personal benefits people’s faith brings them and some social utility as well, through higher volunteering etc. (And providing alternatives to public education.) Whether or not their motivating force exists outside their own minds doesn’t seem to matter a lot in these circumstances.


  5. Surely the kind of common beliefs that we need are principles that permit people with different beliefs to get along side by side. They are “framework” principles that don’t specify any particular end or purpose in life, they are like traffic laws that permit the traffic to flow with most people driving most of the time on the correct side of the road (the left side of course, in case you were wondering). They tend to specify limits rather than ends, limits of the extent to which we are entitled to interfere with other people. The most obvious are limits on the use of violence and fraud but there are many others including norms of tolerance, civility and honesty. Some have elements of direction, like norms of self-sufficiency and community service, but they are not coercive, divisive or exclusive.


  6. I think there is an argument for social cohesion – it doesn’t involve subjecting anyone to any ideology. It is simply that there is a benefit in bringing people together to share experiences and to get to know each other.

    Being together means more chance of friendships formed across wealth/class/religious boundaries. More knowledge, more empathy.

    On the other hand you can have Northern Ireland – Catholic kids in Catholic schools. No mixing. I think Barry McGaw could be right if the Christians are at their schools and the Muslims at theirs, rich here, poor there ….
    And I’m still waiting for the Marist Brothers to say SORRY to me!


  7. Andrew, you seem be advocating moral relativism. I believe that promoting hatred or intolerance based on race, gender, religion or sexuality is universally wrong. Does this make me illiberal and intolerant? If so, mark me down as proud to be so.

    If schools are promoting hatred or intolerance, surely it is a valid question whether they should be receiving taxpayer funds. Do you draw the line anywhere? Should a taxpayer funded Christian school be able to teach hatred of gays? Should a taxpayer funded Muslim school be able to teach that non-Muslims are inferior and that their deaths are to be celebrated? Should a taxpayer funded school be able to teach that girls roll in society is strictly to be obedient to her superior menfolk, including her sacred roll of reproducing with “His Grand Holiness”?

    I suggest that even you probably draw the line at some point, in which case, the only disagreement is where that line should be drawn.

    In regards to the research on social values and type of schooling, it seems likely that most of the private school students included in the survey are from traditional (Anglican, Catholic, Jewish) religious education systems rather than the less mainstream schools set up during the Howard years (where few students will have graduated). I think it is likely that asking only graduates from Exclusive Brethren schools would yield a rather different set of values.


  8. Like Tom I am proud of my intolerance towards evil. I’d also like to point out it is rather hard to indoctrinate a person in atheism- there is just one point! What schools need to teach is how, not what to think, a distinction you failed to grasp. You know the scientific method, logic and reasoning, etc.

    Social cohesion is important. People need to be able to get along, but they never show sacrifice for it by overlooking some evil. Without social cohesion, society simply doesn’t exist. Try visiting a country where people band into groups and fight between each other. Or you could turn the channel to Kenya.

    Religion doesn’t make people volunteer more. The motivation exists in their own minds. The reason I’m an antitheist is because 1) it is wrong and 2) it is harmful. You should be too.


  9. Tom F – This runs into the same problem as the laws against ‘hate speech’ and inciting terrorism. I only draw the line where there is some plausible case that a violent crime against persons or property is likely to occur as a result, not when some person or group might feel offended.

    There has been a rather hysterical reaction among the intellectual classes about ‘less mainstream’ Christianity, but little evidence that it is harmful. After all the Family First fuss, Steve Fielding is boringly middle–of-the-road and could blend into either the Liberals or Labor without much difficulty. Nor is there any evidence that they are stirring up hatred against gays. And if you can find a Muslim school that is teaching their kids that the deaths of non-Muslims should be celebrated, please tell us about it.


  10. Is the creation of shared beliefs always futile? What about supporting multiculturalism? Isn’t this a created and shared belief, if somewhat underinvested in for the past 11 years. This belief promotes liberal acceptance of difference as a type of social cohesion.


  11. Andrew has a highly academic argument (quoting Locke??). He ignores a considerable body of history (I consider this “empirical evidence”) that points to exactly the type of intolerance, carried out by religious adherents, he accuses the critics of Christian, or indeed any faith based school of encouraging. Religion is at its core an in-group/out-group phenomenon, given free access to taxpayer funds and the ears of our lawmakers where does Andrew think it would take us?BTW the Dawkins quote is one line in a rather large book, some of it written with an element of wit.




  12. Kymbos, the investment in multiculturalism was in fact divisive and yielded the reverse of the results that were intended.
    Patrick, what if you back off the hyperbole, leave out the long history of religious wars and treat religious groups with the same skeptical attitude that you probably adopt towards all the other interest groups that line up for public funds (actually your money and mine) and their attempts to exert political influence.


  13. Patrick – But of course Locke’s work was anything but ‘academic’ in the way you mean the term – 17th century English politics was consumed by religious conflict, and indeed Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration was written while he was in exile in the Netherlands due to this conflict. The key to dealing with it is not common belief, which as Locke says is very unlikely, but common rules for mutual toleration. All groups should be free to criticise each other, but must also let other groups live the way they choose. So we should, for example, both ignore Fred Nile’s complaints about the gay and lesbian mardi gras this weekend, and desist from trying to stamp out religious schools.


  14. Rafe, do you have any evidence of your claim that multiculturalism was divisive and yielded the reverse of the results intended?


  15. This distinction between ideological atheism and liberal atheism is contrived. It’s possible to think that religion is a bad thing for society but be against trying to stamp it out (because that would be worse).


  16. Great post Andrew. Have been knocking my head against the ‘ideological atheists’ for some time as a ‘liberal atheist’, forced into the irritating role of apologist by the very intractability laid at the feet of religious practitioners. I find these distinctions very useful.


  17. I’d be interested in some analysis of that too Rafe. I’m not sure if the emphasis on multiculturalism was positive, but I’m not sure it was negative — its very difficult to evaluate. There are obviously good and bad aspects of it. It also certainly isn’t the case that simpy pretending ethnic differences don’t exist is a good thing (as is done in some places in Europe). Personally, I think if people want multiculturalism in all its forms, the government really should give up on any pretense of political correctness and be willing to admit the negatives of some aspects of it and try and fix these, even if it costs.


  18. Sinclair Davidson

    You might surprised at the number of Labor MPs who send their children to religious private schools. Both Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd’s children attended/attend Anglican private schools, as did/do Peter Garrett and a whole host I could name just off the top of my head.

    derrida derider

    I share your suspicion of those who demand universal agreement on “shared values.” The psychologist/educator quoted above is actually advocating against multiculturalism when she says

    “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.”


  19. Patrick

    I am not a believer, but in my time have encountered too many people to count who have attended Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish schools. Combined with studying the religions themselves merely confirms that they in no way encourage “in/out” division. After all, the KEY innovation to the human social psyche of Xianity was universalism.


  20. Sinclair

    Both. His daughters attended Australia’s poshest Old Money private Anglican ladies boarding school. Frensham. he, himself, attended the North Shore Anglican Barker College. The current Victorian Premier attened the elite Anglican Melbourne Grammar. The list goes on and on.


  21. When it comes to questions of religion, and “social cohension”, i take Thomas Jefferson’s view:

    “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”


  22. Andrew, do you believe that gays should be forced by the state to fund the preaching of hatred and intolerance towards gays?

    You were mildly supportive of the citizenship test. Migrants should be required to take a test on “Australian values”, but then can send their children to taxpayer funded schools where directly contradicting values are taught?

    I do believe that some level of shared values are needed in a democracy. Imagine, if after 9/11, ten percent of the American (or Australian) population had held a week long celebration on the streets. Do you think such a society could survive long term as a liberal democracy?

    Andrew said “And if you can find a Muslim school that is teaching their kids that the deaths of non-Muslims should be celebrated, please tell us about it.”
    It was clearly a hypothetical. It is hypothetical because such a scenario would result in the loss of the taxpayer funding (at the least), which brings us to the worst problem with the current system. It is acceptable (and taxpayer funded) to teach hatred towards a minority but not the majority. Call me an idealist, but I believe that in a democracy, individuals should have the same treatment and protection from the state, regardless of whether they are in a minority or majority. By giving protection to non-Muslims while not giving the same protection to gays, the state is committing an act of hatred and discrimination.

    How about this? If you can get the government to guarantee that taxpayer funding of a Muslim school would not be stopped if that school started teaching extreme hatred of non-Muslims, I will accept that schools can teach hatred of gays. In other words, I want equality under the law for all. Reasonable?


  23. The reason I ask that Jage is that in places like Australia, most of the racial problems are basically caused by ignorance — the most racist places are generally those furthest away from any immigrant populations (think central Queensland). Given that one of the ideas of multiculturalism is to get around ignorance, thats surely beneficial. In addition, that people can mix with each other also allows problems to be solved. If I compare this to where I have worked in France, where no multicultural style policy exists, and communities are essentially separate in some places, the outcomes in Australia are far better.
    The other thing you might want to consider is the money effect. If it wasn’t for people coming from all over the Earth to Australia, we wouldn’t have enough doctors, engineers, dentists etc., so whether you happen to like it not, you need some strategy of dealing with different ethnic groups — most of whom have done nothing but enrich Australia.


  24. What Spiros said at # 16. But without suggesting that religion is prima facie a bad thing. The kind of non-dogmatic, ethics and community service oriented religion that is served up in some schools (or at least one CofE school at I attended) is ok I think:)

    Conrad, the debate about selective funding of multicultural activities is quite separate from other things like immigration and the value of enriching society by imports of people and ideas from other places. What sort of strategy for dealing with different groups is public funding (for political purposes) to emphasise their differences?


  25. Harking back to Andrew’s first para, if we are going to teach the death of god in public schools we had better teach the death of socialism as well!


  26. Tom – These schools are not fully funded by the state, so it is hard to say that taxpayers are paying for any religious instruction. Indeed, they mostly teach much the same curriculum as other schools. And we have not established that hatred of gays is on the curriculum in any school, much less that it is an expense for taxpayers.

    I’m sure most gay people can cope with the idea that not everyone finds homosexual activity appealing, just as evangelical Protestants manage to cope with the fear and loathing they inspire (encouraged by the man in change of the national curriculum, not just an obscure Christian school).

    If find it very odd that so late in the era of tolerance people can get so worked up by diversity of faith and opinion.


  27. You might surprised at the number of Labor MPs who send their children to religious private schools. Both Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd’s children attended/attend Anglican private schools, as did/do Peter Garrett and a whole host I could name just off the top of my head.

    All those MPs are public Christians – so no, it’s not in the least surprising. In fact, those are among the Labor people most public about their faiths.


  28. Rafe,

    I don’t think multiculturalism is separate from immigration etc. I think that if you are going to import a whole bunch of people with different needs and ideals, some of which are culturally linked, then you need provide some sort of infrastructure for them. Some form of education for the general public is also not a bad thing, otherwise you end up with central Queensland. I might note that some of this is already done with blanket legislation via tax breaks and so on for non-profit organizations. However, it isn’t hard to think of specific needs that specific groups have that are linked to ethnicity, and I’m not sure that these should always be ignored. In addition, if the majority population wants to persecute the minority brought in for ethnic reasons (just look at this thread — the first thing some people can think of with Muslim schools is teaching hate), then there is probably some need for education, otherwise you end up with France (“there are no problems because we don’t the recognize the distiction”).


  29. I’d like to add to Spiros’ comment at #16. It is possible to think that religion is, on balance, a good thing for society and still be an atheist. In contrast though it is a very useful distinction, ideological atheists and liberal atheists.


  30. Just rediscovered a heavy reference to back up the idea of a common framework within which people can go their different ways in harmony. It is John Gray’s book “Two Faces of Liberalism” (2000). I thought he went a bit mad when he gave up classical liberalism and at first sight this reads like a defence of relativism but it is a rejoinder to people who want a kind of coercive cohesion. A similar idea is dropped in Hayek “Why I am not a conservative’. Gray’s term is “modus vivendi’.

    “Modus vivendi expresses the belief that there are many forms of life in which humans can thrive. Among these ther are some whose worth cannot be compared. Where such ways of life are rivals, this is no one of them that is best. People who belong to different ways of life need have no disagreement. The aim of modus vivendi cannot be to still the conflict of values. It is to reconcile individuals and ways of life honouring conflicting values to a life in common. We do not need common values in order to live together in peace. We need common institutions in which many forms of life can coexist.”

    Conrad, as soon as you start spending public funds on particular groups that are identified by race, colour or ethnicity you are on a slippery slide to a very divisive situation.


  31. Rafe,

    I’ve no doubt its a tricky questions, but we already do this — its just where the division lies. Uncontroversial examples include, for example, educating doctors/high risk groups about identifying various disorders that occur in some populations and not others (or are you saying the government shouldn’t have targetted, say, gay groups with the AIDS campagin, young white males for stupid car driving, or doctors for symptom X that occurs mainly in ethnic group Y) . In addition, I think there is a division between spending money on educating groups about other’s beliefs versus giving groups money for certain activities of which they are the main and esssentially only beneficiaries (which we also already do).


  32. conrad

    You are conflating multiculturalism and a multi racial/ethnic immigration policy. France’s probelms are caused by a number of things, most of which are peculiar to the particular ethno-religious group that makes up close to ten percent of the population.

    The US does not have multiculti and it is the most successful example of multi ethnic/racial immigration policies.


  33. Jage, I don’t think they are seperable. Once you have multi ethnic/racial societies, you need to think about what to do and what produces the best outcomes (potentially nothing — but in Australia’s case, which does have good outcomes, multiculturalism). In addition, I have no idea why you think the US doesn’t have multicultural policies (what about affirmative action, for example? — you should try filling in US bureacratic forms), and I’ve no idea why you think poor ethnic./racial groups having difficulties is peculiar to France — have you not heard of aboriginals in Australia, blacks in the US, Bangladeshis in the UK, Turks in Germany and so on?


  34. Leon

    Ah, they are supoosed to be public socialists first, not elitist carpetbaggers who insist on depriving the lower orders of choice in education, even though they themselves would rather catch public transport than subject their own children to the public comprehensive schools they run.

    Keating a public Anglican?


  35. Last time I took the census, HUMANISM was given as an example of a religion. What Louise Samway and Barry McGaw really mean is that only their religion -secular evolutionary humanism-is acceptable. So it looks like people all over the world can call off the search for the meaning of life… we needed only to ask a leftist government bureaucrat to enlighten us with their “agreed values.” Looks like the labor party have picked up more from China than just Rudd’s Mandarin.


  36. Andrew Norton says:

    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.

    My observation is that graduates of private religious schools, be they ever so humble, are more likely to promote the accumulation of social capital ie be joiners than others. Private religious schools promote social cohesion much more than public irreligious schools.

    Students who emerge from such an environment will tend to be more prone to participate in team sports, voluntarism, enlist in the services and all the other daggy patriotic stuff that is considered old-hat by cosmopolitan po-mo liberals. That is because they emphasize school spirit, teamwork, uniformity & “not letting the side down”.

    I have no evidence to support this apart from anecdote. (The situation of public schools in country areas is obviously different.) Evidence anyone?

    Social cohesion generates a public good – trust – which promotes social efficiency. It is a good that liberals have always had a hard time getting their head around owing to the historic contentions b/w modernist liberalism and the traditional social coherers: Church, State & Family. (AKA God, King & Country).

    You cant blame Locke & Hume for being a bit suspicious of over-mighty subjects, zealous priests and the like. What with civil wars & sectarianism. (Hobbes was suspicious of liberalisms anarchic tendencies which makes him more apt these days.)

    But there is no excuse for this these days in our parish. Big Brother and Papism are distant memories.

    Modernist liberals, although uneasy about the Church, understood that the only way that the self-seeking appetites unleashed by catallactic capitalism and democratic statism could be curbed was by encouraging public “civilism”.

    The most obvious creator & conduit of such an attitude are religious schools. THey accumulate social capital, having an eye on eternity and long run returns. The more sensible liberals, such as Burke, Smith & Hayek, always knew that religiously inspired empathy for others undergirds the Open Society.

    Post-modern liberalism is a totally self-centred (where “selves” often have an economic or ethnic identity) philosophy. It creates moral disaster zones wherever it is taken seriously (Masters of the Universe, home boyz in the hood).


  37. Jack – The 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes found that people who had been to non-government schools were about 50% more likely to be active members of voluntary associations than those who had been to government schools. It’s hard to know what role the school plays in this; being religious and being educated are also positively correlated with volunteering.

    The public school lobby may well concede this point, but argue that private school graduates are weak on ‘bridging’ social capital, ie between groups (this is a claim made in Bonnor and Caro’s The Stupid Country). The volunteering may be for in-groups such as church bodies. But the public school lobby have no evidence for this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s