4 min read

There’s a blindingly obvious way to teach religious tolerance

George Pitcher disagrees with the media’s approval of a school ban on religious observance.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

school pupils sit at desk, some with a hand raised.
Michaela School pupils in class.

The decision by “Britain’s strictest school”, the Michaela Community School in north-west London, to ban religious observance after a Muslim majority among the children started prayer rituals, which led to some bullying and violence (and indeed a lawsuit), has met with almost universal media approval across the political spectrum. 

Nick Timothy, a columnist on the Daily Telegraph and a former spin-doctor for Theresa May as prime minister, predictably used it as a dread warning against an Islamic threat under the headline: “Multiculturism is becoming a Trojan horse for Islamist domination.” 

In what some might term as the sensible middle-ground of the Sunday Times, Camilla Long weighed in with an attack on Muslim cultural observance and then posed the extraordinarily illiberal question: “Wouldn’t it be better if we banished faith in schools altogether?” On the left, Polly Toynbee in the Guardian agreed, concluding that it’s “time to abolish religious schools.” 

This seems to be the kind of old-school management that said that if you can’t play together nicely, there will be no playtime for anyone. 

There’s something cultic about the free school Michaela and its headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh. The right-wing love it for its Gradgrind strict disciplines and consequently high academic results. The left are said to hate it for much the same reasons. And almost universally Ms Birbalsingh is treated as an educational demi-god. 

Allow me to demur. The first thing I want to say is something I think is blindingly obvious: You don’t teach children religious tolerance by being religiously intolerant. I don’t usually like to have to coin a truism, but there we are.  

The desire to ban is an unfortunate tendency in Birbalsingh. I understand why she might want to ban knives or drugs or porn in her school, as would all schools, but religious observance? This seems to be the kind of old-school management that said that if you can’t play together nicely, there will be no playtime for anyone.  

Transposed into the religious context, that becomes: “If you can’t pray together nicely, there will be no prayers.” This grows into an extreme form of secularism, which pretends that there is no religion in the world, when we know that in fact it’s full of religious people. That doesn’t seem to be a good education for our young, if good education is meant to prepare them for the world, which I posit that it does. 

I’m with our late Queen Elizabeth on this and, in particular, the profound generosity of her Christian faith. 

The next thing I want to say is that it’s incumbent on a decent school to teach that the three Abramic faiths – in order of their emergence, Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are in their authentic forms religions of peace.  

Anyone who claims that Islam’s holy book, the Koran, is intrinsically violent clearly hasn’t read the  the Bible or the Torah. But, in all three instances, human violence and oppression are met with the redemption of an all-loving God.  

It follows that the Michaela can and should ban bullying and intimidation, but not the authentic cultural practices of these religions. It might, naturally, simply be easier to ban the lot and be done with it, but nobody has said that running a school is meant to be easy. 

In my own experience as a parish priest, visiting a Church of England primary school (the sort that Toynbee, as a good liberal, would ban) for assemblies, is that tolerance and diversity are best taught naturally by practice.  

At prayer time, I was gently reminded by the headteacher that I shouldn’t invite the children to pray with words such as “hands together” as that’s not how all families pray (if they pray at all). Better to say: “Let’s get ready to pray, however we do that.” Tolerance in action. 

Finally, off the back of talking about a Christian school in a nominally Christian state, I’d like to conclude with how a Christian school (clearly not Birbalsingh’s) should behave. Clearly, evangelising in a multicultural institution is inappropriate. What we should aspire to is pluralism. 

I’m with our late Queen Elizabeth on this and, in particular, the profound generosity of her Christian faith. She delivered a speech at Lambeth Palace to mark her Diamond Jubilee in 2012. She started by saying: “The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.” 

She went on to say: “Gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely.” It seems to me that this should be an aspiration that is taught in our schools. Not just the Christian ones, but all of them.  

It invites children of other faiths and of no faith to respond accordingly. It seems to be at the heart of an education that teaches how the world actually is, rather than how we fantasise it to be.   

And it provides a considerably more valuable lesson for children than the instinct of Ms Birbalsingh and her media cheerleaders to ban things.  

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?