A programme called Faith School Menace? (More 4 Wednesday) and presented by Richard Dawkins, Britain’s most famous atheist, is perhaps doomed to lack surprise or mystique. Its conclusion is right there in the title. And yet, there are some startling moments in Dawkins’ film about the boom in faith-linked state schools in the UK – not least a scene where he stands in a pulpit and tells us that he loves to read the Bible. “You can’t appreciate Shakespeare unless you are steeped in the Bible.”
Dawkins believes that evensong, cricket, weddings, christenings – the patterns of life – need to be placed in the context of understanding Christianity, as well as the other major religions in modern Britain. “It may surprise you but I am in favour of religious literacy,” he said.
To declare an interest: I am an occasional churchgoer, and have two children at a C of E primary school. I was pleased that Dawkins, in his pulpit, touched on these deeper cultural reasons why many parents, agnostics and atheists included, like faith schools. Children who are kept away from Britain’s religious heritage risk missing out on a rich inheritance of art, law and literature too.
The former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion made this point last year, in a plea for modern secular Britain to embrace its past. We have thrown the cultural baby out with the religious bathwater, it seems.
It’s the irrational, non-evidence-based nature of religion that really upsets Dawkins. In faith schools, beliefs are presented as the truth to impressionable young minds. “I worry these parents are saddling their children with ways of thinking that are hard to shake off,” he said.
It was a shame that the only schools brave enough to give access to Dawkins were a Muslim secondary school in Leicester and a community (non-faith) primary school in Oxford. I wish others had engaged with the argument. It makes them look as though they have something to hide. Perhaps they do: I learnt from this programme that Ofsted does not inspect religious studies lessons in faith schools. Churches have their own inspectorates, and faith schools can set their own RE agenda.
In the beautiful new Muslim secondary school, articulate and clearly very smart girls said they didn’t believe in evolution. They learn it in National Curriculum science lessons but it clashes with the teaching of Islam. In a fascinating exchange, one girl asked Dawkins why, if we have evolved from apes, the apes still exist. Dawkins looked stunned. “Why are there still apes? We have not evolved from apes. We are apes. We have evolved from a shared ancestor.”
Here, in the state sector, Dawkins found pupils being guided “to reject evidence at the core of science and rational thought”. He wondered aloud why Muslims, like Christians, can’t learn to reconcile the facts of evolution with the tenets of faith. (Though let’s not forget that many creationist Christian families home-educate their children. Those kids don’t get near the National Curriculum.) It was a fascinating scene and we could have had a whole programme on teaching evolution.
In a perfect world, perhaps, all children would learn in secular state schools, and religion and its cultural hinterland would be taught like any other curriculum subject. Dawkins even suggested a simple way of achieving this – take the state cash away from schools that refuse to drop their faith affiliation and open their doors to all. The idea doesn’t seem likely to fly – many politicians choose faith schools for their own children.
Given an imperfect world, I’m very happy with our C of E school. It welcomes children of many faiths and none. There’s a proper Nativity play, an introduction to the ancient rhythms of the church year through shared worship – and the children sing hymns that have been loved for generations.
There was plenty of singing to be found on Sky 1’s new search for a singing star, Must be the Music (Sunday) – although a rock band with a Christian agenda (Early to the Vineyard) were notably the worst of the auditionees.
Must be the Music cannily began its run a week ahead of the leviathan that is the seventh series of The X Factor (on Saturday night on ITV1). Sky’s is a lower-budget, edgier, search for a star. It’s great and so are the judges. Chart-topping hip-hop star Dizzee Rascal leads the panel, and is complemented by Sharleen Spiteri (from the group Texas) and singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum. All three write and perform their own material and have sold tens of millions of records between them.
Already, I trust them to separate the talent from the chancers. (Spiteri, sternly, to Mantrixx, an “edgy boy band” who got the audience clapping but left the judges stony-faced: “You weren’t rehearsed enough.”) The only let-down is presenter Fearne Cotton, a nervy contrast to the cool confidence of the judges. It feels like a programme about the craft of being a singer – not a programme about finding a person to mould to pop industry specifications.
It seems amazing that Britain could throw up so many people who (think they) can sing but haven’t already done The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. Soon, we could be living in a world where the same ordinary people fail to become stars on different channels. On the same weekend. To avoid repetition, I am going to stick with Sky’s fresher take on the format. Dizzee gets my vote.
John Lloyd is on holiday