TOP Q: “Is It Unjust To Outlaw Schools, Even Private Religious Ones, From Teaching Religious Doctrines As Though True?”

Sweden is planning to make it illegal, even for private schools, to teach religious doctrines as true. Their content may be discussed, of course, but they will not be able to be presented as facts.

In The Guardian, Andrew Brown explains the issues involved and the ulterior motives which may really explain the legislation:

The Swedish government has announced plans to clamp down hard on religious education. It will soon become illegal even for private faith schoolsto teach religious doctrines as if they were true. In an interesting twist on the American experience, prayer will remain legal in schools – after all, it has no truth value. But everything that takes place on the curriculum’s time will have to be secular. “Pupils must be protected from every sort of fundamentalism,” said the minister for schools, Jan Björklund.

Creationism and ID are explicitly banned but so is proselytising even in religious education classes. The Qur’an may not be taught as if it is true even in Muslim independent schools, nor may the Bible in Christian schools. The decision looks like a really startling attack on the right of parents to have their children taught what they would like. Of course it does not go so far as the Dawkins policy of prohibiting parents from trying to pass on their doctrines even in their own families – and, if it did, it would certainly run foul of the European convention on human rights. It does not even go as far as Nyamko Sabuni, the minister for integration – herself born in Burundi – would like: she wanted to ban all religious schools altogether. But it is still a pretty drastic measure from an English perspective.

The law is being presented in Sweden as if it mostly concerned fundamentalist Christian sects in the backwoods; but the Christian Democratic party, which represents such people if anyone does, is perfectly happy with the new regulation. There is little doubt that combating Islamic fundamentalism is the underlying aim, especially in conjunction with another new requirement that all independent schools declare all their funding sources. This would allow the inspectors – whose budget is being doubled – to concentrate their efforts on those schools most likely to be paid to break the rules.

In the background to these announcements comes the release of a frightening documentary film on Swedish jihadis, which follows young men over a period of two years on their slow conversion to homicidal lunacy.

The question is whether we in Britain will come to see this as a necessary move in the struggle to contain Islamist ideologies. Can a defence of freedom convincingly be mounted by a state that takes such a firm view of what is or is not true? Or can freedom not be preserved without such measures?

So, today’s open philosophical question, “Is It Unjust To Outlaw Schools, Even Private Religious Ones, From Teaching Religious Doctrines As Though True?”

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • James Gray

    Although indoctrination is immoral, it should not be illegal. The first consideration is merely that it’s against our freedom of speech. However, here is an argument concerning this specific situation:

    1. We get to teach at least some things as “true.”
    2. It’s too hard for the government (and others) to know for sure what beliefs are legal to teach as “true.”
    2.1 It’s not obvious when a belief is religious or not. (e.g. Is teaching that killing people is wrong religious? A lot of people think so.)
    2.2 It’s not always obvious what things really are “true.” There’s a nonbeliever for just about every fact we can find.
    2.3 We should teach certain “truths” despite the occasional skeptic. (e.g. killing people is wrong.)
    3. If it’s too hard to know what beliefs can be taught as “true,” then the law is unjust.
    4. Therefore, the law is unjust.

  • Brian

    2. It’s too hard for the government (and others) to know for sure what beliefs are legal to teach as “true.”
    2.1 It’s not obvious when a belief is religious or not. (e.g. Is teaching that killing people is wrong religious? A lot of people think so.)

    It seems innocuous if every naturalistic belief can still be taught, and the teacher just has to justify how he or she knows that, and can’t say “religion” or lie.

    T: “It’s always wrong to kill someone.”
    S: “Why, teacher?”
    T: “The further societies get from that belief, the worse they are.”
    S: “Should I believe that?”
    T: “Yes.”
    S: “Is that the only reason you believe that?”
    T: “I also believe it because I am a Quaker.”
    S: “Should I be a Quaker too?”
    T: “Teachers can’t comment on that.”
    S: “Do Quakers believe that Jesus was resurrected?”
    T: “Yes.”
    S: “Should I believe that?”
    T: “Not because of me, because there is no non-religious evidence for it.”

  • Mary C. Young

    I think the answer to your question comes down to a few fundamental things. To what extent do parents have the right to decide what their children should be taught? And does the country in question have some sort of legislation which protects religious freedom?

    My answer to the first question is: a very, very large extent. Parents, no matter how ignorant or blind or stupid or doctrinal or whatever have a right to decide how their children are educated. In exchange for helping to perpetuate the human race, parents get to make fundamental choices in how they raise their children. If a parent wants to educate their child in a religious school, they should be allowed. Now, I don’t think that this is absolute – just extremely far reaching. If a parent wants to send their child to a school that teaches that the Holocaust never happened that is regrettable, but well within the rights of the parent. If the parent wants to teach their child to go to school and beat another child to death – that is aiding and abetting the commission of a crime and is manslaughter. I also feel that when a parent entrusts a child to a school, then they give up some of their rights as to what a child can be taught. So many parents, for example, complain that schools teach about condoms and stuff in schools and that they don’t want their children taught that. But if you want to benefit from free state education, you have to accept some of the things that will happen in public school. Similarly, if you don’t want someone teaching your child that Jesus is God, keep them out of Christian schools. Otherwise, though, I think the burden of proof should be on proving what situation is severe enough to remove a parent’s right to decide her child’s course of education and not in what situation the parent should be granted the right.

    Second, is that if your legislation or constitution protects religious freedom – as the First Amendment does in the United States – then the government should not outlaw the teaching of religious doctrines in religious schools. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Considering that practicing religion and perpetuating religion is incumbent upon educating people in religion, then it is a violation of the constitution to prevent people from teaching doctrine as truth in religious schools. If, however, the state in question doesn’t have any laws practicing the exercise of religion, then perhaps it is OK. But I think that most western countries recognize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of which Article 18 discusses the right to practice religion as being a fundamental human right.

    Schools based around schools of thought have existed since the ancient world and I don’t see how a government can justify removing a private school’s ability to perpetuate a viewpoint. So long as the students are taught the same basic skills in reading, science, writing, mathematics, etc. that are part of the national standard, there should be no reason to impose upon the curricula in those schools.

    This is also an impractical move. Perhaps there are no historians of religion in Sweden, but anyone with any knowledge of the history of religion should know that if there is one way to inspire growth in a religion it is to persecute it. Outlaw the teaching of doctrine in religious schools and the schools will teach it anyway. Except instead of it being the class that 90% of the students sleep through, it will be coercive and a martyristic (word?) practice of a fundamental human right. It will become scary and interesting, much like it was for the first students who were subversively taught evolution, and it will become more popular. This December the Westboro Baptist Church came to protest my Catholic high school for being filled with “fag lovers and pedophile priests.” When I went to school hearing “you’re a f**king fag” ten times a day was normal and hearing people talk about how “gay” it was that we had to go to mass and learn religion was common. But as soon as an outside source threw hate speech at the school and questioned the school’s ability to practice it’s Catholicism, suddenly all the students are “United Against Hate” and vehemently interested in the outward Catholicism of the school. The fervor will die as the memory of the visit from the Westboro Baptist Church dies, but it is one small instance of how persecution fuels participation. If you outlaw religious schools then students will meet in private. Parents will begin to home school but in reality they will send their children off to a religious institution. It is what my own parents would have done if the same situation happened in America and it is exactly what I would do with my own children.

    So if the goal is to stop the spread of radical Islam then I have a feeling it’s going to create more heroes and martyrs than apostates.

    Which leads to my question: when IS it right to limit someone’s human rights? If people have a right to think, feel and believe according to their own consciences, at what point are you allowed to curtail that? When is it moral to infringe upon that right? If the answer is, “I’m afraid of Muslims taking over” then I think you have to examine how committed you actually are to human rights. If you are only committed to human rights insofar as you’re not afraid of other people, then you aren’t committed at all. There are ways to stamp out the violent actions of radical Islam without stamping out people’s right to practice religion.

    Europe is becoming rapidly more secularized as the years go by which is curious because it has vastly growing fundamentalist Islamic sects growing within it. But a great social scientist (whose name I don’t know) showed that the religions which thrive the most are the ones which are the most counter-cultural and when you create a culture which makes religious people “other” and seem stupid or morally evil and uninformed, you open the door for zealous fundamentalist sects whose goal is to oppose the very culture you are trying to protect.

    There is a reason people preach tolerance and that is because when people feel free to be the people they want to be (obviously not absolutely but within reason), they don’t feel the need to attack other people for being who they are. I can see this in my own behavior. I think I am generally tolerant of other people and what they believe, but once I heard an uninformed Methodist unintelligently bashing Catholicism and I pounced on her. I normally feel no real call to Catholic apologetics but in that instance I did. Why? Because she made the space I was in uncomfortable for me to be who I am. It is human nature.

    So in conclusion my answer is that it is unjust to outlaw the teaching of religious doctrine in private religious school – unjust and an overall bad call.

  • Ben Finney

    Children have a right to get a proper education. That entails the right to be free from falsehoods presented as truth by figures in authority.

    Yes, that right definitely trumps the putative “right of parents to have their children taught what they like”. No, not if “what they like” is false.

    I don’t yet have an opinion on whether that right should be legislated.

  • Daniel Fincke

    It’s tough to use language of rights without using language of legislation though. Unless you just mean a “moral” right and not a “political right” or a “human right”. But when what we are morally due rises to the level of a “right” this usually means it is considered a “political right” or a “human right” which, as such, morally requires it be honored by legislation.

  • Jan

    “Right of parents to have their children taught what they like.” That could easily extend to things like “Danes are inferior”, “education is bad for you”, or “Russell’s teapot in space is real”.

    The real question is: why did it take so long for teaching beliefs as truths to be forbidden in schools?