Is Richard Dawkins Starting a School for Young Atheists?

The British government has introduced plans to change how schools are run in the country:

Under plans disclosed by the Coalition [government] last week, parents, charities and voluntary groups will be able to set up “free schools” funded by public money but independent from state control.

According to New Humanist, “a worrying aspect of the… proposal… is that it is likely that many of the new schools will be faith schools, with greater freedom to set their own curricula than existing, non-academy faith schools.”

The upside is that they don’t have to be faith schools.

Richard Dawkins has made some news by suggesting that a school that’s “atheist” in nature be created. (For what it’s worth, he’s not planning on creating one.)

The headlines are misleading all over the place — they make it sound like Dawkins wants to indoctrinate young minds with atheism — but the quotations from Dawkins show that he doesn’t want that at all:

I would never want to indoctrinate children in atheism, any more than in religion. Instead, children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded.

“If children understand that beliefs should be substantiated with evidence, as opposed to tradition, authority, revelation or faith, they will automatically work out for themselves that they are atheists.

“I would also teach comparative religion, and teach it properly without any bias towards particular religions, and including historically important but dead religions, such as those of ancient Greece and the Norse gods, if only because these, like the Abrahamic scriptures, are important for understanding English literature and European history.”

In reply to another questioner, Prof Dawkins said: “The Bible should be taught, but emphatically not as reality. It is fiction, myth, poetry, anything but reality. As such it needs to be taught because it underlies so much of our literature and our culture.”

Ideally, that sounds great. But there’s no reason you need a separate school for teaching kids to ask good questions. Even Bible-as-literature and comparative religion classes are good ideas — if taught properly — but they should be electives which are offered in the current school system.

  • Sally

    Wall of text inc…

    This isn’t a new thing. They already have this system up and running, where existing schools can become “academies” to free themselves from government interference. They just want to expand this scheme so that anyone can set up a school.

    Unfortunately, 70% of the academies that currently exist are now failing, according to ofsted. The government seems determined to allow more religious groups to set up their indoctrination centers regardless of what is best for the children of this country, because it’s a way for them to part-privatise the education sector.

    “Even Bible-as-literature and comparative religion classes are good ideas — if taught properly — but they should be electives which are offered in the current school system.”

    Re: this point, religious education (RE) classes are mandatory for all pupils in state and private education between the ages of 11 and 16, where all *major* world religions are taught comparitively, and with little enthusiasm. There was a recent report which lamented the fact that RE is the only religious indoctri…education that children receive in state schools so fewer and fewer children leave school believing in Christianity. The CoE wants to push Christianity more, and have “specially trained” RE teachers installed in schools to make sure that children are properly bullied into believing in Jesus. So as it stands, all schools offer qualifications in RE, but very few children bother taking them. Eg, when I was at school, from age 15-16 I took the mandatory RE classes but chose not to bother doing the exam at the end of the course that would have gotten me a GCSE in it. Private schools offer more scripture based classes or classes based on their own religion, but in private schools they can teach what they like as long as they teach the minimum prescribed by the national curriculum. The comments he makes about teaching religion in current schools refers to private religious schools with which he would be competing.

    From the articles I’ve read, it seems that it was actually concerned mothers who were hopeful that Dawkins would set up a school under the scheme – as with the arrest the pope thing, it wasn’t he who suggested it.

  • Claudia

    Ideally, that sounds great. But there’s no reason you need a separate school for teaching kids to ask good questions.

    Absolutely, but I could see a role for a rationalist school or a Humanist school. Not as an exclusivist school to isolate the children of atheists from other children, but as a school welcoming of all children with strong academics. A school with a program designed by rationalists would likely have a very strong science program, for instance. Comparative religion would be a good idea and even better would be comparative mythology, with all mythologies, current and past, given the same treatment.

  • http://onestdv.blogspot.com OneSTDV

    aren’t all schools inherently atheistic?

  • Aj

    Comparative religion is compulsory in the UK with elective courses later on. It’s taught badly, with warped versions of religions. Nothing negative, all religions promote peace, goodness, rainbows and all that shit. You’d get the impression that all religions are basically the same, and there’s no theological splits or any kind conflict, there’s nothing silly or disgusting. It treats religion like Disney treats monarchy. All the humanities are ideologically driven as far as curriculum is concerned. It’s not surprising considering this is a country where biology teachers choose not to mention evolution in case a student is a creationist.

  • Trace

    “they make it sound like Dawkins wants to indoctrinate young minds with atheism”

    I thought that is what Porno Pete (sp?)thought you were doing in you class.

  • Dan W

    Sounds like the Brits have their own set of problems with their education system. Here in the U.S. we have fundies trying to push religion into science classrooms and they’re trying (particularly in Texas) to screw up how history is taught as well. I think the sort of school Dawkins is suggesting would be a worthwhile idea- much better than any of the private religious schools which are all over the place.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    Ideally, that sounds great. But there’s no reason you need a separate school for teaching kids to ask good questions. Even Bible-as-literature and comparative religion classes are good ideas — if taught properly — but they should be electives which are offered in the current school system.

    Why should they be elective only? As Dawkins points out, you need this knowledge to properly understand our society. Why would you allow people to withhold this information from children?

  • Daktar

    I’ve hated the idea of these free schools ever since I first heard about them. To my mind they’re just another way for the Tories to implement their horrible ‘big society’ ideology (i.e. take away funding from essential services and hope that someone charitable steps in to replace them). I heard one report about a woman who loved the free schools idea, since it would allowe her to open a school for whites only. Unfortunately for the racist concerned, that would most likely be prevented by our anti-discrimination laws, but why do I get the feeling that religion-based free schools will get a lot of leeway in this matter?

    As for Dawkins opening a competing school, I suppose you have to do the best you can with the system you have. But I’d much prefer it if he didn’t have to, and that the RDF could expend its energies on secularising our existing schools, many of which already have a pernicious link with a particular church, allowing the clergy in these churches a privileged connection to the education system.


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