On Wednesday Richard Dawkins, the world's most famous atheist, appeared on More4 to launch his latest attack on all things God-related by laying into faith schools and their supposedly menacing impact on our society and its children.
Watching this programme I got the impression that Dawkins is really getting himself into a tiz about nothing.
His main contentions seem to be that faith schools don't teach science, especially evolution, properly and that, where it is taught, it is supplanted by scriptural teachings, secondly he says faith schools promote and entrench division and thirdly that faith schools take away children's rights by "indoctrinating" them.
Now I happened to go to a faith school in the 90's and early 00's. It was a Catholic school, but despite this should I ever come face to face with the Dawkins inquisition I can safely say that "I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Catholic Church".
In my experience faith schools are nothing like the unscientific, sectarian hotbeds of indoctrination that Dawkins suggests.
At my school religious education was compulsory up to and including GCSE level, as were the three sciences. During those science lessons we were taught by some excellent teachers, one a good Catholic who managed to teach us physics and chemistry without resorting to the Book of Genesis and another who taught biology, including evolution by natural selection, with a passion that may rival Dawkins' own.
In our RE lessons we were never taught anything that contradicted what our science teachers had told us. I don't think I ever heard the word "creationism" and certainly not "intelligent design".
We learnt instead about Christianity and the practices and beliefs of other religions. At GCSE level we focused on the life of Jesus and the Christian response to many of the social issues of the day, such as divorce, abortion, euthanasia and nuclear weapons.
This was certainly not indoctrination. It was taught in a matter of fact way to a group of mature (and immature) teenagers. We were taught all the aspects of each issue, with both the pro and the anti arguments. We also learnt what the Catholic and CoE view on each issue was. Our Catholic RE teacher best summed this up with the phrase "If you enjoy it, Catholics believe it's a sin and the CoE says its sometimes a sin".
At no point where we told "you should believe this". We were not taught to revile homosexuals (we never even covered the subject), we were taught that Catholics regard having children as the core purpose of sex, hence the opposition to contraception and we were taught that Catholics believe life begins at conception, hence no to abortion, but we also learned that others believe that life begins after conception and that women have a right to choose.
Learning the point of view of the Catholic Church allowed me to have a greater understanding of people of a faith that I did and do not share and prevents me from extremist comments such as, for example, that the Pope should be arrested or that brining up children Catholic is more damaging to their psyche than raping them.
Dawkins also asserts that faith schools divide communities by segregating people of one faith away from those of other faiths or none. He even bizarrely suggests that the Troubles in Northern Ireland were the result of too many faith schools, shamelessly showing footage of sectarian riots earlier this year in a way that suggests "this is what you get when you have faith schools". If so quite why the rest of the United Kingdom has not gone up in flames fanned by the faith school menace I'm not sure - perhaps the Troubles had somewhat deeper roots. It rather reminded me of Michael Moore depicting Saddam Hussein's Iraq as a land of happy kite-flying children in Farenheit 9/11.
Dawkins makes these claims about faith schools dividing communities without producing a shred of evidence. He claims that in Northern Ireland children from Catholic and Protestant families rarely, if ever, even talk to each other. Now this may well be the case but there was no evidence of this in the programme, all he managed to prove is that Catholic and Protestant families like to send their children to schools which profess their respective faiths. Well that's a shocker.
From my own experience I can say that faith schools are not exclusive or divisive, I for one was not the only non-Catholic at my Catholic school, there were also students who attended black Pentecostal churches, a couple of Salvation Army and CoE teachers and even Muslim students and a teacher or two.
It is a common accusation that faith schools are divisive. In the programme Dawkins said there was the danger of a "them and us" mentality. If there was such a thing when I was at school, it came from the secular schools rather than our faith school.
Our head-teacher impressed into every student at assemblies (and we often mocked him for it) that we were "ambassadors for our school" and that we should be on our best behaviour while outside as well as inside the school gates.
There were, as far as I know, no cases of our students fighting with those from other schools because they denied the infallibility of the Pope, of our boys and girls going around saying all the non-Catholics are going to hell and so we should not associate with them. On the other hand I did have to put up with students from secular schools calling me a "Bible-basher" every now and then despite my being an agnostic for most of my Catholic school years. Who then was being divisive?
To strengthen his point about "indoctrination" and his fear that faith schools are getting children when they are young and "vulnerable", Dawkins teaches some children a simple clapping game.
The fact that they learn this quickly and pass it on to others and even start making their own adaptations is, he says, evidence that they will accept faith in just the same unthinking way if taught it when they are young. Of course all this assumes that faith in itself is a bad thing, the idea that it might be good is never examined.
This blind acceptance by children is quite true by and large but then what he seems to be forgetting is that children grow up. They may have accepted his clapping game blindly at the age of 5 or 10, but how many of them will still be playing it when they are 20 or 30. If faith schools were really as insidiously effective at indoctrination as Dawkins claims, we would be living in the most religious society on earth, yet his own programme shows that only seven per cent on British people attend church regularly.
Dawkins himself undermines his own argument by telling us of his own childhood in which he believed in God, presumably because someone told him God existed when he was young and vulnerable and he believed it. If this indoctrination is so strong, how could Dawkins shake himself free from this belief?
Dawkins' fellow prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens and his believer brother Peter Hitchens, were both brought up in an age when they were expected to grow up to become good Christian English gentlemen.
Both the Hitchens brothers rejected Christianity, despite what Dawkins would presumably call indoctrination, one remains an atheist, one changed his mind and went back to faith. They experienced both Christianity and atheism and made their choice.
By calling for the destruction of faith schools, Dawkins seems to be suggesting that we should remove that choice. He claims he wants to let children explore the world for themselves and come to their own conclusions, while at the same time saying they should be kept from the part of that world where people have a different view of faith to himself.
He also says that a child's right not to be indoctrinated should overrule the right of a parent to send their child to a school which teaches their faith. Oddly at the beginning of the programme he takes the exact opposite view complaining that because one third of schools are now faith schools its very tough for parents wanting a secular education for their child to find a non-faith school nearby. For secular parents it seems, their rights trump those of their children.
Dawkins is an articulate man and he is right that parents should not be forced to fake faith just to get their children into a good school. The fact that this happens should not be a reason to destroy faith schools, rather it should be a reason to improve the standards and if necessary the numbers of secular schools.
However what he seems reluctant to admit is that despite his claim to put rationality as one of man's highest qualities, he seems to show an irrational fear towards faith and those who believe in God. It would be much better if he concentrated his efforts on teaching science, which judging from some of the clips in this programme, he can do very well.