Are religious schools bad for society?

Humanist Andrew Copson and feminist Catholic theologian Tina Beattie go head-to-head...


Religious schools select pupils on the basis of their parents’ religion, which entrenches religious (and in some cases ethno-religious) divisions in society, as well as perpetuating socio-economic inequality. This is bad for social cohesion.

Religious schools are also permitted to select their staff – both teaching and non-teaching – on grounds of their religion, which is unfair on potential applicants and also hampers the efficiency of the school as a school. Headteacher posts in religious schools are three times more likely to have to be re-advertised than those in community schools.

Schools should be places where minds are opened and children encounter ideas they may never come across in the home or elsewhere, so I also think that the fact that religious schools are permitted to give religious instruction is bad for society. When I have visited religious schools and seen lessons I have encountered some good practice in teaching which is very open; but I have also seen lessons which are, frankly, designed to transmit an uncritical acceptance of one particular worldview. I believe in the right of every child to grow up with access to a variety of perspectives so she can arrive at her own conclusions; so I think this is wrong.


There’s a difference between religious schools (which teach religion) and faith schools (which teach the national curriculum). I support state funding for the latter. Religious parents pay taxes and are entitled to a reasonable choice in education.

Where is the evidence that religious instruction is ‘bad for society’? Secular society must accommodate a genuine plurality of beliefs and values in education, while guarding against extremism. Your main concern seems to be about safeguarding freedom of choice by protecting children from religious faith. Education is not simply about the consumption of ideas. It is about guiding young people in their search for wisdom, and religious traditions are well resourced for that task.

We should not judge religions by their most bigoted adherents. Religions are not homogeneous. They have long histories of intellectual debate and considerable internal diversity. Good state-funded faith schools can discourage bigotry, but secularism also produces bigots. Read atheist bloggers for evidence of that.

This debate about faith schools is a distraction. The challenges confronting us – including economic crisis and social unrest – have nothing to do with religion. That might even be the problem!


"Schools should be places where children encounter ideas they may never come across in the home or elsewhere, so the fact that religious schools are permitted to give religious instruction is bad for society"

I don’t think the argument of parental choice stacks up – education is not analogous to baked beans in the supermarket, where one consumer’s choice has consequences only for their own consumption. Schools are social institutions.

Repeated studies from universities, think-tanks and others have shown that state – or publicly funded – religious schools perpetuate social inequalities; there has never been evidence to the contrary.

I certainly do not believe that children should be denied access to information about religions in their schools. As I said, I think a child should have ‘access to a variety of perspectives so she can arrive at her own conclusions’ – of course that includes religions as well as non-religious worldviews. Religious schools by their nature are disinclined to take such an approach – be they Christian state-funded schools or Muslim madrasas – and I see no reason to believe that religious traditions are any better resourced than others to guide children.

You mention the possibility that a lack of religion has fuelled social dysfunction but I see no evidence for that. Very Christian societies have generated highly consumerist cultures across the world and there is no evidence that more religious societies have fewer socio-economic problems. There is certainly no evidence at all that religious schools are more likely to produce engaged and community-minded citizens than community schools. That utilitarian argument for religious schools is bogus.


Philip Wolmuth /

In Christianity, Judaism and Islam, giving to the poor is a religious duty. Charitable giving (zakat) is one of the five pillars of Islam. Many surveys show that religious believers are more likely to give to charity. Organizations such as Amnesty International, the World Development Movement and Traidcraft were started by Christians. Islamic Relief works with other religious NGOs such as Cafod and Christian Aid. Aung Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama all started their education in faith schools.

Research shows that people who practise religion have higher levels of life satisfaction than those who don’t. Other research shows that religious people cope better in times of social stress and crisis.

If we are concerned about religious extremism, the answer is to enable religious people to rediscover the intellectual riches within their own traditions and to work together with those of different faiths. Good education is about the good life, the quest for wisdom, and the capacity to discriminate in the positive sense of the word. Properly qualified religious teachers who can communicate, inspire and challenge are vital to this task.

You would use education to make everybody conform to your secular liberal ideals. Just as in the past missionaries believed Christianity was best for the world, so today secular liberals have taken over that imperializing zeal. In his book Black Mass, John Gray shows how many of the utopian visions of the post-Enlightenment West have dissolved into terror and genocide. Secular Westerners should be more humble in the face of our own historic and ongoing social failures and the catastrophes that Europe’s various anti-religious ideologies have unleashed upon the world in the last century.


A utilitarian argument in favour of religious schools because they produced Aung Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama (whose parenting was from a humanist!) will not hold water. Religious schools also produced Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler and who is to say what is the most representative product?

Utilitarian arguments based on the claim that religion makes people happier, more mentally resilient and more likely to be engaged in community work are likewise dubious. Research that has examined the role of strong convictions and supportive communities has demonstrated that it is these factors – whether religious or non-religious – that generate mental resilience and personal wellbeing, rather than religion specifically.

In any case, doesn’t this type of argument assume that the purpose of religious schools is to make children religious – something you seemed to deny in your previous arguments?

There is no denying that many political movements with good intentions have spawned destruction, but so too have many religious ones – not least Christianity.

In any case, my argument remains that what is needed in education is not an ideology to dominate the ethos and learning of a school. I have no wish to use education as a means of making people conform to my ideals. My aim is for education to give reasonable freedom to young people in their personal and intellectual development, as well as the resources of knowledge and skills that they need to develop.

What we don’t need in education is for schools to see themselves as the transmitters of unquestioned and unquestionable precepts in place of intellectual freedom. Religious schools around the world are more likely to be led into that temptation than secular ones.


"Education is not simply about the consumption of ideas. It is about guiding young people in their search for wisdom, and religious traditions are well resourced for that task"

I agree that utilitarian arguments are not persuasive. This is about principles. We are debating in the context of an international magazine with readers from different cultural and religious contexts. In our globalized world, accommodating difference is not just a question of choice. It is learning to live with irreducible diversity in a way that requires a sustained endeavour to reason wisely and well in engagement with others about who we are and how we should live. The resources for this are found in many traditions, of which secular humanism is only one. It must take its place within and not over and above other traditions.

My defence of faith schools is not rooted in a belief that they are better than secular schools, but in the principle that no one worldview should be allowed to obliterate all others. Whether you admit it or not, yours is a worldview that is neither universal nor demonstrably better or worse than any other at fostering human happiness.

Good faith schools can teach students to think, to reason and to engage critically with a range of different ideas and beliefs, including their own. The answer is not to eliminate faith schools, but to ensure that both secular and faith schools have good resources, good teachers, a balanced curriculum, and a capacity to inspire love of learning, love of life, and respect for and responsibility to others in their students.

I’ve enjoyed this debate. My Catholic-educated adult children agree with you. Proves my point, doesn’t it?

Andrew Copson is chief executive of the British Humanist Association, a charity that represents the interests of ethically concerned non-religious people. He is a regular contributor to New Humanist magazine.

Tina Beattie is a feminist theologian and professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton, London. She has written several books and is now working on Nature, God and Gender After Postmodernity, to be published by Oxford University Press.