New Internationalist

Are religious schools bad for society?

November 2011

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

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.


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 /
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.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 446 This feature was published in the November 2011 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Sarah Bowles 11 Oct 11

    My concern here is that in faith schools, when recruiting, there is not the obligation to equality, which state schools must adhere to. This means that a potential applicant can be rejected if they do not fit in with the ethos of the school. For example, a Catholic school COULD reject an outstanding teacher on grounds of sexuality. I feel that this could lead to a narrow sphere of adult influence within a school and entrench prejudicial attitudes in society.

  2. #2 oiseau 14 Oct 11

    How much more evidence of child sex abuse - and the covering up of such cases - in religious educational establishments do we need before society in general can wake up to a fact that is patently obvious to survivors? Religion and education is not a healthy combination.
    Let the religious be religious - but please, don't grant them privileged access to children!

  3. #3 Peter Dale 17 Oct 11

    I am a long time appreciative reader of NI but I am also a christian and I expect that there are many other christians that are appreciative readers of NI. However, at times I do feel our world and life view is marginalized and not brought into the debate. We need to remind ourselves that education is a highly ’religious activity’. The currioulum taught in all achools is shaped by a particular world and life view. Humanisn is not neutral and therefore unbiased. Humanism in its various shapes has many very strong beliefs about how life is to lived in our society. Responsible thinking parents want to share their ’faith and hope’ with their children. However, all religious schools don't brainwash children into believing a rigid set of beliefs. The schools that we chose to send our children to opened up to them the call of the gospel to move toward a new world, a world of love and justice and peace. It was up to them to decide where they would go with that message of hope.

  4. #4 Haroon Suhail 18 Oct 11

    i am a Christian living in a muslim country when i see people like Andrew arguing about faith and education i would like him to come visit our country try to live with us you wont be able to talk aobut your so called humanist thinking openly. you Sir are bused and have no ethics for respecting our religion you are just merely a person who need publicity. in my country you would not survive spreading these views now look at from my point of view we live in oppression, our religious school are some times torched our churches are burnt yet you sit there talk about how we should be living and providing education i am in for religious schools hope that people like you come to countries where Christians are persecuted you Sir and your Humanist thinking will devolve in snap of fingers. you arguments and so called ’educated mind’ will go numb once you hear our stories. i see this topic as puny little fragment of discontent thinking. its nothing compared to what we live though so our faith is all we have to protect and die for. people like you cant survive countries like mine. even if you come they will show you a different picture because of your skin and your country.

  5. #5 Ramon Rovira 18 Oct 11

    Obviously there is no guarantee that a religious school will deliver ’good’ education (’good’ acording to which criteria?). There is no guarantee that a community school will deliver good education either. Which system is right, which system is wrong? Hard to say, I even dare to say that there's no answer unless one is a blind fanatic of one of them. What is not hard to understand is that the fathers of the pupil will have to pay for the consequences of either type of education their sons and daughters are given. In addition to this, it doesn't make sense that pupils hear a version of how life should be at home and a completely different one at school. Se let's allow fathers to select the education their children should be given.

  6. #6 Becca Allchin 19 Oct 11

    i'm with Peter Dale. all education comes from a world view and secular schools are no different. rigidity rather than openess to equiry is the most concerning.

  7. #7 Peter Hardy 22 Oct 11

    Grant maintained faith schools are inherently good because the work of religious organisations subsidises the state funding, and more importantly the shared values and ritual increase social integration among that community. Obviously bad faith schools should be shut down just as bad secular schools are. But it is inconsistent to generalise to all such schools in the former case but not in the latter- no one would argue for closing all secular schools just because some are bad. All we need to make sure of is that there are plenty of good secular schools and that the national curriculum on religious education is followed in all faith schools, as it is in all of those I am aware of.

  8. #8 Peter Hardy 22 Oct 11

    Andrew said that ’Repeated studies from universities, think-tanks and others have shown that state... religious schools perpetuate social inequalities’ but he didn't give any specific evidence for faith schools which teach the National Curriculum being responsible for *more* inequality than secular schools are- which his whole point hinges upon. Is there any such evidence?

  9. #9 android 01 Nov 11

    I know of 'middle-class' people who have pretended to be practising Christians - attending a certain number of services, getting to know the priest and so on - in order to get their children into Church of England schools, because they perceive them to be 'better' schools than others in their catchment area. So people are playing the system, and thus exacerbating inequalities and class/religious/ethnic divisions. If there were no religious schools, this situation wouldn't exist, and everyone could concentrate on improving the state schools - to the benefit of everyone.

  10. #10 Richard Russell 01 Nov 11

    The term 'religious schools' is an anachronism. A school cannot be religious. A school can be set up by a set of people who themselves are motivated by there faith to do so, and schooling in this country was pioneered by such people, simply because they, in particular, thought that education, (and especially education for the poor), was good for society, and for the very reasons that Andrew Copson in the first part of the first sentence in bold red type in the NI article. I had very little say as a former head of a church controlled school in who I had on my staff, and had governors whom I did not appoint. However the school ethos did reflect the precepts of love, justice, order and respect for learning that are at the heart of my faith. Name any school worth its salt that does not do this, with respect to the views of its head teacher. The faiths of the parents of the school included those of many religious faiths and none, and a large variety of ethnic background. They wanted their children to attend this school, and were within the proscribed catchment area. They did so because of, (and I do not recollect anyone saying they would prefer it if it were not so}, ’what it said on the packet’. As a microcosm of what one would expect from a wholesome society this came up to my own aspirations. Of course we had religious instruction; our teaching needed to reflect the society in which we are set. Only that way can we hope to understand others with empathy. What do I,personally, see in my own faith that is good for society? Her is one that Andrew and his ilk would be wise to cogitate on: I have, since retirement engaged in a number of voluntary activities. In all I have found that a great majority of those I have worked with have done so because of their active religious faith. This, I think you will find is reflected up and down the country. Is that bad for society?

  11. #11 David Mills 04 Nov 11

    Faith has no place in general education. There are other, more appropriate places it can operate, at home and in a place of worship.

    I think there may be a place for the study of religion generally, but not a focus on one particular religion.

    I am an atheist. My daughter was recently told, in front of the rest of the class at school, by the teacher, that atheists are going to hell. He didn't even say he merely believed this would be the case, but even if he had, I challenge anyone to argue that it would have been ok even then.

    Also, though the school is not especially Christian, there is a Christian component to daily assembly. I can't think of any good reason why this is not left out.

    I'm from Northern Ireland, where the fruits of separate schooling continue to flourish.

  12. #12 Rose Tuelo Brock 07 Nov 11

    Religion ought to be a subject like any other subject and be taught in schools presented such that the children get to learn about all forms of it. Schools should not be for prosletysing, or recruiting. School is for educasting and developing a child's mind broadly enough for them to make up their own mind and choices when the time comes. All of us have a characteristic of care and sympathy and kindness. yes, some have these more than others. Non-religious people can and do also do good. Religious schools can lead to a 'stunting' of the child's mind such that they are nto aware of other religions or even think that other religions are wrong. Yes, religious schools can be bad for society.

  13. #13 Bob Gilmurray 07 Nov 11

    The argument about faith schools essentially turns on the distinction between education and indoctrination. Education teaches people how to think: indoctrination teaches people what to think. Mr Copson believes that schools should enable people to develop independent critical intellects, and that therefore it is a very bad thing for schools to seek to indoctrinate children. Ms Beattie appears to believe that early indoctrination provides a more secure foundation for wisdom in adult life. Neither engage with the question of the actual content of these beliefs, but the clear implication is that Mr Copson would wish people to engage honestly with this question; whereas Ms Beattie would wish them to prefer ‘truth’ to honesty, on the basis that it doesn’t matter whether it’s fact or fiction, provided everyone believes it.

    The humanist/religious debate here seems therefore to boil down to a confrontation between liberals and authoritarians. This is not surprising: whatever their theological differences, chapels, mosques, synagogues and temples appear to actually function as anti-liberal pressure groups – the Moral Majorities of their cultures.

    Ms Beattie asks for evidence that religious instruction is ‘bad for society’. May I suggest a simple exercise, which anyone can do at home. Make a list of all the countries in the world you can think of, in random order. Now rank your list in order, from ‘least religious’ to ‘most religious’ (counting Communism and Buddhism as religions, which of course they are). Now take your original list of countries and rank them again, this time from ‘most free, open, just, humane, happy’ to ‘most oppressive, totalitarian, barbaric, inhumane, unhappy’. You will find that the ordering of your two lists are very similar, with countries like Denmark at the top, and fundamentalist theocracies at the bottom.

    Or look at the statute book for any religious society. I guarantee it will have among its most serious crimes, carrying the most severe penalties, the twin, victimless pseudo-crimes of blasphemy and heresy. How enlightened is that?

  14. #14 Tom tester 08 Nov 11

    I'm instinctively against religious education, but struggle to justify why I think it's still OK to teach ethical positions that I agree with in school, since those who disagree could surely raise parallel objections

  15. #15 guido freddi 15 Nov 11

    It's quite hilarious to see the religious faith Andrew has in non religious education! Science is here to be challenged, religion is here to be challenged. Unless the two are forced to live together in the same classroom, they become absolute and irrationa faiths (both inside and outside the ’madrassa’). Science, History, Ethics, Religion... How can you educate a child to build his own opinions if you forbid her/him to compare evolution and creation, big bang and god, frog and man, morality and ethics, freedom and faith?

  16. #16 Adam M 01 Dec 11

    Andrew's side, enough said...

  17. #17 Hannah 05 Dec 11

    I understand that in a small community, most parents would not be against sending their children to a Catholic or Christian school if the only other option was boarding school or moving area. For the purpose of this comment, I'll be thinking about secondary schools only.
    Now if the only options were to send your child to a Muslim secondary school, boarding school or move area? Which would you do? Now the secondary school is the only one in this imaginary area so they let any child in so long as they agree to observe their ethos, e.g. girls must cover their hair and dress modestly, boys must wear trousers and long sleeves tops, ect.
    When we agree to faith schools, remember we are saying that any recognised religion should be allow one, else what is the point? Picking and choosing which faiths are allowed a school would be discrimination and very divisive.

  18. #18 eldiabolo 05 Dec 11

    > Picking and choosing which faiths are allowed a school would be discrimination and very divisive.

    I for one /love the idea of a local Satanist comprehensive!

  19. #19 PC Schaper 07 Dec 11

    The first and most important issue that should have been addressed here is ’Who presumes to decide what is bad (or good) for society?’

    Islamic extremists certainly do, and secular humanists (i.e. atheistic evolutionists) also try to suppress beliefs that are contrary to their own, though their methods of suppression (e.g. court action to prevent religion being taught in schools) are more subtle and less brutal than those of the Islamic radicals; and some who call themselves Christian also consider it desirable to suppress world-views other than their own.

    My personal opinion is that it is very bad for society when any such group dominates, as it was throughout the Dark Ages of Roman Catholic domination of Europe. I believe it is good for a society to have freedom of conscience, freedom for individuals to question and think and reason and to develop their own beliefs and opinions, freedom to discuss and debate ideas and opinions, but NOT the freedom to coerce or compel others to accept your position, or even the power to deny them information about any particular worldview as evangelical Evolutionists do.

    I think it is also worth noting that if you have to coerce or compel others, or suppress certain ideas so that yours will be accepted, then there is probably not much validity in your position.

    The other issue, implied if not explicit, is whether it is right to teach children that there is a God. The question asked was ’Are religious schools bad for society?’ but the underlying though unstated question is whether children should be taught about religion, and underlying that is the question of the existence or non-existence of a God or gods.

    From the evolutionary perspective such superstitious rubbish, on a par with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, certainly should not be taught to children, they should be educated scientifically, objectively. But what the evolutionists do not admit, even to themselves, is that there is no genuine scientific or objective evidence to support Darwin's theory of evolution, no bridging species or 'missing links', just great gaps in the fossil record and between the different species currently in existence, and there is considerable evidence against evolution, i.e. the Cambrian explosion, the problem of irreducible complexity, and the evidence from medicine, and from exposure to nuclear and chemical agents, that genetic mutations (the only means by which Darwinian evolution could occur) are inevitably inevitably detrimental, or degenerative to use the medical terminology, never evolutionary. Text books and lessons on evolution are inevitably ’designed to transmit an uncritical acceptance of one particular worldview’, they teach evolution as if it is an established fact, they never examine the evidence against it, so Andrew's criticism of some religious schools is simply 'the pot calling the kettle black'.*

    Of course theists can't prove the existence of God either, other than by claiming that they feel his presence in their hearts, or they see him at work in the lives of others or in their own lives or in the world around them, none of which I would regard as objective evidence. In fact most monotheists, Jews and Muslims as well as Christians, seem to accept the existence of God as a given, and they interpret everything from that perspective, just as evolutionists accept evolution as a given and they interpret the scientific evidence solely from that perspective.

    In short, we cannot, scientifically and objectively, know the truth in these matters, the different worldviews are purely a matter of personal opinion, sometimes based on a logical, objective assessment of the available evidence but more often having little or no basis in logic or objectivity, much more in how we want things to be.

    So there can be only one answer to the question that was posed: until we know for absolute certain whether or not there a God or gods, without the slightest skerrick of a doubt, the suppression of any worldview must be bad for society, because if we close any avenue of enquiry, shut down investigation and discussion of any worldview, no matter how remote the likelihood that it is valid, then we may be denying ourselves the opportunity of ever learning the truth – short of learning it by divine intervention of course! But unless and until that happens, or we find incontrovertible evidence that there is no God, we need to coexist, and to tolerate worldviews and lifestyles that are different from our own, and to allow people to teach their ideas in schools if there are enough believers to make such schools viable.

    Unfortunately, far too many people, of almost all worldviews, are convinced that they already know the truth, and that because of that 'knowledge' they believe they have the right to dictate what is good or bad for society and to coerce or compel others to conform to their beliefs and ideas.

  20. #20 jim 29 Jul 15

    i think we need to learn re so yea

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This article was originally published in issue 447

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