Children must choose their own beliefs
In an open letter to Estelle Morris, Richard Dawkins calls on the
Government to think again about funding yet more divisive faith
Sunday December 30, 2001 The Observer
Dear secretary of state,
The Government has decided, reasonably enough, that heredity is no
basis for membership of Parliament, and the hereditary peers are
either gone or on their way. Yet, in the very same year, you propose
increasing the number of faith schools. Having disavowed the
hereditary principle for membership of Parliament, you seem hell-bent
on promoting the hereditary principle for the transmission of beliefs
and opinions. For that is precisely what religions are: hereditary
beliefs and opinions. To quote the headline of a fine article in the
Guardian last week by the Reverend Don Cupitt: 'We need to make a
clean break with heritage religion and create something better suited
to our own time.'
We vary in our opinions and our tastes, and it is one of our
glories. Some of us are left-wing, others right. Some are pro-euro,
others anti-. Some listen to Beethoven, others Armstrong. Some watch
birds, others collect stamps. It is only to be expected that our
elders should influence us in all such matters. All this is normal and
In particular, it is normal and pleasing that parental impact
should be strong. I'm not talking particularly about genes, but about
all the influences that parents inevitably bring. It is to be expected
that cricketing fathers will bowl to their sons - or daughters - on
the back lawn, take them to Lords, and pass on their love of the game.
There will be some tendency for ornithologists to have bird-watching
children, bibliophiles book-loving children. Beliefs and tastes,
political biases and hobbies, these will tend, at least statistically,
to pass longitudinally down generations, and nobody would wish it
But now we come to religion, and an extremely odd thing happens.
Where we might have said, 'knowing his father, I expect young Cowdrey
will take up cricket,' we emphatically do not say, 'With her devout
Catholic parents, I expect young Bernadette will take up Catholicism.'
Instead we say, without a moment's hesitation or a qualm of misgiving,
'Bernadette is a Catholic'. We state it as simple fact even when she
is far too young to have developed a theological opinion of her own.
In all other spheres, a good school will encourage her to develop her
own tastes and opinions, her own skills, penchants and values. But
when it comes to religion, society meekly makes a clanging exception.
We inexplicably accept that, the day she is born, Bernadette has a
label tied around her neck. This is a Catholic baby.
That is a protestant baby. This is a Hindu baby. That is a Muslim
baby. This baby thinks there are many gods. That baby is adamant that
there is only one. But it is preposterous that we do this to children.
They are too young to know what they think. To slap a label on a child
at birth - to announce, in advance, as a matter of hereditary
presumption if not determinate certainty, an infant's opinions on the
cosmos and creation, on life and afterlives, on sexual ethics,
abortion and euthanasia - is a form of mental child abuse.
I do not believe it is possible to mount a decent defence against
my charge. Yet infant belief-labels are almost universally accepted.
We don't even think about it. Just in case any lingering doubt
remains, consider the following: This child is a Gramscian Marxist.
That child is a Trotskyite Syndicalist. This third child is a Wet
Conservative. This baby is a Keynesian. That baby is a Monetarist.
This baby is an ornithologist. Not, 'This baby is likely to become an
ornithologist if his father has anything to do with it.' That would be
fine. But, 'this baby is an ornithologist'? Unthinkable, isn't it?
Yet, where religion is concerned, you don't give it a second glance.
Oh, and by the way, nobody, least of all an atheist, ever talks about
an 'atheist child'. Rightly so. But why the double standard?
I presume you need no more convincing. For parents to influence
their children's opinions and beliefs is inevitable and proper. But to
tie labels to young children, which in effect presume and presuppose
the success of that parental influence, is wicked and indefensible.
But, you may soothingly say, don't worry, wait till they go to school,
it'll be fine. The children will be educated in a variety of opinions
and beliefs, they'll be taught to think for themselves, they'll make
up their own minds. Well, it would have been nice to think so.
But what do we do? We deliberately set up, and massively subsidise,
segregated faith schools. As if it were not enough that we fasten
belief-labels on babies at birth, those badges of mental apartheid are
now reinforced and refreshed. In their separate schools, children are
separately taught mutually incompatible beliefs.
'Protestant children' go to the state-subsidised Protestant school.
If they are lucky, they won't actually be taught to hate Catholics,
but I wouldn't bank on it, especially in Northern Ireland. The best we
can hope for is that they will come out thinking only that there is
something a bit alien or odd about Catholics. 'Catholic children' go
to the Catholic school. Even if they are not taught to hate
Protestants (again, don't bank on it), and even if they don't have to
run the gauntlet of hate in the Ardoyne, we can be sure they won't be
taught the same Irish history as the 'Protestant children' down the
Secretary of state, even if I fail to convince you that opening new
faith schools is downright insane, may I at least plead for a
consciousness-raising exercise in your own department? Just as
feminists succeeded in making us wince when we hear 'he' where no sex
is intended, or 'man' for humanity, we need to raise our consciousness
about the faith-labelling of children.
Please, I beg you, strongly discourage the use, in all ministerial
documents and inter-departmental memos, of phrases that presume
theological opinions in children too young to have any. Please foster
a climate in which it becomes impossible to use a phrase like
'Catholic children', 'Protestant children', 'Jewish children' or
'Muslim children' without wincing. It only costs two words more to
say, for instance, 'children of Muslim parents' or 'children of Jewish
One of the more frightening aspects of human nature is a tendency
to gravitate towards 'Us' and against 'Them'. Worse, Us versus Them
disputes have a natural tendency to reach down the generations,
leading to vendettas of frightening historical tenacity. Where labels
are not provided to feed our natural divisiveness, we manufacture
them. Children separate out into gangs, often with distinguishing
labels. In certain districts of Los Angeles, a young person innocently
sporting the wrong brand of trainers is in danger of being shot.
Experiments have been done in which children, with no particular
reason to sort themselves into gangs, are provided with, say, green or
blue labels. In short order, enmities spring up between the greens and
the blues: fierce loyalties to one's own colour, vendettas against the
other. These can become surprisingly vicious.
That's what happens when you don't even try to segregate children.
Now, imagine that you deliberately stamp a green or a blue label on a
child at birth. Send this child to a blue school and that child to a
green school. Encourage green boys to assume that they will grow up to
marry green girls, while blue girls will marry blue boys. Take for
granted that, the moment they have a baby of their own, it too must
have the same coloured label tied around its neck. Passed on down the
generations, what is all that a recipe for? Do I need to spell it out?
The very idea of a faith school is as unjustifiable as the idea of
a hereditary House of Lords, and for the same reason. But hereditary
peers, though undemocratic and often mildly eccentric, are not
dangerous. Faith schools almost certainly are. There remains the
pragmatic argument that, notwithstanding the knockdown objection to
the principle of faith schools, they get good exam results. Well,
maybe. If it is true, by all means let's try to bottle the secret, and
share it around. But, bottled or not, careful analysis fails to
uncover any real link with faith. The ingredient in the bottle is a
school ethos, which can take years to grow and which, for reasons
having no connection with religion, has become built up in certain
Church of England and Roman Catholic schools. A high reputation, once
built, is self-perpetuating, because ambitious, education-loving
parents gravitate towards it, even to the extent of pretending to be
But in any case, where have we heard something like the pragmatic,
'exam results' argument before? Yes, in the debate over the hereditary
peers. People were fond of saying that, no matter how undemocratic was
the principle of hereditary members of Parliament, they got results.
Enough aristocrats worked hard, some were real experts on fly fishing,
or windmills; some were doctors who had wise things to say about the
health service; many were farmers who could hold forth on foot and
mouth or the Common Agricultural Policy; and all of them preserved the
decencies of debate, unlike that rabble in the Commons. Undemocratic
they may have been, but they did a good job.
That argument cut no ice with the Government, and rightly so. If
you gather together a bunch of men of above average wealth and
education, raised in book-lined homes for many generations, it is
hardly surprising that some expertise and talent will surface. The
pragmatic argument, that hereditary peers do a good job, is on the
slippery slope to 'say what you like about Mussolini, at least he made
the trains run on time'. There are limits beyond which principle
should not be dragged by pragmatism. The Government reached that limit
over the hereditary peers. The pragmatic case in favour of faith
schools is similar, but weaker. The principled case against faith
schools is similar, but stronger.
As for what is to be done, of course we don't want to destroy
institutions that are working well. The way to be fair to hitherto
unsupported denominations is not to give them their own sectarian
schools, but to remove the faith status of the existing schools (just
as the fair way to balance the bishops in the Lords is not to invite
mullahs, monsignors and rabbis to join them, but to throw the existing
bishops out). After everything we've been through this year, to
persist with financing segregated religion in sectarian schools is
Yours very sincerely,
Richard Dawkins Charles Simonyi Professor University of Oxford
18.11.2001: Single-faith schools target well-off
11.11.2001: 80pc are against new faith schools
30.09.2001: Faith schools spark fears of 'apartheid'
15.07.2001: Oldham's schools: Children seen to hold key for future
12.08.2001: A.C.Grayling: Keep God out of public affairs
Special reports Observer special: Islam and the West Special
report: religion in the UK EducationGuardian.co.uk