AS THE world's foremost atheist and Professor Yaffle lookalike, Richard Dawkins has an unwarranted reputation as a didactic bully. Yet I've always found him remarkably polite and restrained, especially when arguing with some of the more infuriating exponents of blinkered religious zeal.
Faith Schools Menace?
His distinctive fusion of courtly disdain, humane reason and rigorous dogma surged to the fore in Faith Schools Menace? - something tells me that question mark was added by the producers, not Dawkins - in which he argued against the growing tide of faith-based education. With one in three British schools now harbouring religious affiliations, his aim was "to explore the balance of rights between a parent's right to educate a child in their own faith, and the children's rights to determine their own beliefs and approach the world with a genuinely open mind".
He explored the benign hypocrisy of parents who fake their beliefs to secure a place at prestigious discriminatory faith schools, and the more invidious aspects of a tribal education system which encourages separation from mainstream society. There were dubious tales of Catholic priests requesting large cash donations in return for guaranteed enrolment in school, and a Muslim school where pupils - some of whom want to be doctors - are taught the theory of evolution but agree with their teacher that it's bunkum. Dismissing Darwin in the presence of Dawkins is like telling Neil Armstrong the Moon landing was faked, but he looked disappointed rather than furious.
Interestingly, he wasn't calling for the total abolishment of religious education. He admitted to enjoying the King James Bible for its beautiful use of language and argued a study of religion is vital to children's understanding of their cultural heritage and surroundings. His main concern was that children are being dangerously misinformed and restricted by faith schools. He also debunked the notion they offer an higher standard of education, using statistical evidence to suggest their impressive SAT scores are more to do with the pushiness and social standing of the parents who support them rather than their syllabuses.
I was amazed to learn faith schools aren't regulated by Ofsted. Instead, they employ their own inspectors. Similarly startling was former education secretary Charles Clarke's admission he'd once co-authored a pamphlet calling for the abolition of faith schools, despite being responsible for overseeing Tony Blair's installation of 100 of them during his tenure. Clarke went on to argue that society wouldn't stand for abolition, despite recent polls suggesting otherwise.
But the most surprising thing about this typically persuasive essay was Dawkins's effectiveness in engaging the minds of young children. I was cheered by the scenes in which he encouraged enthusiastic primary school pupils to question the teachings of adults and probe some of the bigger questions of existence.
To his credit, Dawkins allowed people of faith to express their counterarguments, although he always had the last word.
But do people who disagree with Dawkins watch his programmes, or is he preaching to the secular choir? Discuss, but do so politely.