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Should children be taught atheism?

May 2004 | by Jonathan Skinner

A new think-tank report has proposed that children should learn about atheism as part of their religious education in schools.

The think-tank, which has close ties with New Labour, has had its radical views published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). The document suggests that the title ‘religious education’ should be ditched and replaced by ‘religious, philosophical and moral education’.

Thought systems

Although religious education must be taught to all pupils up to the age of 16 in England and Wales, it is not part of the national curriculum. The syllabuses, which vary greatly and can be drawn up by local education authorities, often include not only Christianity but also the main world religions.

The ‘think tank’ argues that since only 7% of the population attend church, mosque or synagogue, the subject should be modernised and brought into line with where we are at present as a nation.

This would imply not only teaching the main religions, but also placing more emphasis on other thought systems that are not religious — like atheism and agnosticism.

They also advocate the inclusion of various ethical issues (such as abortion and euthanasia) which are not seen to be inherently religious, even though religious people may have strong opinions on them.

In essence, although some have called for RE to be dropped altogether, this research body feels that it should be widened to include broader ethical and philosophical questions.

The report comes at a time when the Government is drawing up a ‘national framework’ for RE, which it will unveil in the summer.

The dangers of compulsion

Ben Rogers, senior research fellow of the IPPR said, ‘While religion remains a powerful force in our lives — not least as a source of conflict at home and abroad — it is important we learn both to converse with people of different faiths and think critically about our own.

‘Dropping religion from the syllabus, or banning the expression of religious beliefs in schools as in France, won’t make religious strife go away — if anything, it will exacerbate it.’

Mr Rogers also said, ‘Young people are becoming more reflective and enquiring — philosophy is one of the fastest growing school subjects’.

Although people may find it rather surprising coming from a Christian minister, I feel there is nothing particularly wrong with these suggestions. My reason for this belief is that one of the worst things ever done for the Christian Faith in this country was to make its study compulsory at school.

Immunised

Let me explain this by way of an illustration. If we want to prevent someone from catching a serious disease, we inoculate them. In order to do this, we inject a killed or weakened form of a virus, toxin or bacterium into the person’s body.

The immune system then produces antibodies against the disease, so that if the person becomes infected with the real disease, defensive mechanisms are already in place to fight it. The person has build up an immunity to the disease — they are immunised against it.

So a weak or dead form of the disease creates resistance to the real thing. And this, in a religious sense, is what we often have in schools. I do not mean, of course, that real Christianity is a disease! But there is a valid analogy here.

School children are subjected to assemblies and RE lessons led by teachers who themselves have no living faith — everything is therefore dead, boring and hypocritical. It is a put-off.

At the human level, therefore, the pupils become ‘immune’ and resistant to the real thing — the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit can and does overcome this ‘immunity’ in those he calls, but the battle against ingrained unbelief is nonetheless a hard one.

Outworn arguments

Most RE lessons only convey a weakened form of Christianity. Everything is looked at from a perspective of critical unbelief. The biblical documents are called into question and pulled apart, using the outworn liberal arguments of half a century ago.

Pupils are not only turned off — they are inoculated against belief by an inactivated form of Christianity. This can be far more deadly, from a Christian perspective, than full-blooded atheism.

Christianity has nothing to fear from atheism or agnosticism. We can give more than adequate answers to those who advance reasons for thinking there is no God — and to those who feel that such things are unknowable.

We have strong evidence to contradict them. Indeed, it is healthy for pupils to study both the questions raised by atheists and the logical conclusion to which atheism leads — which is despair.

The weakness of atheism

The worst thing possible from my perspective is to indoctrinate school children with dead, boring and inaccurate versions of Christianity — which is what often happens now. Atheism is far less deadly.

What people often do not realise is that atheism is incredibly weak. And it is far better to face a weak enemy than a traitorous ally.

Indeed, I would happily throw down the gauntlet. Whether in a town hall, a university lecture theatre, on radio or TV, or indeed in the press — I would be pleased to publicly debate the matter and let the arguments speak for themselves.

The evidence is clear enough for those who will consider it seriously — God is real.

Of course, an undiluted diet of atheism — as fed to children in communist countries like China — is bad. So is an undiluted diet of Islam, or any other false religion. Young people can be brainwashed like anyone else.

But children who study atheism critically, as they currently study religion, will not be turned against faith in God. Instead, they might consider the subject of God’s reality more seriously than they otherwise would.

I used to travel around speaking at Christian Unions in the universities of our land. Without exception, I found that universities with strong science departments had more Christians than others.

The world around us speaks volumes concerning ‘the eternal power and Godhead’ of the Creator. Those who reject that evidence are ‘without excuse’ (Romans 1:20).