Last week saw a wealth of stories about the supposed approval of 'creationist' free schools, alongside a claim from GP magazine that schools are opting out of cervical cancer jabs "on the grounds of religion".
Both of these stories were seized on eagerly, fitting comfortably as they do into the increasingly pervasive narrative that any form of religion in schools can't help but be oppressive, anti-intellectual and ultimately abusive.
Both of these stories also sprung from statistically small incidents, supported by facts that were barely interrogated by journalists.
In the case of the 'creationist' free schools, the jury is still out as to what extent the schools in question could be termed as such. The ecclesiastical blogger The Church Mouse has pointed out that, at the very least, campaigners have been guilty of a lackadaisical approach to terminology. The BHA has responded to the accusations in that article here.
What is interesting is that such a small number of schools, who may or may not believe that the earth was created in six days, and may or may not be intending to teach that to the children in their charge, can trigger panicky articles like this, which wheels out the lurid claim that "indoctrination is a form of child abuse". Of course, the article never defines where education, parenting or generally talking about different beliefs ends and where indoctrination begins.
Perhaps all the concern is justified by Adam Rutherford's warning that creationists are undertaking a 'wedge' strategy, prising open space and influence via free schools as a first step to gaining wider legitimacy. Frankly, it's unlikely. In 2009, Theos commissioned independent ethnographic research amongst evolution sceptics. The research found that there was no coherent creationist movement in the UK. The relatively small number of people who are genuinely evolution sceptics (as opposed to those who just believe that God is the creative force behind the universe) are geographically, tactically and theologically divided. Even amongst those disparate groups, few are actively seeking to influence education. Rutherford's 'wedge strategy' looks, at the least, overheated.
Alongside this, mainstream media covered the story of the claim by GP magazine that some schools were opting out of cervical cancer jabs "for religions reasons". Major papers simply copied and pasted the press release, neither interrogating the figures nor apparently asking to see the source document setting out the reasons schools actually gave. The headlines read as if there was a mass movement of faith schools opting out of the HPV vaccine for doctrinal reasons. These led inevitably to similarly worried comment pieces which extrapolated from this to the denial of contraception to women in developing countries. The message is, of course, that religion hates women and cares nothing for their health.
In fact, and having obtained the full list of reasons, only nine of the 24 schools where the jabs had not been given were listed as religious schools. Of these, only two schools said that it was school policy not to give the jabs and that this was specifically for religious reasons. Both schools have less than 10 pupils. Other religious schools cited reasons such as "individual parental responsibility". Some writers seem to have extrapolated from the fact that a school that didn't give the jab was religious to the conclusion that they had refused to give the vaccine for religious reasons. There is little evidence in the Freedom of Information requests to back this up.
(Data, obtained from GP magazine, available here)
Both of these stories may have some basis in fact. But if there are a small number of schools teaching creationism in the UK, or indeed a small number of schools neglecting to give important medical care to students to students on religious grounds, then we should respond proportionately.
The current narrative, megaphoned via the media and given a helping hand by the British Humanist Association's anti-faith schools team, is that we should all be afraid. Very afraid. The shadowy bogeyman of the 'Religious Right' is coming, and they are after your children. This is harmful. It casts a shadow of suspicion over all the high quality, inclusive schools which are faith based or have a faith ethos. It perpetuates the idea that religion itself is pernicious, misogynistic and obscurantist and that people of faith are harmful to have around.
Before we all start manning the barricades, please can we react to reality, rather than propaganda?
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