Education has come surprisingly late to the science and religion discussion. However, we are now beginning to see articles emerging about the importance of schooling for people’s views about various aspects of science and religion. One of the most interesting of these articles is in the prestigious journal Public Understanding of Science, authored by Dr Amy Unsworth at The Faraday Institute in Cambridge and Professor David Voas at University College London.
What Unsworth and Voas did was to cut through a lot of what has been written about the effect of faith schooling on people’s understanding of evolution and views about it by actually collecting some rigorous data. They obtained detailed survey responses from just over 6000 adults and a combination of survey design and legitimate statistical tweaking meant that the conclusions they draw are representative for adults in the UK in terms of religion, age, gender, social class, geographical region, level of education and how people voted at the last general election.
Their paper has all sorts of fascinating findings but one of the ones I find most interesting relates to the schools to which their respondents went. In Britain about 93% of students are educated in state (i.e., non-fee-paying) schools and just over a third (37%) of all primary schools and almost a fifth (19%) of all secondary schools are faith schools. In the primary sector, most faith schools are Church of England ones; in the secondary sector, most faith schools are (Roman) Catholic ones; there are a small number of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu state-funded schools that have opened over the last twenty years.
I have long been unsure whether faith schools are a good idea or not. Indeed, I once spent rather a lot of time co-editing a 722 page International Handbook of Learning, Teaching and Leading in Faith-Based Schools hoping this would help me decide one way or the other. It didn’t. A common argument in favour of faith schooling is that parents have a right, if they so wish, to send their children to a school that explicitly incorporates their religious beliefs into its ethos. A common argument against faith schooling is that such schooling narrows the intellectual options for its students, making them less able to consider alternatives.
Unsworth and Voas found that for both Christians and Muslims, attendance at a faith school correlated with a higher acceptance of evolution compared to others in their faith tradition – a finding which flies in the face of a common gripe from secularists that faith schools leave students cocooned in a religious worldview, within which they are more likely to reject the findings of science.
So, what is going on? We need to admit that correlation doesn’t imply causation. It is possible that Unsworth and Voas’ findings are down to the fact that Muslim and Christian parents who send their children to faith schools are different in some statistically meaningful way from Muslim and Christian parents who don’t.
But it seems more likely that the effect is something to do with the schools themselves. One possibility is that teachers in faith schools may feel more confident or better equipped to help students navigate the relationship between evolutionary theory and religious beliefs. Another possibility is that religious students in non-faith schools may come to see rejection of evolution as part of their religio-cultural identity.
Assuming that it really is the schools that are making a difference, this suggests the value of enabling school students to talk about their beliefs in an atmosphere that is supportive of them as individuals while also seeking to get them to consider rigorously evidence about the natural world. Unsworth and Voas’ findings can be seen as validating a national system, such as the one that obtains in the UK, in which both Religious Education and science education are a mandatory part of every school student’s education.
The Commission on Religious Education has published its Interim Report and a team led by Dr Barbara Wintersgill at the University of Exeter has published a Report on Big Ideas in RE. It is clear that now is a good time to really get to grips with what we want schools to do in their RE lessons – and why. It is encouraging to have some data from Unsworth and Voas to suggest that schools can make a difference in this area.