The Dawkins Conservatoire September 12, 2010

The Dawkins Conservatoire

Francis Beckett imagines what the “Richard Dawkins Humanist Conservatoire” would look like:

As a humanist school, we will pride ourselves on our teaching of religion. Other faith schools have agitated for and been given the right to discriminate against teachers and pupils who are not of the correct religion, but we will not. Our children will learn about all beliefs. Children can cope with the fact that adults believe different things. And we see nothing but good in the idea of a Muslim learning mathematics from a Sikh, or an atheist being taught English by a Catholic.

So, no spying to find out whether a prospective parent had been guiltily sneaking into church. No demanding evidence of a subscription to New Humanist. Personal letters confirming faithlessness from Dawkins himself will get you nowhere. Even being the object of a fatwa will not get you in. If we are oversubscribed -– which I confidently expect we will be –- we will take pupils strictly on the criterion of proximity to the school.

Paul Sims at New Humanist thinks this is a good idea, at least in theory. If religions can open up faith schools, why can’t we?

But he poses a good question:

If humanists could set up schools like Beckett describes, would you welcome it? Or would it still be an inadvertent endorsement of faith schools?

I’d rather the British government not support faith schools at all, including this proposed one. It’s a nice idea, the Dawkins school, but Beckett’s ideas aren’t unique to Humanists, and there’s no reason a strong school couldn’t implement some of them right now.

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  • Grimalkin

    Personally, I see it as the same issue we have with Christmas decorations on public property. Either everyone gets to have their own (in which case, we absolutely should have our own schools), or no one does (and only secular/public schools receive gov money).

    As long as faith schools are paid for by the secular government, I think we absolutely need to set up Humanist schools.

  • i’d love to set up a ‘humanist school’ in which students were taught about as many religions and their histories as possible. seriously, i think it’s a great idea and we could use more of them here. most of our public schools are so horrible, it would be a refreshing change to have some that actually taught subjects and did with with depth and breadth. the humanist curriculum would also emphasize things like arts, physical and science education. most students in public schools barely get any of that, these days. my humanist school would also not bother with “teaching to the test,” because a real liberal arts education would mean that students in my school would ace those tests, with their narrow range of information required for mastery, easily.

  • Brice Gilbert

    Sadly the type of religious teaching you would see would no doubt anger religious people in the US.

  • tim

    @chicago dyke

    I don’t agree that most of our public schools are “so horrible”. Some yes. But most do a darn good job – especially giving the resources that they have.

    And while I get your point about lack of science and art in many of today’s public schools – standardized tests aren’t going away. You have to have something that measures competency in a given area so teaching to the test will always exist.

    Our relativity new Secretary of Education touched on a number of these topics in a recent education town hall.

  • tim


    Most of those “religious people” that such teaching would anger already home school their children or have their kids in private schools run by a religious entity.

  • Demonhype

    Exactly. If they can set up those kinds of schools, so can we. Hell, the religious are constantly accusing us of being the ones with “faith” and accusing atheism of being a “religion”. Well, even if that was so, maybe they can witness the superiority of our supposed faith, as secular humanists open a school in which everyone is welcome and the only sacred idea is that everyone has a right to an education no matter what their race, sex, color or creed and that faith, however free people are to have their own, should not be prioritized over education.

    And technically, a “humanist” school need not be specifically an “atheist” school. Atheists are often secular humanists, but there are also religious humanists as well.

    I would think that the only thing not tolerated in such a school would be proselytizing in the classroom, but that would apply to atheist teachers too–no telling kids “Evolution means that God doesn’t exist” (as if that happens anywhere near as much as the opposite). No, you teach the facts, and personal beliefs about the supernatural, an afterlife, or a higher power are not to fight with that.

    Well, that and the usual “no discriminating, no bullying based on anything”, but that should be standard fare.

    Of course, there would be some discussion in things like religion classes and maybe some of the literature or art classes classes (lots of classic literature and art have religion playing into them), or any class where it might be actually relevant (which would not be science or math). And there would be private discussions outside the classroom. But it would be understood that the priority in that place is to learn facts, not indoctrinate others in your own personal interpretations–or rejections–of those facts.

    From what I’m hearing, it might actually be pretty welcomed in the UK, since the faith schools have overwhelmed the education system and are depriving children of an education if their parents don’t espouse beliefs they don’t hold, and I hear a lot of people are pissed about that. It’s coercion, plain and simple, and if the government is going to allow these schools to build and be supported by the government, they should at least not be allowed to refuse people based on their faith or else it becomes government-funded forced conversion.

  • Hitch

    The right path is to get rid of faith schools, but have intellectual history, which includes important religions too, as well as philosophical ideas (in various traditions).

    School is to educate, inform. It’s not to present a world view. If something is fact (or close to) then it should be presented as such.

    The rest can be done in religious organizations, in advocacy groups etc etc. But it has no place in school.

    Faith schools are a disgrace to a democratic society that is based on an informed citizenry.

    And a secular humanist school would undermine that same principle too. Humanist ideas should be thought to as the ideas they are not as solution or “truths”.

    What we should do is increase courses in argumentation (what are fallacies etc) on interpersonal/conflict-resolution skills, on and on broad citizenship things, such as how the legal system works for the citizen etc.

    There is lots to do with the educational system. Segregation by world-view is among the worst that can actually happen.

  • muggle

    Can we please stop equating humanism and Atheism? They are two separate things.

    Also, I assume Mr. Dawkins is talking about in England, not the US. Entirely different ball of wax as they don’t separate church and state as we do. Since they fund religious schools, heck, yes, this is a good move on their part to provide an alternative. Especially if, as someone mentioned above, kids are being deprived of an education for not being of the right religion. (!!!)

    Here in the US, this shouldn’t be funded any more than religious schools are. Neither should be at all. I’m glad my grandson’s going to school in America, frankly, where it’s not required (even if it is often violated) that religion be part of his education.

  • Luther

    Teach religion, just like we teach about smoking and drunk driving.

  • I don’t agree that most of our public schools are “so horrible”. Some yes. But most do a darn good job – especially giving the resources that they have.

    And while I get your point about lack of science and art in many of today’s public schools – standardized tests aren’t going away. You have to have something that measures competency in a given area so teaching to the test will always exist.

    standardized testing has mostly killed good education in this country. i work in education, so i’m very confident when i say that our modern day public schools mostly suck. ymmv, of course, but i’m basing my opinion on over a decade of looking at the students themselves, esp those who desire to enter college, and i’m telling you: public schools are mostly failing to educate our kids properly and it’s getting worse.

    one of the problems people in this country have is that they don’t really pay much attention to what is taught in schools. more and more, teaches are required to teach “to the test,” at the expense of anything remotely resembling a well rounded multi-subject liberal arts education. people tend to believe that if the property taxes are high enough, the school must be good. that’s a tragic mistake. don’t get me started on the nightmare that is a great deal of urban public school education. i could tell you horror story after horror story.

    don’t get me wrong: most teachers try really hard and care about their students becoming well educated citizens. but there is so much corruption at the administrative levels, school boards are littered with religious ideologues and whackjobs, and funding for arts and other “non-essential” programs are slashed, again and again, in a process that has been going on for several decades.

    a lot of one’s perspective depends on one’s age. when i look at the curriculum of my mother’s urban high school during the 50s, and compare it to what is being taught there today, it’s enough to make me weep. i was lucky: i got to go to expensive, secular private schools and colleges, and so i’m very much aware of what it is that most of the rest of you are NOT getting. i’ve said it here several times: if i had kids and couldn’t afford a secular private school, i’d home school them. this is to say nothing of the social environment in many of today’s schools. again, things are much worse than they were, even as late as the 70s.

    and let me edit to add that standardized testing is a relatively new “tool” and that for hundreds of years, people in this country were very well educated without them.

  • Vanessa

    I think teaching children about the different religions is a waste of time. Teach more math, not this crap.

  • As an atheist and a teacher living in the UK, I do think religious education (where children are taught about all religions, as opposed to religious instruction, which is indoctrination into one religion) is an important subject to teach. In fact, we already teach it.

    However, I think the humanist/secular cause would be better served by campaigning against faith schools than by joining their ranks and opening a “faithless” school.

  • Technically daily prayers are still part of British education (at least I think it is) but in practice “Assembly” is about telling the pupils what is going on and providing praise to able students. I’m glad that Barry has pointed out the difference between religious education and religious instruction. It has certainly been my experience (and the experience of my children) that religious education is largely about explaining the different beliefs of world religions and about the discussion of ethics.

    Schools should be secular places to educate. They should not be places to recruit children to a cause, any cause, not even one that I like. While secular may mean “without religion” it does not mean pretending that it doesn’t exist. The Richard Dawkins Humanist Conservatoire sounds like most good schools that are proud of their achievements. It doesn’t sound like a parody at all to me.

  • Demonhype


    That’s exactly what I was saying! Atheism isn’t really anything outside of disbelief in god or gods. Nothing really to teach or base a school on, and I’d worry that discrimination in enrollment similar to what the religious schools have would be one of the only ways to make it specifically “atheist”.

    Humanism, however….

  • muggle

    Demonhype, I bash on humanism a lot because organized humanism is a lot like all other organized religions (yes, I find it one even with the absense of a deity). It’s rigid and unaccepting of other points of view and even has a list of rules. I pass.

    However, I utterly believe in treating each other humanely, with respect and dignity. But that’s something any school should teach (if this were only a perfect world) regardless of its world view.

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