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God: yes to marching, no to teaching

In one day’s media we find issues where we need to put the church in its place, and others where we need to stand up in defence of believers

Yet another flurry in the debate between the religious and the atheists. Following on from yet another attack on someone who criticised denominational schooling comes the suggestion that the church is being treated like it is a non-scientific and highly contentious means of explaining the modern world to young people. And just to be clear, this was presented as an argument in favour of religious education. Professor Robert Davis of Glasgow University’s education department (which was formerly the institution for training Catholic school teachers before it was absorbed by Glasgow University) complains that in schools it is becoming “the norm” for teachers to see scientific study as the “standard method” by which to investigate all human phenomena. Again, for clarity, this he presents as a problem.

Now, science is most certainly not infallible, but it has two giant advantages over religion as a means for helping children to understand the world. The first is that it has to be based on some form of observable evidence, and the second is that it can be interrogated and must change when the evidence changes. That is its strength. Religion is faith-based. Belief is the act of holding something to be ‘true’, which is to say ‘in accordance with fact and reality’. Faith is to hold something to be correct in the absence of proof. And since it requires no burden of proof or evidence it is impossible to interrogate it. So it can never be ‘false’ if taken on its own terms. As a personal choice, that may be fine; as a method for developing the intellect it is a dangerous dead end.

But Prof Davis is concerned because atheism has become “campaigning and polemical and, through its high-profile spokesmen, … lobbies very powerfully”. This comes at a time when churches in Scotland have been campaigning relentlessly both for good and ill – on peace in justice in the credit column and against homosexuality in the debit. I speak as someone who spent an entire career lobbying and PRing and believe me, no voice is more powerful than a Bishop. The things that get them front page news and put politicians under large amounts of pressure wouldn’t get into the paper from the mouths of anyone else.

In fact, churches in Scotland are institutions of declining influence and power and like all institutions in decline they want to defend the remaining elements of that power. So minor gains in the public debate made by atheists are attacked as if religion was being ‘lobbied’ out of power in Scotland. It isn’t, its just drifted out of power as broadly we’ve moved on. In fact, the churches should be very grateful that we don’t have a proper separation of state and church in Scotland – they would then find out just what privileged access to debate they have.

And yet at the same time we’re told that a poll finds a majority of people think religious-inspired marches should be banned – or at least should cost the marchers dear. There are two worrying aspects to this. The first is that in being firm that religion is a very bad basis for educating a child, we should not drift into believing that it is therefore OK to stop people in their freedom of expression. The church should not be interfering in our schools but nor should we be interfering with people’s right to believe things whether they are true or not. It is an important principle. The second worrying aspect is the precedent – if we stop Orange walks and Republican marches, who is next to be stopped (either by outlawing or making peaceful marches prohibitively expensive)?

Religious expression is a right we must protect: religious influence on the running of a nation of many religions and many of no religion is not.

Robin McAlpine