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Is the promotion of mutual respect and tolerance incompatible with the faith ethos of some schools?

Blog posted by: Jonny Scaramanga

The Government has repeatedly affirmed its support for faith schools and parents’ right to pass on their religious beliefs. At the same time, standards for independent schools, announced last year, require the promotion of “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. Has the government considered cases where the promotion of respect and tolerance is incompatible with the school’s faith ethos?

Media reports have emphasised extremism in Muslim schools, but my research indicates that some evangelical Christian schools are also preaching intolerance. I am researching the approximately 50 Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) schools in the UK. Belief in the eternal damnation of unbelievers is part of ACE’s statement of faith.

In cases like this, where religion makes exclusive truth claims, other beliefs are necessarily seen as inferior. Evangelical Christianity views other religions as at best ‘man-made’ – in contrast to evangelicalism’s God-made Truth – and at worst inspired by Satan. A typical evangelical response to accusations of intolerance is the bewildered defensiveness of Josh McDowell’s The New Tolerance: How a cultural movement threatens to destroy you, your faith, and your children. For McDowell, beliefs and moralities other than his own are wrong. To respect them is to suppress his religious freedom.

ACE schools select on the basis of the parents’ faith, and the environment minimises other cultural influences. This idea of protection from ‘harmful’ outsiders is crucial to its educational philosophy. Other cultures are simply alien to ACE students. Although not intolerant in itself, this risks ‘othering’ different religions. A conscious effort to understand other viewpoints would be required – an effort ACE schools seem unlikely to make.

The schools point to Ofsted reports which rate them as good or outstanding for spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development, but the pedagogy of these schools makes such evaluation difficult for inspectors. Students work in silence at individually-partitioned desks. They complete a series of workbooks (PACEs). There are hundreds of these – 144 in each core subject, plus a labyrinth of electives – and Ofsted will see only the ones students happen to use at the time of inspection. Even then, a class of 20 children, each working on at least five PACEs (typically of 40 pages), will be far more than one inspector can examine.

I was a student at an ACE school in the 1990s. My PACEs were vitriolic about Catholics, Muslims, and ‘liberals’ of all stripes. I have recently purchased the latest editions of many PACEs and found that they remain critical of all outside their own religious tradition.

The strongest attacks occur in Basic New Testament Church History, an 11th grade elective which distinguishes between ‘true Christians’ and others.

Liberalism and Islam are two targets: Muslims are ‘infidels’, while liberal Christians are not ‘saved’.

“Liberalism is most illiberal in that liberals are liberal only to their (and other) unbelieving doctrines. If you believe in the Word of God, you will find out how “liberally” you will be treated! Liberalism is to Christianity what the watermelon rind is to the watermelon: an outer shell but with no fruit inside.”

“Mohammed’s religion would be strongly monotheistic, anti-idolatrous, but false… Fanatical military advance, booty, polygamy: all made Islam attractive (to men only; women were and still are repressed).”

The ‘evil deeds’ and ‘false doctrines’ of the Catholic church are repeatedly emphasised in this and other ACE courses:

“One of the proofs that the papacy was not of God is the dreadful condition of the papacy… Between 880 and 1050, some of the Popes were so evil that one era was called the Pornocracy, “the rule of harlots.” Lewd women actually controlled the papacy through their influence… The whole era was so unedifying that one need not sully his mind with details.”

In English, students study Jonathan Edward’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, which teaches that God “abhors” sinners, and “you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful and venomous Serpent is in ours”.

If this is how their God views non-Christians, what position are the students likely to take?

It seems unlikely that schools using such materials encourage mutual respect and tolerance. The government should think seriously about whether it values faith or tolerance more highly.

Jonny Scaramanga is a Doctoral Student in the Faculty of Children and Learning at the IOE. He is researching Accelerated Christian Education through interviews with former students, critical discourse analysis of curriculum materials, and autoethnography. He is currently working on a book about life as a fundamentalist.

Embracing our differences