The evolution vs creationism debate, like you’ve never encountered it before

April saw the launch of Goodbye God?a graphic novel that explores evolution vs creation and calls for an end to the teaching of creationism in schools. Written by me, Sean Michael Wilson, and illustrated by long time luminary of the British comic book world, Hunt Emerson, it’s a 120-page book published by New Internationalist and made with the help of both the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the American Humanist Association (AHA). The book demonstrates how a concern for humanism, science, and reasoned logical thinking is crucial for the development of society.

The BHA's own Richy Thompson is featured as a character in Goodbye God.

The BHA’s own Richy Thompson is featured as a character in Goodbye God.

What is a graphic novel, I hear you ask? Or perhaps not, as the term, introduced in the late 70s, has become quite well known by now. Essentially its a word coined to get over the image of comics being just for kids. Which they never have been, that was just a silly cliche. And we humanists should be all about overcoming miss-information and cliches, yes? So, in the last 30 years or so the medium of the graphic novel has come to mean comic books for adults. And no, that does not mean pornography! It just means stories using text and visuals, on sophisticated themes, that adult readers can enjoy.

Why do this as a comic book? Well, actually the Goodbye God? book is more like an illustrated guide, rather than a traditional comic book or graphic novel. There are very good reasons to have the illustrated format. In recent years there has been quite a bit of research into how the visual and text mixture we find in comic books is a more effective way of conveying complicated information than text alone. For example,  Kobayashi’s 2011 study in Sophia University concluded that: ‘The findings indicated that the visual aid reduced the learners’ cognitive load in reading and promoted the retention of the text…’ So, comic books, graphic novels, whatever you want to call them are both an enjoyable way of taking in complicated information, and probably a more effective one.


Sean Michael Wilson: What book on critical of religion could be complete without a few appearances from Christopher Hitchens?

In part one of Goodbye God?, we look at creationism vs evolution. We consider some of the key aspects of what both are. We have a list of key claims from creationists and a cartoon version of the BHA’s very own Richy Thompson goes through them, one by one, noting the faults in argument and the mistakes in conclusions.

Later in the chapter Richy also takes us through the situation as regards the teaching of creationism in UK schools and the significant campaigns of the BHA in this area, the successes, but further work that needs to be done in the independent school sector. We also look at the situation in the US education system, with a cartoon Roy Speckhardt, of the AHA, making an appearance, as we consider the twists of terminology of US creationists reframing their approach as ‘intelligent design’ or ‘teaching the debate’.  Philosopher Stephen Law of the University of London and the Centre for Inquiry UK is in chapter one also, as we begin to broaden the focus to look at some of the ways that irrational belief systems are introduced and promoted.

In part two, the book pans out yet further to consider several aspects the negative impact of religion, with several well known humanist’s making an ‘appearance’, in illustrated form, to tell us about various related points. These include Richard Dawkins’ key points from his ‘letter to my daughter’ noting that we should be suspicious of reasons for believing things that rely on mostly on authority, tradition or revelation. We also have Democrat and author Sean Faircloth’s ‘10 points for a secular America’ shown in illustrated format for the first time.

We have some wise words from the BHA Chief Executive, Andrew Copson, regarding the important place played by humanists in the national cultures of the UK and USA. Then, what book on critical of religion could be complete without a few appearances from Christopher Hitchens? In Goodbye God?, we see him complaining about the horrendous idea of ‘compulsory love’ for god, laying down his infamous challenge regarding the question of morals and ethics, and of course, throwing in a few of his jokes! Hitchens, indeed, was keen on graphic novels, having recommended them in a couple of his own books. He also wrote the introduction to Joe Sacco’s graphic novel about the Bosnian war.

The book is designed to mix the serious points with humour, and the excellent illustrations of Hunt Emerson balance up the considerable textual parts with their artistic charm. It also includes back text sections by the BHA and the AHA, telling us more about the kind of work they do, and more about the issue of teaching evolution in schools. We also have an introduction by Professor Lawrence Krauss, who comments there that: ‘If our society is to function at its best, no notions should be sacred, beyond questioning, including religious notions. That is why we need books like Goodbye God? to help expose both religious and scientific nonsense that can get in the way of sound thinking, and to help produce a healthier and happier world with public policies that properly address the challenges of the 21st century. ‘

So, if you are interested in a unique way of presenting various issues of concern to humanism, in a way that is visually appealing yet still sophisticated, check out the Goodbye God? book.  More can be seen at

Is it a full moon tonight?

Earlier this year, in another role, I was surveying the residents of Bosworth on local issues. Amongst the questions I was asking them was this impartial gem: ‘Given that David Tredinnick has spent hundreds of pounds of taxpayers’ money on astrology software to aid him in his constituency duties, how does this affect your likelihood of voting for him in future?’ Mr Tredinnick has also advised surgeons not to operate when there is a full moon, and is a keen supporter of homeopathy. Many of his questions raised in the House of Commons have concerned the virtues of alternative medicine.

David Vázquez.

Does the moon really cause people to behave differently? No. That was easy. (Photo: David Vázquez.)

His constituents were stunned. There were a few of course who stood staunchly by him, the colour of his politics being to their liking. But many interrupted me with guffaws of ‘what the?!’ and a fabulous selection of expletives. That many members of the British public cannot name their MP sadly comes as no surprise. However, how many of us constituents know what our own MP gets up to in Parliament? What causes they put their weight behind? The audience they command to voice their own idiosyncrasies?

David Tredinnick is Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Integrated Healthcare. He is on the health committee and science committee. He is not in those capacities as a medical professional or scientist, but he does hold a great deal of sway. He has the power to shape policy driven by his own opinions, not research or fact. He is putting his trust in mere sorcery, over established medical practice, and innovative medical and scientific research. He has spoken out recently in support of astrology within healthcare, citing 20 years of research.

On the one hand, his comments are quite amusing. Politics loves vivid characters, and this survey produced hysteric giggles in my office, and much joking for weeks afterwards about our astrological compatibility in the workplace. The other viewpoint is dismay and disgust. This is not funny. This is an MP who puts superstition on a pedestal and takes it into the heart of Government. His position on the APPG influences policy. There are fewer important areas of policy, with the potential to touch us all, than healthcare.

People in office are powerful – their mere opinions can have great consequences. Their opinions. Not research, or results, or proven processes. Governments need to be held to account. The BHA, its members, and the voting public have a duty to hold MPs to account. We may disagree on key issues, my local MP might not be from my favourite party, however when an MP voices support for a matter as trivial as astrology, I as a constituent would be gravely concerned.

Horoscopes are fun. Superstition, mostly harmless. Years ago in the police force, my colleagues and I would observe, ‘it’s a full moon tonight,’ expecting a troublesome night ahead. But no one could seriously justify extra staff on a lunar monthly basis, without clear evidential proof correlating a rise in crime with the phases of the moon. It’s madness. Some alternative therapies can yield results. Several provide comfort. If a new treatment could demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt its medicinal effect, it deserves recognition.  Research and results are the only dependable source. The bizarre homeopathy David Tredinnick champions, and his reliance on astrology, are not things the taxpayer should be footing the bill for. Mr Tredinnick is welcome to consult his horoscope in the daily papers, but he is foolish if he wishes to take it into work with him. Especially when that work is in Government.

In April, the BHA published three whistleblowers’ allegations about Park View School. How many of them are now proven?

Here Joe Moss and Richy Thompson compare and contrast what was alleged about Park View School in January and what was found to be the case this week…

Peter Clarke’s extensive report for the Department for Education into the ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations was released on Tuesday, and found ‘co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action, carried out by a number of associated individuals, to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into a few schools in Birmingham.’ The report highlights the role of the British Humanist Association (BHA) in January facilitating three whistleblowers to make complaints to the Department of Education, regarding standards and the state of staff and student welfare in Park View School, over a month before the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter was mentioned in the press. In April we published most of their claims, which we summarised as ‘inequality and gender discrimination, homophobia, alleged extremist views, creationism, bullying, and unfair employment and disciplinary practices’. The majority of these issues had not been publicly aired at the time; today we can see which allegations have been confirmed in the Clarke Report.

  • Creationism within Science

Our whistleblowers claimed that ‘Creationism and intelligent design have been taught in science lessons by at least one science teacher.’ The Clarke Report says that ‘Evolution is mentioned only briefly and students are simply directed to the page in the textbook. A teacher who did this went on to tell students that they were looking at the textbook merely to comply with the syllabus but that “that was not what they believed”… Staff have said that creationism has been taught as fact in science lessons and in assemblies at Park View School. A member of staff at Park View reported that pupils had said: “I’m made of clay[…]There is no evolution. I’m made of clay because that is what Mr Hussain [the acting headteacher] told us in assemblies”.’

  • Sex education worksheet about consent within marriage

Our whistleblowers claimed that ‘There have been rumours that in sex and relationships education (SRE) lessons given by the same teacher that boys were told that “girls must obey their husbands” and that ‘”wives are not allowed to say ‘no’”. A worksheet was handed out to year 11 boys with a section “The Wife Obeying Her Husband”, which says ‘A woman must obey her husband as long as he does not tell her to perform any haraam (unlawful) acts…’

The school strenuously denied that this worksheet ever existed, but Clarke found that ‘[SRE] lessons for boys centred on the rights of men and women within marriage. On the lesson worksheets it was written that if a woman said ‘No’ to sex with her husband, the Angel Gabriel would strike her down and condemn her to an eternity of hell. Following these lessons, there was commotion in the corridors, with boys telling girls that they couldn’t refuse them and saying “We have been told this”. An assembly following the lessons was supposed to put right the SRE teaching but again the boys were in effect told that “this is what it says in Islam but it is different in the eyes of British society”. Staff reported that one of the teachers who gave the lessons said: “Luckily we were able to hide all the controversial worksheets very, very quickly and managed to get rid of all of them between the two Ofsted inspections”.’

  • Students demonstrating positive views regarding 9/11 and 7/7, and no soldiers visiting the school

Clarke’s report makes no mention of 9/11 or 7/7 but does note some teachers claiming that the Boston bombings and the murder of Lee Rigby were ‘hoaxes’ in social media conversations between different staff.  There is also a conversation where several teachers disparage the British armed forces, including the charity Help for Heroes.

  • ‘Homework’ to convert non-Muslim staff

Our sources alleged that ‘In RE, pupils were given a list of non-Muslim members of staff and set homework to try and convert them.’ This hasn’t been found, although our own research pointed to a number of concerning aspects of the RE syllabus, which seemed to be taught from an Islamic perspective, and the report found that ‘Only modules in Islam are studied from Years 9 to 11.’

  • Compulsory prayers

Our whistleblowers alleged that ‘The school has legally determined to have Islamic instead of Christian collective worship, with students sitting segregated side-by-side based on gender. It has also encouraged students to pray by putting posters up in school corridors. Some of these read ‘If you do not pray you are worse than a Kafir’ (i.e. non-Muslim). There is a call to prayer every lunch time.’

The Clarke Report pointed out that it has been alleged that ‘an assembly where pupils were told that if they did not pray they were worse than a kaffir (a derogatory term for non-Muslims), supported by a poster with the same message’, and ‘We have been told by staff at Park View that a tannoy to broadcast the ‘adhan’, the Muslim call to prayer, was installed. It could not only be heard across the whole school site, but also by residents in the local community, and was used every day to call students and staff to prayer. However, it was switched off immediately before Ofsted visited the school and also on the days when the Department for Education and Education Funding Agency officials visited. I was informed that a member of staff at Park View used a microphone from a high window to shout at students who were in the playground, not attending prayer. Some girls were embarrassed when attention was drawn to them because girls who are menstruating are not allowed to attend prayer. But still, the teacher called to them.’

  • Segregation by gender

It was alleged that ‘Certain male teachers expect boys to be at the front of the class and girls at the back, and ignore girls when they want to answer a question.’ Indeed, Clarke found that ‘In Park View maths lessons, where all the teachers are men, the girls were separated at the sides and back of the classroom, while the boys sat in the centre, towards the front. In many other subjects, students sat on different tables with boys and girls segregated. Single sex classes exist across the entire age range in PE, RE and PSHE at Park View.’

With regard to PE, it was alleged that ‘Girls are not allowed to take part in PE or sport activities with boys, even non-contact sports or where a male coach is present, the reason given for this being it makes male Muslims feel uncomfortable.’ The Clarke Report found that ‘The Park View girls’ tennis team was taken to a local schools’ tournament by PE staff after school. When they arrived they found men present. The teacher had to return the girls to school and was suspended by governors until she had written a letter of apology. When interviewed, Mr Hussain explained to me that the girls had to return to the school because it was tennis “coaching”, where there would inevitably be physical contact between the male coaches and the female pupils.’ The Council’s report also cited ‘curtains being fitted in the sports hall for girls’ PE lessons’.

  • Other discrimination against women

It was also alleged that ‘Members of staff have shown prejudice against girls not wearing a headscarf, with some girls being forced by staff to do so. If a boy and girl are seen together more than once parents are called in.’ Clarke found that ‘At the recent Year 11 Prom, staff report that they were surprised to see the girls arriving with their heads uncovered. They expected them to be covered, as they had been at school, and realised that this was really their normal way of dressing. Girls at Park View complained to staff that their parents are too readily contacted if they are seen speaking to a boy. They also say that conclusions are drawn about conversations which are completely unfounded. They feel that they are being harassed.’ He also said that prefects are allegedly expected to ‘report to the headteacher the names of staff and students who exhibit behaviours which are deemed unacceptable by conservative Muslims. These include behaviours such as boys and girls talking to each other or touching each other; boyfriend and girlfriend relationships’. And he included instant messages between teachers discussing how to better segregate pupils.

Finally, it was alleged that ‘Female members of staff and pupils are often treated as inferior by male Muslim staff members. Complaints about this behaviour are not taken seriously.’ Clarke found that ‘Inequalities for female staff include lack of progression and promotion, lack of opportunities for training, attacks on their manner of dress and being ignored or disrespectfully treated by senior male staff and governors. Female pupils also suffer inequalities.’

  • Unchallenged homophobic views

It was alleged that ‘Many pupils have expressed homophobic views and these are not challenged… teachers who have wanted to try and address the homophobia have been told they are not allowed to.’ Clarke reports on Park View governors expressing ‘Openly homophobic views’ at meetings whilst social media messages between teachers at the school were both unchallenged and derogatory, referring to those supporting same sex marriage as ‘animals’ with ‘satanic ways’ and seeing the acceptance of LGBT couples as ‘a sign of the end times.’ ’Senior staff have been shouted at in governing body meetings when they attempted to discuss the LGBT agenda. Male and female staff have reported that they have to hide their sexuality. Students say that their teachers do not talk to them about such matters.’

  • Sexual health

It was alleged that ‘The school nurse is not allowed to discuss sexual health issues with pupils.’ Clarke did not report on this matter. But below you can see two posters – one provided by the Department for Education for schools to use to advertise their nursing services, and one from Park View School in 2012. It’s not hard to spot the difference.

School-Nurse-publicity-YP-version-PRESS-final-21st-of-aug-page-001 2014-05-16 18.55.49 (1)

  • ‘Cheating’ during Ofsted inspections

The original allegations made claim to the fact that schools were cheating in Ofsted inspections by ‘telling children answers in Urdu’ which they would then repeat in English to the inspector, or deliberately teaching about religions other than Islam whilst inspectors were in the school. Clarke’s report does not cite these examples but does make reference to other allegations for example about the SRE worksheets being hidden, the call to prayer tannoy being switched off, and that at Golden Hillock ‘Staff state that senior leaders checked their classrooms and removed Islamic display materials before the Department for Education visited.’

  • Improper handling of staff recruitment and issues

In April, our original allegations included the promotion of friends and relatives of governors and the appointment of male Muslim teachers with extreme views, with jobs not advertised to other interested staff or the general public as a whole. Further, staff who complained or had issues with the school had investigations brought against them leading to resignations. Clarke’s report extensively corroborates all of these issues, making note that there was evidence of staff harassment and bullying, as well as certain positions being unfairly filled by people who knew the governors and by people with certain views.


These are distressing allegations. Clarke’s report largely confirms the initial claims made by our whistleblowers, with conservative Muslim practices being taken to an extreme within Park View School, creating a volatile environment for both staff and students in which science, RE and sex education are improperly taught and a culture of harassment and bullying exists. In such a climate, the initial whistleblowers who brought this issue to the attention of the BHA who passed it on to the DfE, and Ofsted, and who subsequently worked with us to speak out across the media to the wider public, should be commended for the bravery of their actions, especially given the risks to their careers and reputations they faced in bringing the scandal to light. Their actions have led to a widespread inquiry into the nature of teaching and management in Britain’s state school sector, and will have a lasting impact on the sector for years to come.

Moral, religious, psychopathic, or just human?

Glen Carrigan looks at the science of morality

Science, increasingly, is answering questions which before only philosophers could attempt

Science, increasingly, is answering questions which before only philosophers could attempt

Why doesn’t Microsoft Word recognise the word ‘Neuropsychology?’ Maybe because it’s a rather new field, although people have been musing on the workings of the physical brain for a very long time indeed – don’t worry though, we’re not trepanning people anymore!

My interest is the moral brain, how humans – and other animals to some degree – draw the distinction between right and wrong to organise society. Some argue that moral standards are axiomatic and that moral compasses come from god. There actually seems to be some truth to this, in that some absolutist standards like Thou Shalt Not Kill or the Golden Rule seem to be very intuitive – as is the notion that you’re somehow a social pariah if you play World of Warcraft. A paper by Baumard and Boyer called “Explaining Moral Religions” shows just how universal this is.

Is the Golden Rule any good though? Maybe, but you’re making your own narrow individual experience the basis for how you treat others. Wouldn’t it be better to ask them how they’d like to be treated? This should indeed be the case for issues such as assisted dying, where holding to Thou Shalt Not Kill diminishes the dignity and autonomy of a feeling, reflecting being. To hold dogmatic moral views also only works if you believe in god and that at least in some religions, you’re good to escape punishment in the hereafter, rather than for the sake of the here and now.

Far from being divine in origin, there seems to be a wealth of evidence showing us that being an individual yet social animal, with a big (relative to body size) and healthy brain, necessitates certain behaviours for us to flourish in a group. This then, gives rise to our need to discuss and reflect upon what it means to be a moral agent. You can see similar intuitive behavioural patterns to our own in other animals that operate in social groups. A wonderful example is the reciprocal behaviour of vampire bats, who seem to understand that a good deed (donating a regurgitated blood meal – stomach churning I know) deserves repayment. There is much converging evidence in evolutionary psychology that points to animals being the origin of their own ‘moral’ codes. But there are driving forces behind being a good egg other than reciprocity.

Throughout history philosophers have struggled with what constitutes the virtuous act. We notice that certain behaviours are predictable and wrong such as rape and rightly condemn people for it. We also need to accept that we make choices – if we have free will – and should be responsible for them. The fact that certain prohibitions are intuitive might suggest an in-built moral acquisition and refinement device (MARD) which is nurtured by social experience, emotion and reflection, rather than an omnipotent law giver. Perhaps we are actually responsible for the holy books that seek to have us toe the moral line – although we were managing to beforehand – in any event we seem to be the only species we know of that spends a great deal of time writing books telling ourselves to be good, that we’re special, and that we should be humble about it!

Neuropsychology can perhaps tell us a bit about this MARD and how we think, rather than what we should think here: We establish the social norms after all and what acts constitute deviance. The archetypal Psychopath seems to be deviant to many of us and this is why I study them. The fact is that we all have psychopathic traits along a spectrum; it’s just that some people have more pronounced, what the majority consider to be, morally deviant tendencies. Neuropsychology shows us that Psychopaths seem to have diminished empathic concern, as well as, fail to notice the importance of intention in a harmful act. Since it’s us that establish that intention to cause harm is worse than an accident (the difference between murder and manslaughter) we view psychopaths as morally deviant in society – perhaps their MARD is broken?

People often panic here and think that if we can predict someone will think and perhaps behave murderously then the notion of choice in society falls apart. It might, if you want Neuroscience to strip us of our humanity. In my view, although we could see why such people might be like this, that doesn’t mean they walk away scot free. What matters is that we discuss our options reflectively and organise society around us as moral beings that makes choices, with a sense of responsibility, and who can be punished for transgressions, rather than allowing my brain made me do it as an alibi in all cases where mental instability is an issue. It’s also worth pointing out that most psychopaths actually don’t run around murdering people like Heath Ledger in Batman!

Glen Carrigan is a neuropsychology researcher at the University of Central Lancashire, as well as ex-military, a qualified fitness instructor, communications specialist, youth mentor, humanist, science presenter and model who advocates social and political activism in equality and education.

Ten facts about ‘faith’ schools

One third of state-funded schools in England are legally designated with a religious character. Here are ten facts about what that means.

1. Most don’t have to teach about other religions in Religious Education

The majority of ‘faith’ schools are required to teach religious education ‘in accordance with the tenets of the religion or religious denomination’ of the school. In other words, it’s up to the religious body as to what is taught (or not taught) in RE and if a school just wanted to teach about one religion only then it can legally do so. This is compounded by the fact that ‘faith’ schools have an exemption from the Equality Act 2010 when it comes to the curriculum and also the fact that their RE provision is not directly inspected by Ofsted (see no 4 below).

To be more specific, there are two ‘models’ of ‘faith’ school – the voluntary aided model and the voluntary controlled model.  Religious Voluntary Aided schools, Free Schools and sponsored Academies follow the voluntary aided model while religious Voluntary Controlled and Foundation schools follow the voluntary controlled model. Religious converter Academies stick to the model they followed prior to conversion.

Over three fifths of ‘faith’ schools follow the voluntary aided model (including all Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools and about 45% of Church of England primaries and 70% of Church of England secondaries). Only some Church of England, Methodist and generically Christian schools follow the voluntary controlled model.

Schools with no religious character and those religious schools following the voluntary controlled model must follow an RE syllabus that ‘reflect[s] the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain.’ But as we said at the start, schools following the voluntary aided model can teach faith-based RE.

In our experience most ‘faith’ schools do teach about other religions – although we do occasionally see exceptions. And non-Anglican/Methodist ‘faith’ schools do often offer GCSEs that only include modules on their particular faith, for example a Catholic theology GCSE or a GCSE only studying Islam.

2. When they do teach about other religions, they often don’t teach about them properly

Following on from the previous point, there is no requirements attached to how exactly RE is taught. Recent Government guidelines on RE such as the 2004 subject framework and the 2010 guidance are non-statutory but at any rate are targeted at schools with no religious character and those following the voluntary controlled model not the voluntary aided model. The RE Council’s 2013 curriculum framework does say that ‘all types of school need to recognise the diversity of the UK and the importance of learning about its religions and worldviews, including those with a significant local presence’ – but again this is non-statutory and the guidance is primarily not for schools following the voluntary aided model.

Instead what ‘faith’ schools following the voluntary aided model can do is teach that the faith of the school is literally true and that all other beliefs are false. Indeed, the 2013 framework says that ‘The REC recognises that in schools with a religious character, there is likely to be an aspiration that RE (and other aspects of school life) will contribute to pupils’ faith development.’

Furthermore, in its policy document Christ at the Centre the Catholic Education Service says ‘The first key reason why Catholic schools are established, then, is to be part of the Church’s mission in education, to place Christ and the teaching of the Catholic Church at the centre of people’s lives. “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”[Pope Benedict XVI, 2008] This evangelising mission is  exercised  through  the  diverse  interaction  of  Catholic  schools  with  their  local  parishes, families, societies and cultures they serve.’

And the Church of England has produced two major reports on its schools this century – the Dearing Report and the Chadwick Report. The 2001 Dearing Report says that ‘The Church today still wishes to offer education for its own sake as a reflection of God’s love for humanity. But the justification for retaining and aspiring to extend its provision, as recommended in this report, cannot be simply this, when the state is willing to provide as never before and when there are so many calls on the Church’s limited resources. It is, and must be, because that engagement with children and young people in schools will, in the words of the late Lord Runcie when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, enable the Church to: “Nourish those of the faith; Encourage those of other faiths; Challenge those who have no faith.”’

Meanwhile the 2012 Chadwick Report cites as a ‘key premise that appl[ies] equally to children of the faith, of other faiths and of no faith’ to ‘Work towards every child and young person having a life-enhancing encounter with the Christian faith and the person of Jesus Christ’.

3. They don’t have to teach about non-religious people and beliefs

Following on from the fact that schools following the voluntary aided model don’t have to teach about other religions, similarly they don’t have to teach about non-religious beliefs either.

Actually many schools with no religious character don’t do this either. We think that equality and human rights legislation means that the legal requirement for RE syllabuses to include Christianity and ‘other principal religions’ also means that the syllabuses should include non-religious worldviews as well. This is increasingly common and the 2013 RE curriculum framework put non-religious worldviews on an equal footing to the principal religions. When such a high proportion of young people are not religious, this inclusion is vital. But at the same time, some areas such as Birmingham refuse to include any teaching about non-religious beliefs in their syllabus (other, perhaps, than purely to act as critiques of religions).

Turning to ‘faith’ schools, our experience is that many Church of England schools do include non-religious worldviews – particularly where those schools decide to teach the same RE syllabus as is taught in local schools with no religious character, for example in the Diocese of Wakefield.

But a number of CofE schools and many others too do not include teaching about non-religious worldviews in their own right, perhaps only including them as challenges to religion(s) or not including them at all. We have already quoted the Church of England’s Dearing Report setting out Anglican schools’ aim to ‘challenge those who have no faith’. Against this backdrop it is hard to argue that such schools teach about non-religious beliefs properly.

4. Their RE teaching isn’t even inspected by Ofsted. The religious bodies inspect it themselves

Schools are inspected under section 5 of the Education Act 2005. But this says that ‘An inspection which is required under this section must not extend to— (a) denominational education, or (b) the content of collective worship which falls to be inspected under section 48.’

In other words, faith-based education of the sort given in schools following the voluntary aided model is not inspected by Ofsted. Instead, as section 48 of the Act specifies, it is inspected by ‘a person chosen… by the governing body’. In practice this means dioceses for Church of England, Roman Catholic and Methodist schools, and for other faiths it is typically the relevant national religious organisation. What is more, the state pays the religious body to carry out these inspections.

For Anglican and Methodist schools, the inspection is carried out under the ‘SIAMS’ framework. One question asked is ‘How effective is the Religious Education? Within the context of a distinctively Christian character’. This does include a grade descriptor asking ‘To what extent does RE promote community cohesion through an understanding of and respect for diverse faith communities?’ But non-religious beliefs are not included and another grade descriptor asks ‘To what extent does RE promote the distinctive Christian character of the school?’

When Ofsted inspects ‘faith’ schools following the voluntary aided model it will sometimes look at RE lessons as part of its overall assessment of teaching and learning – so in this sense the subject can be indirectly looked at. But it does not inspect or report on the subject specifically (indeed such schools were explicitly excluded from the last subject-specific report on the basis that ‘separate inspection arrangements exist’) and would not mark a school down for teaching from a faith-based perspective or failing to include non-religious beliefs.

5. ‘Faith’ schools do not have to provide much in the way of sex education and can choose to only teach abstinence until marriage

There are very few requirements on any schools in terms of what they must teach about sex education. Maintained schools (i.e. state schools other than Academies and Free Schools) have to follow the national curriculum, which in Science includes puberty and the biological aspects of reproduction. Maintained secondary schools also have to, at a minimum, teach sex education that includes education about sexually transmitted infections, HIV and AIDS. But beyond that there are only requirements to have regard to guidance on the matter and to publish policies.

And Academies and Free Schools only have to have regard to guidance.

This means that a school could, if it wishes, choose to take an approach of only teaching an abstinence until marriage, instead of providing full and comprehensive sex and relationships education that includes teaching about relationships, consent, the advantages of waiting for sex, contraception, abortion and issues related to sexual health other than STIs. The evidence shows that full and comprehensive SRE is what leads to the best outcomes in terms of ensuring that relationships are consensual, preventing unwanted pregnancies, preventing abortions and preventing STIs. So taking an abstinence only approach is unhelpful.

We regularly hear from people who say that they were taught through an abstinence only approach. We also occasionally see issues with respect to religious schools’ approach to teaching about abortion, contraception, sexual orientation and same-sex marriage.

6. Some religious schools have extremely complex admissions policies

The School Admissions Code says that schools must not ‘give priority to children on the basis of any practical or financial support parents may give to the school or any associated organisation, including any religious authority’ or ‘prioritise children on the basis of their own or their parents’ past or current hobbies or activities’. However many high profile ‘faith’ schools have this year been forced to change their admissions policies after taking into account activities such as ‘Bell ringing’, ‘Flower arranging at church’, ‘Assisting with collection/counting money’, ‘Tea & coffee Rota’, ‘Church cleaning’, ‘Church maintenance’, ‘Parish Magazine Editor’ and ‘Technical support’.

In fact the Catholic Diocese of Brentwood’s priest’s reference form asks parents, ‘If you or your child participate or contribute to parish activities, you may wish to indicate below.’ In other words, every Catholic school in the diocese is currently gathering examples of this kind of activity. This breaks the Code either because it is being taken into account or because it is being asked about needlessly.

Furthermore, since the London Oratory School was told to remove its ‘Catholic service criterion’ (where parents could get two points towards entry for three years of activities such as flower arranging) there has been a looming threat that the school will judicially review the decision.

Meanwhile, one Jewish girls’ school in Hackney specifies that ‘Charedi homes do not have TV or other inappropriate media, and parents will ensure that their children will not have access to the Internet and any other media which do not meet the stringent moral criteria of the Charedi community. Families will also dress at all times in accordance with the strictest standards of Tznius (modesty) as laid down by the Rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.’ – before giving priority in entry to ‘Charedi Jewish girls who meet the Charedi criteria as prescribed by the Rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.’  This doesn’t seem to us to be a sensible basis on which to decide who does and does not gain entry to a state funded school.

7. They can turn down children whose parents don’t share the school’s religion, no matter where they live

‘Faith’ schools that are voluntary aided, foundation, Academy or Free Schools set their own admissions policies, whereas voluntary controlled schools have their admissions policies set by their local authority.  Again they have an exemption from the Equality Act 2010 when it comes to discrimination in school admissions. The result is that many schools can – and do – give preference to those of a particular faith over others in their admissions. They can only do this if sufficiently oversubscribed, Free Schools can only do so for up to half of places, and only about a quarter of local authorities allow some of their Voluntary Controlled schools to select.

Last year the Fair Admissions Campaign looked at the admissions policies of every religious secondary school in England. In total it found that 99.8% of places at Catholic schools, 100% of places at Jewish schools and 94.9% of places at Muslim schools were subject to religious selection criteria. At Church of England schools only 49.7% of places were subject to such criteria – but if you only focus on CofE schools that are in no way selected in terms of how much they can select (for example because they are VC schools) then the figure rises to 68%.

In total the Campaign estimated that some 1.2 million places are subject to religious selection criteria. This is a quarter more than the number of places in grammar, private and single-sex schools combined.

The problem is particularly acute in some parts of the country. For example, in Kensington and Chelsea, some 60% of secondary places are religiously selected. In Liverpool it’s around half.

8. Priority is often given to other religions over the non-religious

In our experience, a typical Catholic school priority list goes:

1. Catholic
2. Other Christian
3. Other faith
4. Distance from school – which, of course, means non-religious people.

That schools are allowed to prioritise those of other faiths over others is justified on the basis that ‘It would, for example, allow a Church of England school to allocate some places to children from Hindu or Muslim families if it wanted to ensure a mixed intake reflecting the diversity of the local population.’ However, this kind of admissions policy is extremely rare in practice. Much more common is putting those of no religion below those of religions other than that of the school. Voluntary aided model Church of England schools also frequently engage in this practice.

9. Most ‘faith’ schools can require every single teacher to share the faith of the school

The Equality Act 2010 has provisions that prevent discrimination by employers against employees. But there is an exemption from the Act to allow ‘faith’ schools, uniquely, to discriminate much more widely. In the case of those three-fifths following the voluntary aided model, this means that every single teacher can legally be required to share the faith of the school. For the rest it means for up to a fifth of staff.

How much does this happen in practice? Catholic schools are an interesting case in point. The Catholic Education Service’s stats show that not every teacher in a Catholic school is a Catholic. But their standard teacher application form asks applicants to give their ‘Religious Denomination / Faith’, adding ‘Schools/Colleges of a Religious Character are permitted, where recruiting for Teaching posts, to give preference to applicants who are practising Catholics and, therefore, one [referee] should be your Parish Priest/the Priest of the Parish where you regularly worship.’

And in their policy document, the CES says that ‘Preferential consideration should… be given to practising Catholics for all teaching posts and for non-teaching posts where there is a specific religious occupational requirement, i.e., chaplaincy post. In England and Wales statutory provision allows for such preferences to be made.’ In other words, the advice is that Catholic schools should only hire non-Catholics for teaching roles if a Catholic cannot be found. This could be for maths teachers, PE teachers, science teachers or any other role.

(Incidentally, ‘faith’ schools’ broad ability to discriminate in this way is possibly a breach of the European Employment Directive, which limits the extent to which schools can discriminate to where it can be said that there is a genuine occupational requirement (GOR). An example of a GOR is requiring a priest to share the faith of his or her church. There cannot possibly be said to be a GOR on every teacher at a school. For this reason, in 2010 we complained to the European Commission and said that UK law is in breach of European law in allowing such widespread discrimination. In 2012 the Commission took this up as a formal investigation.)

10. Until recently, if a science exam question conflicted with a religious belief, the question could be removed

Last year a state-funded and one independent Charedi Jewish school were found to have been blacking out exam questions on evolution in its GCSE science exams. The state school claimed that the practice of censoring questions had ‘successfully been in place within the Charedi schools throughout England for many years’. Most worryingly, when this came to light, Ofqual and the exam boards initially decided to support the practice.

However, after public pressure, Ofqual and the exam boards thankfully decided to reverse their previous decision and the practice is now banned.

More generally we do occasionally see concerns about the teaching of evolution or creationism in state schools – and the problem is widespread in private schools, many of which are getting state funding through their nurseries.

How are the schools funded?

Voluntary Aided schools have 100% of their running costs and 90% of their building costs met by the state, with the remaining 10% building costs being paid for by the religious organisation. But this comes to about 1-2% of the schools’ total budget and so is typically fundraised off the parents in much the same way that all schools fundraise. Furthermore it is waived for big building projects (through both the Building Schools for the Future and Priority School Building Programme schemes). And other types of ‘faith’ school do not have to pay a penny – including Academies which have converted from being Voluntary Aided.


In sum, these religious schools are virtually 100% funded by taxpayers, even though 58% think they should not be and 70% think we shouldn’t be funding the promotion of religion in schools at all.

Not all religious schools discriminate in all of the ways we have set out. But the fact that some of them do so must surely be of grave concern. We think it’s wrong that schools segregate children on the basis of their parents’ religion, can similarly discriminate against teachers and can also teach a curriculum that comes from a perspective that is narrow and unshared by those of other faiths or those of none.

Instead we would like all state schools to be equally inclusive of those of all religious and non-religious beliefs. It is only if this is the case that we can pass on to future generations a tolerant, harmonious and cohesive society in which everyone is treated fairly and equally.

The practical ethics of smart drugs

In this first post of a new feature on HumanistLife, one blogger tackles a contemporary ethical concern from a humanist, rationalist or evidence-based position. Below, Laurie Pycroft discusses the smart drug modafinil, and addresses concerns over its use.

Photograph: Anders Sandberg

What if you could make yourself smarter simply by taking a pill? The concept of drugs that improve cognitive functions has been prevalent in science fiction for many years, but only relatively recently has the proliferation of such pharmaceuticals been a serious possibility. “Nootropics” or “smart drugs” have been hitting the headlines lately, with the promise of increased focus, memory, and wakefulness being an appealing prospect for many. Most widely discussed have been stimulants, normally prescribed for medically recognised conditions, being used off-label by healthy individuals seeking to improve their performance at mentally demanding tasks. Modafinil (AKA Provigil) is probably the most prominent of these drugs in the UK. Originally developed as a treatment for narcolepsy, modafinil also improves wakefulness in healthy people and evidence suggests that it may improve other aspects of cognitive function in some individuals. As with any drug, however, modafinil has risks associated with it and may be harmful to those taking it. Furthermore, there is a danger of smart drugs having negative side-effects on a societal level. As such, it is important to carefully consider the ethical ramifications of widespread use of smart drugs such as modafinil. This is a substantial question, far too large for this short article to consider in depth, but hopefully this piece will provide a reasonable overview of the issue and pose a few interesting questions worthy of deeper consideration.

The first important point to consider is the fact that cognitive enhancement, whether using drugs or other methods, is nothing new. Perhaps the most obvious example is caffeine, a substance that many millions of people use on a daily basis with the intent of reducing tiredness and improving focus. Less obvious are technologies such as computers and organised education, along with healthy diet and exercise, all of which offer substantial improvements to our cognitive abilities. When considering the issue of smart drugs, one should always consider the comparison with established cognition enhancement techniques and remember that all of them have potential down-sides. The important question here is – what amount of benefit does the intervention offer, and is the level of risk associated with it acceptable?

Most established cognition enhancement techniques carry relatively little risk, from an individual standpoint. Caffeine is perhaps the best point of comparison for drugs such as modafinil. Caffeine is addictive and can produce unpleasant side-effects, but it is unlikely to seriously threaten health in most people, except at very high doses. Conversely, its benefits are quite minor – primarily improving perceived wakefulness for a short period of time. Modafinil’s benefits are likely somewhat greater, with research indicating that it can significantly improve working memory, concentration, alertness, and other cognitive abilities in sleep deprived individuals. Results are less clear-cut when it comes to those who have had sufficient sleep, but some studies have reported enhancements to aspects of memory and concentration, especially in individuals with a lower baseline performance in the experimental tasks. The negative effects of modafinil use in healthy people are still not fully understood – while it is not associated with the same level of addiction or cardiovascular damage seen with many stimulants, it is thought to carry a small risk of inducing some extremely rare but potentially life-threatening dermatological conditions. Relatively little research has been done into its long-term health effects and future smart drugs are likely to be similarly poorly understood. These risks are compounded by the fact that, currently, modafinil is illegal to sell (although not to buy) without a prescription in the UK, meaning that healthy users must purchase it from underground sources, raising the possibility of being sold impure or mislabelled products. Whether this level of risk is acceptable is, ultimately, a question that each potential user must ask themself.

The issues surrounding smart drugs are not, however, exclusive to the individual. Any new technology that has the potential to alter the cognitive processes of millions of people is bound to have effects on society as a whole. Two inter-related societal issues that smart drugs could impact are those of inequality and competition. The inequality issue comes down to the possibility of expensive new smart drugs exacerbating existing social divides – while modafinil is relatively inexpensive and the benefits it offers are modest, it is not inconceivable that new drugs could be developed offering greater improvements to cognition while being substantially more costly. Such a situation could lead to the rich having preferential access to cognition enhancement, making it even more difficult for the poor to compete. While this is a potential problem, it is far from insurmountable. A drug that offered such major benefits could be worth providing for free (or at reduced cost) to the population at large, whether through state health service or charity.

This already occurs with education, which requires a vast investment of time and money, but offers such great benefits that society is willing to foot the bill. The competition issue is often raised with regards to education – if one group is able and willing to take these drugs, do they have an unfair advantage over those who do not? A problem with this line of reasoning is its comparison of education to a zero-sum game such as competitive sports. In sport, if one person has an advantage, everyone else is negatively impacted as they are less likely to win. In education, however, the goal is not to “win”, but rather for everyone to learn as much as possible, with a better educated workforce tending to benefit society as a whole. There is still the issue of perceived competition and coercion – if society gets to the point where most people are benefiting from smart drugs, those who are not taking these drugs may feel pressured into doing so. Is this fair to those who, for issues of health, ethics, or religion do not want to ingest these drugs? If not, is the unfairness sufficient reason to restrict smart drug usage in the whole population, or to pass legislation preventing employers making hiring decisions on basis of smart drug use?

This coercion issue becomes more complex still when considering those whose job performance can seriously impact others’ lives. A recent study headed by Prof. Barbara Sahakian at Cambridge suggests that sleep deprived doctors may perform significantly more effectively at certain cognitive tasks after taking modafinil, and therefore could be more effective at their jobs when taking the drug. In an ideal world doctors would always get enough sleep, but in the real world modafinil may offer a way to reduce medical errors and improve the lives of patients. If this is the case, should doctors be encouraged or even required to take modafinil when tired? One can extend this reasoning to other professions that are relied upon to make important decisions when deprived of sleep, such as pilots and politicians. Is the risk of side effects outweighed by the risk to patients, passengers, and citizens posed by cognitively compromised decision-makers?

As with the public debate surrounding many drugs, both legal and illegal, the discussion of smart drugs is often typified by moral panic, political posturing, and a poor understanding of the science involved. News outlets are often content to discuss amazing miracle-pills or evil mind-destroying drugs, without seriously considering the risk/reward ratios of putative cognitive enhancers, and how they compare with existing methods. If modafinil and similar drugs continue to become more popular, the individual and societal ethical issues surrounding them will grow in importance. A sober and rational consideration of these issues is critical if policymakers are to make informed decisions on the topic, rather than simply following the knee-jerk reaction of the tabloid press. The questions posed above aren’t trivial, but finding acceptable solutions to them could be highly beneficial to society; if modafinil and future smart drugs can be harnessed appropriately, many people would be able to perform better at their jobs, be more productive, and have more fulfilling lives. Hopefully the novelty and potential risks of these drugs won’t completely overshadow the potential benefits.


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