Twitter lit up this week over the issue of faith schools and the Green Paper proposal to lift the 50% admissions cap for all new faith free schools. Much of what has been written is based on incorrect facts and twisted statistics, but a considerable proportion came into the category of sneering derision of people who teach in them. Christians working in education are apparently sub-intellectuals at best, and child abusers at worst. It’s been an outpouring of pure hatred.
Then I listened to an interview with Professor Brian Cox, and my faith in decent humanity was restored. Sadly, he was commenting on exactly the same issue – the propensity of people to create toxic ghettoes with their refusal to engage in open-minded dialogue. People, he suggests, position themselves into compartments with others of similar worldviews and then proceed to attack all other worldviews that don’t align with their own. Debate gets drowned in the polarisation of personal opinions.
Science and religion, Cox argues, are not incompatible. As he points out, religion is concerned with meaning and science is concerned with understanding evidence. There is no scientific proof that God exists. Nor is there any proof that He does not. Almost all known cultures in the world have a creation story – that, in itself, is proof of the human search for meaning. A recent survey of secondary school pupils showed that 45% of teenagers believe in God, even while they recognise that science says God does not exist. 52% believe that life has an ultimate meaning. A purposeful education gives us the chance to explore questions about who we are, and why we are here. Science can explain what – it can’t explain why.
In the course of the interview, Professor Cox was asked what he understood ‘wonder’ to mean. He defined it as ‘noticing that there’s something worth exploring’ and then going out and exploring it. And that’s exactly what Christian educators do. They aren’t about indoctrinating students into a particular view, or creating converts to boost their church numbers. They are about opening windows onto the world and encouraging students to wonder and explore. Within that exploration, faith plays a critical role in providing meaning.
I had an interesting conversation with a humanist a while back which ended with, ‘There’s no point in talking to you because you’ll never agree with me’. Not, notice, we will never agree with each other. Sure enough, he hasn’t spoken to me since. Only talking to people who agree with us, or whom we think we can make agree with us, just increases the toxic cycle.
In strong communities, people don’t always agree, but they do know how to disagree well. Contrary to public opinion, we Christians don’t don tin foil helmets to talk to the sky wizard. We are people who live in relationship with a loving God. So, as we engage in dialogue, can we, as the apostle Paul exhorted, ‘let our gentleness be evident to all ‘(Philippians 4:5) regardless of what you think about God?