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GUEST POST: Laurence Boyce – “Liberal Vision wrong on religion”

July 15th, 2009 Posted in Uncategorized by

schoolJulian Harris has kindly asked me to comment on the news, as relayed by the National Secular Society, that the Conservatives are planning to go full steam ahead with increased provision for faith schooling in the now inevitable event that they form the next government. Well, that’s no great surprise. Conservatives have always been deeply wedded to religious values. While some may protest the generalisation, the voting record in Parliament speaks for itself. From blasphemy to gay rights, stem-cells, and abortion, it’s pretty clear that God is a Tory; even if his only kid is a beard-and-sandals liberal.

A few months ago, I would have written yet another piece pointing out the glaring opportunity for Liberal Democrats to adopt a strong rational secular standpoint on faith schools and everything else. If Nick Clegg says the choice at the next election is between the Lib Dem and the Conservative, then a spot of secular politics could have generated a clear distinction between us – portraying them as the reactionary and outmoded bunch that most of them still are – conservative in the literal sense of that word, that is wishing to keep things more or less the way they have always been, while the public is gagging for radical change.

Anyway, we had that vote at Spring conference and totally flunked it. A motion to phase out faith schools didn’t even come close. Instead we are to bar faith-based selection for new faith schools, while allowing existing faith schools to retain their discriminatory powers. It’s all pretty academic, seeing as we won’t be in power. Back then, I had a little hissy fit about the vote and threatened to quit the party. But eventually I renewed my membership, opting for another year of holding my head in my hands – a posture I seem increasingly to be adopting with respect to party policy and the banal utterances of the leadership.

So why is the party so useless on faith schools? Well, part of the problem is you. Yes, I mean you, Liberal Vision. While the social wing of the party is far too “nice” to say anything overly critical of religion, however desperately it may need saying; the libertarian wing of the party has its libertarian philosophy to uphold – obviously. You rarely hear a libertarian suggesting that religion might be bad for the health, any more than that smoking is bad for the health. I bet if I told Mark Littlewood that the cigarettes were doing him no good, he would smoke the whole packet in front of me as some sort of political protest.

And therein lies the problem. You can’t very well make a song and dance about personal freedom and lifestyle choice, and then immediately follow this by socking someone over the head when they make a mistake. So if people want faith schools, then faith schools they must have together with everything that is insane and divisive about them – whether this be the creationist schools doing very nicely 150 years after Darwin, or the Islamic schools preaching an explicit doctrine of separation. By the way, these schools tend to obtain glowing Ofsted reports, so I just need to lie down and hold my head in my hands again for a bit . . .

The trouble is that all this much-heralded self-determination and personal freedom is largely illusory. How are we free in any meaningful sense to choose our own religion? We bang on and on about religious freedom, even going so far as to enshrine it in a charter of human rights, and yet the facts are pretty clear – in the main, people stick with the religion of their parents, with a small degree of inter-denominational movement. Movement between the main religious groupings is almost unheard of. You might be aware of someone who, having been raised an Anglican, is now a devout Sunni Muslim; but I think you also know that person to be a very rare exception.

This is not freedom or anything like it. Rather, this is the “despotism of custom” of which JS Mill spoke long ago, and faith schools help to enforce this dismal pattern of cultural determinism. Your parents are Catholic, so you’re a Catholic, and you go to the Catholic school; your parents are Muslim, so you’re a Muslim, and you go to the Muslim school; and so on. Are we serious about this? Apparently we are. It’s not so much like freely choosing to smoke against the best advice, but more like insisting on the right to blow the fumes in your child’s face. Except that faith schooling is potentially more lethal. Every time I write on this topic, violence seems to flare up in Northern Ireland just to make my point.

I support the aims of Liberal Vision. The welfare state has been a train wreck – I can say that here, right? Now that we’ve run up such a ridiculous debt, there’s surely no better time to press for a radical resettlement of the relationship between the individual and the state. And yet I always baulk at describing myself as libertarian. The reason is because I believe the libertarian conception of freedom to be faulty. It’s a conception which seems to rest unduly upon a mythical “free will” of the individual – a rather shaky doctrine, strangely required by both libertarian and religionist alike.

If we truly believe in personal freedom, then I would like to hear much more about the pressing need to free young minds from superstition and falsehood, and less about abstract freedoms which only exist in political pamphlets. Because the most important thing to understand about freedom, may well be that we don’t really possess any of it at all.

Laurence Boyce is (still) a member of the Liberal Democrats.

24 Responses to “GUEST POST: Laurence Boyce – “Liberal Vision wrong on religion””

  1. Richard Says:

    Perhaps the Lib Dems won’t promise to get rid of faith schools for electoral reasons? I can well imagine such a policy crippling them in Lib Dem/Tory areas with a few faith schools. Surrey SW comes to mind for example.

  2. Richard Says:

    “If we truly believe in personal freedom, then I would like to hear much more about the pressing need to free young minds from superstition and falsehood”

    Do you plan to ban parents from passing on religious values to their children?

    I went to C of E schools when I was younger. I don’t know anybody who attended them who turned into a religious nutter as a result. A lot of my friends became atheists if they already weren’t. I don’t know any of them who are prjudiced against Catholics, Jews etc. Frankly I think this fear of faith schools is overblown and based on a minority of creationist and Islamic schools.

  3. John Says:

    Would be a better article if it weren’t stuffed full of assumptions and unsubstantiated claims. e.g. faith schools in NI lead to violence.

    Oh dear. If you were trying to make a serious contribution, I suggest some proof reading first to weed out those things that detract from your case.

    I can see that there are serious points you are trying to make, but they are neither clear, and nor are your arguments for them.

    4 out of 10 for content, 8 out 10 for the prose and style.

  4. Laurence Boyce Says:

    OK, let me get this straight John. You think that faith schooling in Northern Ireland has contributed to improved social cohesion, a better understanding between the religious communities, and a consequent reduction in violence?

  5. Laurence Boyce Says:

    Richard, I’ve heard that a thousand times. CofE schools are harmless, everyone just winds up atheist anyway, so . . . what is the point?

    What is the point of a CofE school as opposed to an ordinary school? It is surely to pass on a set of values – religious values – to the next generation. You seem to be telling me that they do a rubbish job. You may be right.

    It seems to me therefore that faith schools are either sinister or silly. What they are not is justifiable, not least because they operate an openly discriminatory and divisive admissions policy, and Lib Dems at Spring Conference said that this is just fine by us.

  6. Richard Says:

    Something else occurs to me – C of E and Catholic schools are property of their respective churches aren’t they? How does one abolish faith schools without confiscating church property (which simply looks like an act of state theft)? The alternative is to cut off state funding for faith schools. Can’t see the Lib Dems advocating that though.

  7. Laurence Boyce Says:

    Yes, that’s a problem. Though I’m sure that the ongoing cost of running a school rapidly dwarfs property values. It’s the same with Academies. The initial required investment of £2 million is just peanuts in the overall scheme of things.

    The first step is to insist on an equitable admissions policy. If faith schools are not interested in indoctrinating anyone, then they can hardly complain about this. In reality, when a 25% quota for non-religious intake was mooted a while back, they complained a great deal, which says it all really.

  8. Alasdair Says:

    Laurence i Started a response to this post but stopped because i was unable to work out the extent of your challenge. While i think you may have a libertarian point at the heart of your post I am unable to see it under the mass of anti-religious rhetoric. Are you arguing that faith schools should not be able to discriminate on entrance (I agree), or that faith schools should not be able to force pupils to participate in religious ceremony without the consent of the parents (I agree). That all publicly funding faith schools should be banned (I agree in part) . That all faith schools should be banned? (I disagree). Or that parents should not be allowed to bring up their children according to their own religious belief?(I disagree). Or that any religon should be considered bad for society and aggressively opposed? Or is the scope of your attack different again?
    Knowing the extent of your position would inform any response

  9. Andy Hinton Says:


    Richard: Of course you’re not going to stop parents being able to push their religion onto children, but you can at least insist that they do it on their own time, on holy days, or take their children out of the state system altogether if it is that important to them that their children have absolutely no access to an inclusive, secular (in the true sense of the word) education. The question is not the right of the parent to bring a child up with their values, the question is their right to state funding to mix this in with the regular (state funded) educational aims of making sure kids can read, write, add up, have a basic understanding of how the world works, etc.

  10. Laurence Boyce Says:

    Alasdair, I am against faith schooling in general and would appreciate the smallest crumb of comfort in terms of some party policy in this direction. In reality, all I ever hear is party figures going out of their way to pander to religious groupings. One of our MPs was even trying to court the Moonies last year for crissake.

    But I’ve said this all before, and everyone is sick and tired of it. What I want to explore in this post – and nobody has really got started on this – is the extent to which the libertarian position hampers criticism of religion.

    I am not a libertarian. I first discovered libertarians a few years ago. Previously I had never given the term a great deal of thought. What I found was that half the time I agreed with what they were saying, and the other half of the time I was puzzled.

    In particular, they always seemed rather weak on criticism of religion, even the ones I knew more or less agreed with me. I came to see that they were hampered in their critique because they had invested so much effort into, “everyone is free to believe whatever they want, blah, blah, blah . . .”

    What I have tried to argue in this article is that when it comes to religion, such a conception of freedom is too simplistic, and indeed false. This leads libertarians to duck out of difficult issues like faith schools, or like the Burqa which was another recent discussion.

    This is all a bit speculative. So you (libertarians) tell me – do I have a point?

  11. Richard Says:

    “The question is not the right of the parent to bring a child up with their values, the question is their right to state funding to mix this”

    That state funding comes from the parents’ taxes. If they want their child to have a religious education then I don’t see why their tax money shouldn’t fund it. Or it could be given back to them to pay for private religious schooling.

    “This is all a bit speculative. So you (libertarians) tell me – do I have a point?”

    What makes the situation tricky for us libertarians is the fact that the state controls and funds the schools. Ideally all schools would be privately funded and run and allowed to set their own admissions criteria. However, with the state in command it will inevitably be expected to abide by certain “social” objectives e.g. “fair” admissions etc. My view is that if religious schools have to be state funded it should be done through a voucher system and the schools should be allowed to run themselves with no state meddling. Christians, like atheists, pay taxes and they’re entitled, in my view, to see their tax money fund the sort of education that they would buy for their children privately if they could do.

  12. Laurence Boyce Says:

    OK, well I agree with some of that. Faith is not the only thing wrong with state education. Vouchers are definitely the way to go, and under a voucher system, schools would be more autonomous. But that doesn’t mean they can do anything they like.

    Take the recent case concerning the Jews Free School in North London. Broadly speaking, the admissions policy of this particular school required the child’s mother to the ethnically Jewish according to the strict definition of the United Synagogue. So at this point, everyone says: “Hey you can’t do that. It’s racist!”

    And the court has indeed ruled it to be racist, and so the school will have to think again or appeal the decision. But what I can’t understand is why no one has the wit to see that faith schools were already a bit racist before this particular case. Kids are dragooned into a particular school on account of their parents beliefs. Not their own beliefs; their parents beliefs. Racist is the wrong word, but it’s certainly tribal. The Catholic tribe, the protestant tribe, etc.

    I don’t have any problem with school selection. For ideological reasons, it has absurdly been deemed evil to select on the basis of ability or aptitude. This will have to change when schools enjoy greater independence. But surely libertarians would not countenance the widespread use of a racist or a political admissions policy? Surely even in libertarian land there would be limits? There are always limits.

    The way things are at present, the only method of school selection we countenance (faith) is also one of the most insane. It’s not necessarily a racist policy, but it’s not far off. It’s a policy which relates to an arbitrary categorisation of the child which has nothing to do with that child’s inherent abilities or desires. It’s just wrong, and moreover it will act as an obstacle towards that free and dynamic voucher-based education system we would like to see.

  13. Nick Says:

    Freedom is freedom from coercion pure and simple; any other definition is falsely used in the political context.(from a classical liberal/libertarian position at least) As Hayek pointed out in The Constitution of Liberty ‘inner freedom’ or ‘freedom from superstition’ is a qualitatively different sort of concept to classical freedom. Indeed they will conflict if we try to make give people more ‘inner freedom’ through the coercive means. Being a liberal means maximising freedom. Using your definition of freedom and taking it to its logical conclusion would lead to a paradox, a ‘free’ society based on intensive intrusion and coercion in everyday life.

  14. Joe Otten Says:

    Should my taxes be used to fund a universal provision of education in…

    mathematics? Yes.
    science? Yes.
    history? Yes.
    religion? No.

    I can see why a libertarian might say no to all 4 of these questions, but not why one might say yes to the last one. I agree that parents should be able to get the kind of education that they want, but surely it is a legitimate public policy question, to decide which subjects are taught at public expense.

  15. Balham Bugle Says:

    “I support the aims of Liberal Vision.”

    I’m not sure that you do. Your support for Liberal Vision seemed predicated on the lack of support from the pinkos for your intolerances. They hardly seem in keeping with LV position on about anything. I fear that if you want a party to support your faith school position, you may need to either start your own party or hope Labour take a significant leftward shift after the next election and join them.

    If most education is going to be state provided, fully-funded by the taxpayer, then it is hardly liberal for secularism being the only religion to be taught. Some parents want their children to be taught in faith schools. As long as this doesn’t damage the child, and you effectively force them to be part of the state system, then it seems reasonable that they should have that choice.

    “Every time I write on this topic, violence seems to flare up in Northern Ireland just to make my point.”

    I therefore advise you to stop writing about it (or you have your God delusion looked at; there’s only room for one Richard Dawkins in this world)

  16. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    ‘Freedom is freedom from coercion pure and simple’

    Is a man free if he is stuck down a hole?

    Is a person who can’t walk free if they don’t have a wheelchair?

    Is a person free if they have a curable disease but doesn’t have access to the cure?

    You might have a black & white view of liberty but the world is far from black & white.

  17. Joe Otten Says:

    Education vouchers don’t entirely address the point. Lets say we have an education voucher system, and there are faith groups running schools, which some parents choose to send their children and vouchers to. So far, fine.

    But if it is to be an education voucher and not a citizen’s income, there have to be limits on what the voucher is spent on. It has to be actually spent on educating the child, and therefore not on repairing a church, or kickbacks to parents.

    So there has to be a view taken on what is education and what isn’t.

    Now who wants to defend the view that teaching one child some “fact” about Jesus, Mohammed or Moses is education, and teaching another child the exact opposite is also education?

    And if it isn’t education, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but it does mean that the education voucher shouldn’t pay for it.

  18. Laurence Boyce Says:

    “I’m not sure that you do [support the aims of Liberal Vision].”

    Yes I do. I’ve had a look at the vision statement. I agree with the stuff on Smaller State. I agree with the stuff on Lower Tax. It’s the Personal Freedom section which I think is too simplistic and in general is the blind spot of libertarians everywhere.

    Ziggy’s examples above are good. The libertarian conception of freedom is too narrow.

  19. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    ‘But if it is to be an education voucher and not a citizen’s income, there have to be limits on what the voucher is spent on’

    Well there’d be a limit on the citizens incoming depend on how much of an income a family get etc.

    True they’d be standards 7 practices attached to the voucher system but only anarcho-capitalists would bitch about that.

  20. Julian H Says:

    I should point out that Liberal Vision is for classical liberals, not necessarily people who define themselves as libertarians. There’s no test by which we kick people out if they say that maybe public spending should be more than 1%. We’re also grateful for criticism, hence this post.

    And talking of this post – I will provide a response at some point. That point should have been this weekend, but I wasted it in drinking away from the internet.

  21. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    I’m glad you identify yourselves as classical liberals being as classical liberals are more flexable 76 adaptable then libertarians.

    The problem with libertarian groups is that they have often been usurped by anarcho-libertarians who are a blight because so often if you don’t tick all the boxes on their checklist of what a libertarian should be then they can pretty reactionary. Its why I’m so prickly around such people because I’m not going to be slammed as a statist pig just because the government can do some good when necessary. Basically many a libertarian needs to learn they don’t have the monopoly on what liberty happens to be, which I find highly ironic that a libertarians considering libertarians are so pro individual freedom yet so dogmatic.

  22. Nick Says:

    To Ziggy and Laurance

    “”Freedom” refers solely to a relation of men to other men, and the only infringement on it is coercion by men. This means, in particular that the range of physical possibilities from which a person can choose at a given moment has no direct relevance to freedom. The rock climber on a difficult pitch who sees only one way out to save his life is unquestionably free, though we would hardly say he has any choice. Also, most people will still have enough feeling for the original meaning of the word “free” to see that if that same climber were to fall into a crevasse and were unable to out of it, he could only figuratively be called ‘unfree’, and that to speak of him as being ‘deprived of liberty’ or of being ‘held captive’ is to use these terms in a sense different from that in which they apply to social relations.”

    Fredrich Hayek the Constituiton of Liberty p12

    “You might have a black & white view of liberty but the world is far from black & white”.

    Having a black and white is different from not being vauge and suffing from conflation of terms. Just because we use the same word ‘freedom’ for different aspects of life does not, mean they are the same.

    You are conflating freedom with power. In your examples no one is responsible for their plight. It is just bad luck.

  23. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    ‘no one is responsible for their plight. It is just bad luck.’

    In other words….FUCK THE POOR!

    Maybe if you lived on the other side of the tracks you’d have a different interpretation of freedom

  24. Laurence Boyce Says:

    Nick, I don’t think that anyone need have a monopoly over terms. After all, it’s been over 50 years since Isaiah Berlin first suggested that there might be two concepts of liberty.

    My point is that I would like to see young minds freed from superstition, and that this will ultimately give people more freedom or power or call it what you want. And I’d like to hear Liberal Vision talking about this. And they’re not.

    And I’m further speculating that part of the problem is that libertarians have themselves bought into a superstition. The superstition of “free will.” We’re having a great argument about it over at Charlotte’s.