Professor James Fraser CBE, has called for the establishment in Scotland of universities that teach within “the pre-suppositional framework of a Christian world view”, as opposed to the “radical secularist” position that he attributes to the existing universities, and holds up the network of Christian universities in the United States as a model. This demand is ill-conceived and presumptuous, and should be resisted. Professor Fraser is a philosophy graduate who has spent nearly all his career in university administration; he, of all people, should know better.
Remember that Scottish Universities are very heavily dependent on taxpayer money, since Scottish students have their fees paid for them by the Government. So the proposed Christian universities would be funded, in direct competition with the existing system, at the expense of a general population of whom now less than half are Christian. But that’s the least of it.
Self-styled Christian universities do indeed exist in the United States, and the problems that they pose should be enough to make Professor Fraser think again. They require their faculty to be Christians, and teach from a Christian point of view. But who is to say what point of view is Christian, and what is not? The Free Church, whose General Assembly he was addressing, adheres to a version of Christianity according to which the world was made in six days, the entire earth and life science content of the school curriculum must be wrong because it contradicts the Word of the Bible, humankind is “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good”, and all those who do not receive God’s grace are condemned to miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.
Is this what Professor Fraser wants to be able to demand from his Faculty? There have been cases, in the United States, of distinguished Professors being sacked from these Christian universities, merely because they did not accept on faith the literal truth of Genesis. Is this what we are being asked to emulate?
As for a “pre-suppositional framework”, that is a technical term that Professor Fraser will not have used lightly. The pre-supposition involved is that all reasoning and all evidence must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the framework, which is itself sacrosanct. Such an approach to knowledge is the very opposite of everything that a university stands for.
And finally, the claim that existing universities are “radical secularist”. I honestly do not know what the learned Professor means. All points of view are represented within our universities, and that is how it should be. Religious viewpoints have, if anything, a privileged position. They have chapels for those who wish to use them, hold religious services, and provide facilities for chaplains of all faiths. And nothing could be more stimulating for believers and nonbelievers alike than to freely mix and to discuss their agreements and differences. Why would anyone wish things otherwise?
Image of Professor Fraser from University of Highlands and Islands news release
[Update: the petition was duly submitted with 1516 signatures, and Mark Gordon (for himslef) and Caroline Lynch )for Secular Scotland) have been invited to give evidence to the Petitions Committee in September]
Only one week remains to sign the Secular Scotland Petition to the Scottish Parliament (you can sign here), to change the procedure regarding registration for children to take part in Religious Observance in schools from opt-out to opt-in. This petition has already attracted widespread attention in broadcasts, local and national newspapers, and discussion forums both secular and religious.
I and others have already rehearsed the arguments. Parents (and children) are not being informed of their rights, and in one extreme case (the Edinburgh School Handbook template, no less), the existence of RO is not even mentioned. RO receives input from committees with their own dynamic, including in at least one case from a prominent advocate of six-day creationism. Children are left thinking that the school requires them to take part in religious ceremonies that they don’t believe in, and those parents who are aware of their rights and wish to assert them are presented with bureaucratic hurdles, up to and including the need for a personal conference with the head teacher.
My own view is clear. Children should only be taking part in religious observance if they want to be, and I do not understand why anyone, whatever their own personal beliefs, would wish it otherwise. The view from the Catholic Church, and from the Free Church of Scotland, who find themselves in agreement over this (as over so many things these days), is that the change would cause disastrous disruption to the fabric of society, and be a prelude to the complete removal of religion from the public educational system. Such anxieties speak volumes.
For what it’s worth (and I know that facts are not worth very much in some discussions), both the petitioner, Mark Gordon, and the supporting organization, Secular Scotland, are very much in favour of the retention of Religious Education in schools, given the important role of religion in cultures worldwide, both historically and in the present. Moreover, neither is demanding the removal of Religious Observance from schools (there is indeed a separate petition to that effect, in which, however, Secular Scotland plays no formal role). My own view is that the public discussion that would result from the change to opt-in would help rejuvenate RO, because its advocates, with inertia no longer on their side, would be forced to find a role for it suitable for today’s Scotland, in which the traditional beliefs can no longer be taken for granted.