Teaching Astrology in a Faith School

Posted on 2012/01/26

1


Feature Image - Teaching Astrology in a Faith School

[The image above is purported to be from a Croatian Church (unsourced). For other examples see the 'Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri' in Rome]

————————

As Richard Dawkins pointed out in his Channel 4 documentary ‘Age of Reason: Faith School Menace’[1] (aired August 2010), around one-third of all schools in Britain has a religious affiliation.

In this one-hour tour of faith schools, Dawkins attempts to enlighten viewers by demonstrating the absurdity of designating small children as holding a particular creed.

With the recent talk of ministerial proposals to expand the number of “faith-based-schools”[2], I thought it a good time to recall a story from early on in my teaching career, to provide another example of the damage these institutions can exact upon education.

The reason I didn’t tell this story when it occurred in 2007 was mostly due to concern for my future prospects for teaching physics. I think it would have made for a good news story, but a bad move if I wanted to keep teaching in the UK.

————————

Just as Freud thought he could learn about brain by studying those that were damaged, it is useful to study the character of a ‘scientific theory’ by investigating theories that are pseudo-scientific.

An interesting way to introduce students to this investigation was brought to my attention by Ohio State University’s Steven Lower, in his May 2007 letter to Nature.[3]

In it, he suggests providing students with a a full zodiac of horoscopes, but removing the names of the ‘signs’. Then, as they go about their business, students are to mark which of the 12 ‘predictions’ best described their day.

With a large enough sample, a non-believer would expect an equal split of guesses between the 12 signs.

This activity, while by no means proving that astrological predictions are un-scientific, should instill enough doubt to make the case for demarcation a little more palatable.

At the time of Lower’s writing, I was asked by my school to teach on the pre-prepared topic of ‘How Science Works’. An inelegant title, but it effectively gave me opportunity to teach some philosophy of science.

I considered it wise to avoid questions concerning the philosophical status of religious claims. So, it seemed opportune to be presented with a salient alternative.

With that in mind, I modified 7 sets of horoscopes for 150 students (5 classes) to work with over a 1 week period. They were to return with the results, which we would analyze in next week’s classes.

The children seemed to be interested in the idea, and there was an almost equal split between believers of astrology and non-believers. I was hopeful the task would aid my efforts to increase skepticism around the school.

————————

There was a complaint.

I was informed by my boss that a parent had complained that what I was teaching was ‘anti-Christian’.

I called him up to discuss it.

Now, a symptom of fear in a number of UK schools is to demand teachers take transcripts of any ‘incident’ that occurs between them and a pupil or parent.

I seemed to write a disproportionately large number of these reports during my 6 years trying to teach physics.

Below is a copy of the transcript I wrote shortly after the phone conversation, submitted to the a number the ‘senior staff’. [I have anonymized the people involved.]

Conversation with Mr W on the 12th of June 2007 (9:15am) in response to a complaint about a homework on horoscopes.

After hearing of the complaint my boss had received concerning my physics teaching, I decided to call Mr W and speak to him directly.

I know that these matters are usually delt with via someone in the management, but I wanted to personally explain the subtle motivation for this investigation, so to minimize the risk of misunderstanding. Indeed, I presumed that the initial complaint arose from a misconception of what his son was doing.

During our telephone conversation, I explained the context of the task I had set his son. Reading the horoscopes, and predicting which referred to the correct ‘sign’, was not an exercise aimed at endorsing astrology, but to instill doubt for those who believe their capacity to predict the future.

From this new (or strengthened) doubt, I aimed to discuss the criterion of a scientific theory: A theory is scientific if there is a logical possibility of its falsification by experiment. Theories which have no experiment that could show them to be incorrect are not scientific.

In short, this was not a question of religion but of science. And, I presumed, the scientific position happens to coincide with the Christian (i.e., Mr W’s) view of horoscopes.

I thought that this would do.

However, Mr W still took offense. He argued that “the scripture” says you should not associate yourself with horoscopes – one should not even consider them. This was because a king had once listened to a mystic and,as a consequence, God has punished him by destroying his kingdom. (I’m not sure which Bible reference this refers to, but perhaps it is 2 Kings:23.[4])

He also went onto tell me (at length) that the this school promoted a “Christian ethos”, and that I should be doing the same.  He added that if he wanted stuff like horoscopes to be taught, then he would have placed his children in a non-Christian school.

I asked whether he would prefer his son had an informed disbelief of horoscopes or an ignorant disbelief of horoscopes.

He took offence to this comment.  I assured him that I was not saying his son was “ignorant”, but just ignorant of the scientific status of horoscopes. That’s why children go to school, after all.

Then he said that there is no place in a Christian school for my ‘anti-Christian beliefs’.

I replied that, from my perspective, he was anti-education – prefering his son be less informed than his peers.

The conversation from this point seemed to be going in circles.  I then said that I did not know how to discuss this with him further.  He asked if I recommend that he withdraw his son from lessons.

I said that he was the only person to complain, and I was teaching this to 150 students. Regardless of the number of complaints, I was unwilling to change the content of the lesson.

We concluded by agreeing that he would write to the school asking for his son to be withdrawn from my lessons until the end of term.

[End of conversation]

—————————–

Let me add to this transcript that I find it antithetical to my role as a teacher to entertain the idea that a student is better for having not learnt something.

The “Christian ethos” of which Mr W speaks is one that, in certain instances, seems to promote ignorance.

I do happen to be non-religious, but I believe that there is a place for scientific enquiry within certain types of Christian ethos, just not the one Mr W is describing.

The topic I have been asked to teach these classes at present is “How Science Works” which, in its essentials, deals with: thinking rationally, observing methodically, theorizing imaginatively, experimenting skeptically, judging critically.

As very few of these seem to meet with Mr W’s personal definition of “Christian Ethos”, I do not think he will be satisifed with much of what I will be teaching. It is unfortunate that opinions such as Mr W’s can have such a significant effect on their children’s education. However, with regret, I agree with his recommendation to withdraw his son from my classes for the rest of the year.

[End of Transcript]

So, dear reader, what do you think happened?

The head of physical called me up that evening, to tell me he had decided I was no longer to teach those lesson.

It fell to me to inform the 149 students that I was prevented from analyzing their data and their efforts were in vain. I was even prevented from revealing which ‘sign’ was which – stopping them from reviewing their own data, to the annoyance of many.

—————————–

Schools in the UK are already riddled with cowardly teachers who take the least path of resistance to parental complaints. One of the dangers of faith schools is their institutionalized credibility of any opinion self-assigned as religious.

For most of the Christian community at that school, Mr W was considered a lunatic (or use a phrase with its etymology in astrology). Yet his opinions resulted in the censoring of interesting and valuable ideas.

References

[1] To view the documentary, see: http://richarddawkins.net/videos/500515-faith-school-menace-now-visible-in-us

[2] For example, see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/jan/05/faith-school-expansion-plans

[3]  Stephen Lower (May 2007) “Teaching astrology’s claims with all due gravity” NATURE Vol. 447 31 p 528

[4] http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Kings+23&version=KJV