Fundamentalism in European Education

  • Date / 17 April 2007

IHEU was represented at a seminar held at the European Parliament on 17 April 2007 on Evolution and Religious Fundamentalism in European Education. The seminar was jointly hosted by Swedish MEP, Maria Carlshamre, and the Swedish Humanist Association. The main speakers were Professors Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones who comprehensively demolished the pretensions of the creationists, and Wanda Nowicka from Poland who spoke about the increasingly oppressive regime in her country. The seminar was organised in response to one hosted in October 2006 by a Polish MEP at which speakers claimed that recent scientific evidence shows that humans co-existed with dinosaurs and that our children are being brainwashed by the theory of evolution. Roy Brown spoke on the need to promote our secular values in response to the fundamentalist onslaught.

Evolution and Religious Fundamentalism in European Schools
Seminar at the European Parliament 17 April 2007

The Politics of Values
The Brussels Declaration and its Political Importance

Roy W. Brown

I have been asked to talk to you about the Brussels Declaration and its relevance to the question of religious fundamentalism in Europe’s schools.

You have heard this morning from two of the world’s leading exponents of biological evolution. You have learned that there is no scientific debate about the fact of evolution. Evolution happens. The Theory of Evolution is not about whether evolution happens but about how it happens. But what we are faced with now in Europe is an extension of what we have already seen in America and in many other parts of the world: the demonising of science, and attempts to replace science by pseudo-science in the classroom.

The promotion of the teaching of creationism or so-called “intelligent design” as part of the science curriculum is part of a far wider agenda. It is part of a political struggle between, on the one hand, an authoritarian attempt to promote particular religions at all costs, and on the other hand, a desire to uphold the secular principles and values of the European Enlightenment. You have heard from Wanda Nowicka how reproductive rights are threatened by those who seek to impose their own religious views on all.

Secularism has recently come under sustained attack in Europe. It has been misrepresented as equivalent to atheism, as anti-religious, and as wanting to banish religion from the public square. This is totally misleading. Secularism is not the same thing as militant atheism. It does not imply that religious believers and their leaders should be silenced, but it does imply that no particular belief should have a privileged position or privileged access to the institutions of government. Secularism means neutrality in matters of religion and belief: it favours none and discriminates against none. Secularism is, in fact, the only guarantee of freedom of religion or belief for every citizen.

It is vital that Europe defend its secular heritage and the values of democracy, equality, individual freedom and the rule of law – the values on which our civilisation is based.

Six weeks ago, here in the European Parliament, we launched the Brussels Declaration, a restatement of the common values that underpin our civilisation. The declaration has now been signed by thousands of ordinary European citizens as well as by nearly 1000 distinguished European leaders, including eminent scientists, academics, journalists, writers, religious and community leaders, several Nobel laureates, and politicians from across the political spectrum and throughout Europe, including over 80 members of the European Parliament. We launched the Brussels Declaration in the context of the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, and of reported plans to publish a Berlin Declaration as a prelude to opening negotiations for a new Constitutional Treaty for Europe.

It was reported that these plans would “bring God back into the Constitution”, not simply by paying lip service in the preamble to Europe’s supposed Judeo-Christian heritage, but by providing special access for religious leaders to promote their views within the institutions of the European Union. Such an outcome would be anti-democratic. All European citizens already have equal rights to express their views through the ballot box and via the media, including the internet. All can participate in the marketplace of ideas. Additional privileged access for certain persons, however respected and eminent, could undermine the democratic process.

In the event, the final text of the Berlin Declaration was secular, with no mention of gods or religion. Some religious leaders were severely disappointed. The Pope spoke of “Europe’s apostasy” and of “Europe abandoning its values”. But Europe’s values are not exclusively religious, nor are they those of a single religion. Europe as a whole has not agreed on a single set of religious values for centuries, as we know to our cost from the wars in which religious differences have played a part. Nor do we need any special constitutional provisions for religion. Absolute freedom of religion or belief is already guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The Brussels Declaration is a declaration of universal values, not those of a single religion or culture. Many religious institutions remain uncomfortable about some aspects of democracy and human rights. Some reject equality of the sexes, and some seem irremediably homophobic. Furthermore, religious leaders, whatever their claims, do not necessarily speak for all the believers of their faith. Why then should their opinions be given precedence over those of the people of Europe, or indeed any special consideration at all? Those who follow Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant or any other religious teachings are free to do so in their own lives and are even free to proselytise. But they should not be permitted, much less encouraged, to impose their views on others. No religion should be permitted to interfere in the private lives of others.

Which brings us to back to education. In the Brussels Declaration we affirm the right of everyone to an open and comprehensive education. Education should be about teaching children to think and to find answers for themselves. Schools should not be used for indoctrination.

Certainly, parents have the right to impart their own values and religious beliefs to their children, but states have no obligation to support them in doing so. States do however have a responsibility to provide information and education about all religions and widely-held beliefs. Teaching that one religion is true and all others are false, or that one religion provides the only acceptable source of values, or presenting religious beliefs as science, is not education but indoctrination.

We are engaged in a war of values: a war for the soul of Europe. If we accept special status for any belief, we shall be setting the stage for conflict for generations to come. We need a society that respects the human rights of all, and that does not seek to restrict them in the name of religion. Our values are well expressed in the Brussels Declaration. I would urge all of you, if you have not already done so, to signify your support via the website at: www.avisionforeurope.org.

Thank you.

Roy W. Brown is coordinator of the Committee for a Vision for Europe.

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